On my trip to Costa Rica in February 2020, I tried to cram as much into a 9 day visit as I could. This meant taking early morning bus rides between places and only spending 1 – 2 days per town. Surprisingly, even with this limited time, I feel like I managed to see and experience so much!
One of my favorite places I visited on this trip was the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Located just outside the town of Santa Elena, the Monteverde Cloud Forest is a protected reserve of 26,000 acres that is home to a huge variety of plant and animal life. The Cloud Forest gets its name from the layer of clouds that usually hang low in the sky, at the canopy level of the trees. I was surprised to see these clouds at all hours of the day, even in the afternoon when I had thought the would only be visible in the morning.
I arrived in Santa Elena in the afternoon, after taking a morning shuttle from Tamarindo. After I checked into my hostel, I immediately signed up for an evening Cloud Forest tour knowing that I only had 2 nights in the region. After my tour was booked, I spent some time wandering around the town of Santa Elena. The majority of hostels, and the one I stayed in, are located in a small central area so this was the area I wandered, even though there was more to the town. The central area is a large square with a lot of little shops, restaurants and murals. My first stop was in local eatery, called a soda, for a lunch of meat, rice, beans and veggies. Then I peaked into the local shops for souveniers and admired the beautiful artwork on the walls.
That evening I went on my night tour of the Cloud Forest. This was a blast and a fun introduction to the area. I was picked up from my hostel by the tour and provided with a flashlight. When we arrived in the reserve, we began walking as our guides told us some history of the region, like how the first settlers were quakers from the USA who moved to the area to avoid the draft, and mentioned some common animals that come out at night. The first animal we spotted would have been so easy to miss without a trained eye from the guide looking – it looked like a green blob in a tree. It turns out it was actually a sleeping toucan! Throughout the evening we saw numerous other birds but no other animals. I guess they were all resting so we could see them in the morning!
The following morning I woke up early and headed to the Cloud Forest to explore during the daylight. I bought my entrance ticket and signed up for a guided tour when I arrived. Although this could have been arranged in advance, I had no trouble getting a spot on a tour leaving a few minutes after I arrived. This tour was great and so informative! Our guide led us down the Tosi Trail and pointed out some different plants and birds along the way. We saw a humingbird building a nest along with other forest birds and so many green ferns and other plants. This trail ended at a small waterfall where we stopped to take pictures. On the walk back to the trailhead, the guide heard that there was a rare bird back towards the start of the trail so our group booked it back as quickly as we could. Sure enough, when we arrived we found a large group of people all gazing up at the trees. The guide set up a telescope and spotted the bird right away before pointing it out to the rest of us. Lo and behold, perched in a tree above us, was a beautiful and rare Resplendent Quetzal. Apparently these birds have a certain season when the visit the reserve and we weren’t in the right season. This was my first time seeing (or even hearing about) this bird and it was such a special experience.
After this guided tour was over, I took off on my own to hike a few more trails and see even more of the Cloud Forest Reserve. I took parts of a few different trails to create a large loop through a portion of the reserve. I really wanted to see the famous red hanging bridge that I had seen so many pictures of, so I made sure my route involved crossing this bridge. On the walk to the bridge, I spent so much time admiring the massive trees, ferns, and other plants that I passed. I also saw a tarantula (thanks to a friendly tour group I passed), my first awake toucan and so many other birds. As I neared the bridge, I saw what I thought was a monkey scampering down the trail. As I followed it and got closer, I realized it wasn’t a monkey at all, but instead an animal I had never seen before – a coatimundo! After spending the majority of the morning bird watching this was a very exciting animal to spot. He eventually crossed the bridge and disappeared into the forest on the other side.
After I finished this hike, I had to head back into town to catch another shuttle to one last nearby destination. In an effort to see as much as possible in my day and a half in Santa Elena, I had booked an afternoon tour at the Sky Adventures Park in Santa Elena. This park was in a different part of the Cloud Forest outside of the Monteverde Reserve so a shuttle ride from my hostel was necessary to reach it. Once at the park, I opted just to walk the hanging bridges trails but there was a zip lining course that looked very popular and fun. The hike of the hanging bridges that I did was self guded, so I grabbed a map and my camera and took off! The trail is about 1.5 miles long and crosses over 6 hanging bridges of various lengths and heights. Like in Monteverde, the trail winds through the Cloud Forest so I took my time bird watching and checking out all the amazing plants. Since I was alone and not on a tour, I got to spend as much time as I wanted in the park and I did take my time, especially on the hanging bridges! They were so fun to cross. You could feel them swinging which could be a bit scary when you were higher up, but the view from the middle of each bridges was breathtaking. All you could see were trees upon trees upon trees, with brids chirping everywhere.
And that was the end of my time in Santa Elena and the Cloud Forest! After the Sky Adventures Park, I returned to Santa Elena to grab dinner and go to bed. The next morning I got up early and hopped on a shuttle to my next destination. It was a quick 1.5 days in the area, but I felt like I had plenty of time to see everything I wanted to in the area. I loved the Cloud Forest and all of the animals I saw so much!! When I return to Costa Rica for another visit in the future, I truly hope another visit to this area will fit into my schedule.