What many people don’t realize is that Monteverde has three misty forest reserves, with the most popular Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. However, I decided to visit the sister reserve of The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, which, despite being less popular, in my opinion, offers a more intimate meeting with nature far from crowds.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest is one of those places that make you feel like you’ve just discovered a secret place, not seen by others. Situated at an altitude of 1600 meters (5250 feet) it has 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) of well-maintained trails with beautiful viewpoints. It is privately managed by the Santa Elena Technical Secondary School and protects over 300 hectares (741 acres) of land.
How was The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve created?
A walk through the Santa Elena Reserve reveals a lush garden of mosses, ferns, flowers, and epiphytes growing densely on each tree. Clouds drift and settle on the slopes, providing plants with the constant moisture they need. Roots and vines twine the trails, and the sounds of birds and other creatures echo throughout the forest.
The cloud forest is a tall forest characterized by the fact that it is covered with clouds. These clouds provide the forest with a continuous supply of moisture, which creates an ideal environment for plant growth.
Warm winds from the Atlantic Ocean pass over the continental divide, cooling and condensing the clouds as they rise. By the time they reach Santa Elena, they are already thick and filled with moisture. The forest is therefore continuously foggy, which produces almost twelve feet of rain a year. And it is these mists that make it such a special magical, mysterious, and a bit gloomy place. Perfect for photos.
The nature of The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
No wonder the Santa Elena Cloud Forest is very rich when it comes to vegetation. The competition for space is so strong that the trunks, branches, and even the roots of trees are almost completely covered with epiphytes, lichens, liverworts, and mosses. Strong winds and strongly watered plants often cause branches to break and fall to the ground. Thus, not only gaps are created in the tree crowns, but also the soil is provided with additional nutrients.
Let’s not forget about the insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds that live here in countless numbers. The misty Santa Elena forest is home to an incredible number of animals including pumas, jaguarundi, and the endangered jaguar, which has black spots on its orange-yellow fur and is admired for its beauty. You can also come across monkeys, spiders, sloths, and a bright red poison dart frog. Is there a high chance of seeing them? Honestly – no. As I was walking through the forest, I heard many animals around me, but the vegetation is so dense that it is very difficult to see them. I would not focus here on seeing animals, but more on the experience of being part of an unusual ecosystem.
Heaven for bird watchers
The opposite is with birds. Costa Rica is considered a birdwatching paradise, and the foggy forest does not disappoint in this matter. Among more than 500 species of birds that can be found here are the green and red magnificent quetzal, the three-toed bell-ringer, and the blue-backed toucan. If you get here in the morning, when there are not many tourists, you will be surrounded by birdsong and tropical sounds of the forest, which you will remember for a long time. It is amazing how in such circumstances of nature a person quickly learns to sharpen the sense of hearing and catch sounds that we normally don’t pay attention to.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve – a forest of special importance
The Municipality of Santa Elena borders with the Monteverde Conservation Area. In this region, 310 hectares (765 acres) have been permanently leased by Santa Elena High School. It was originally planned to use the territory for agricultural research and education in Monteverde. However, agriculture turned out to be ineffective and in 1989 the area was transformed into a cloud forest reserve. With Youth Challenge International, a Canadian non-profit organization, the community established an ecotourism reserve which officially opened on March 1, 1992.
The reserve was created in accordance with the desire of people to combine the protection of the foggy forest with tourism that helps the local community. Entrance fees are used to protect and manage the reserve, as well as to provide higher quality education for Monteverde schools.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest in Monteverde meaning that it is not a national park but is under the protection of the Arenal Conservation Area). It is an excellent example of what people can do to protect and learn from the environment they live in.
The best time to visit The Santa Elena Cloud Forest
The best time to visit is the dry season. During the dry season you there is a higher chance to see the Arenal volcano viewpoint (but also don’t make it the main point of the visit, because you can see the volcano driving around Monteverde, so there will be more opportunities). February – July is also the mating season for Quetzal, so there is a better chance of seeing these birds.
However, if you are visiting Arenal during the rainy season, you should leave as early as possible in the morning because cloud forests are located at high altitudes, it rains much more often and it may start pouring as early as 10 am.
Regardless of the time of your visit, you must be prepared for the fog, drizzle, and rain that will always accompany you in smaller or larger amounts. This is the charm of this place.
How to get to The Santa Elena Cloud Forest
Santa Elena is 150 km northwest of San José and is an easy destination. The Santa Elena Reserve is located 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) from the city of Santa Elena, you can find it on Google Maps under La Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena.
By bus: local bus from the city of Santa Elena to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Every day it leaves at 6.30, 8.30, 10.30 and 12.30, and returns at 9.00, 11.00, 13.00, 15.00 and 16.00. The bus ticket is USD 2 per person.
By car: the route from the city to the reserve is easy. You must go northeast towards Sky Adventures and pass Selvatura Park. Google Maps will take you there. You will need a 4×4 car in Monteverde. There is a large parking lot in front of the park, if you arrive in the morning, finding a parking spot shouldn’t be a problem.
Read more how to rent a car in Costa Rica: How to rent a car in Costa Rica – the ultimate guide
Entrance fee and opening hours
The entrance fee to Santa Elena Cloud Forest costs USD 16 for adult foreigners and USD 7 for children. The reserve is open daily from 7.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.
Guided Tours: Three-hour guided tours are available.
You can rent a guide in the office at the entrance, but you need to make a reservation at least 2 days in advance (you can do it on their website).
What to wear to The Santa Elena Cloud Forest
This was what interested you most when I showed the park on IG stories. Opposite to what it seems, the weather in the cloud forest is quite predictable. Expect cool and humid conditions and dress as it will be raining. The temperature during the day hovers around 13 degrees (in the morning it can be around 7 degrees). The rainfall is heaviest from May to November, and the strongest from September to November.
I am not a big fan of travel equipment marketing. I walked the whole of Costa Rica and all the trails in Vans and it worked perfectly. Personally, I would pass on taking heavy hiking boots and special clothes. When traveling in the tropics best option is to take whatever will dry fast. What I think you will find useful in Costa Rica is a thin raincoat – it is light and easy to roll to a small size, so it will not make a difference for your luggage. This is the only thing that really came in handy for me in the mountainous part of Costa Rica.