The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is an area rich in biodiversity in the mountains of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Here, dense dripping cloud forest blankets 3 square kilometers of excellent hiking trails. The Santa Elena reserve is partly owned by the local high school and all the proceeds from admissions directly benefit the community, making it a great alternative to the busier Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
We arrived at 9 am, paid the $14 entry fee and consulted the trail map. The five trails all loop back near the beginning and vary in length from 1.5-4.5 kilometers, making it easy to see different parts of the reserve. As soon as we started down the Encantado trail we were wrapped in the lush quilt of ferns, vines, lichen, trees and mist. Immediately everything became interesting because there is just SO much to see and hear. As we wound along the ups and downs of the trail it was amazing to listen to the chorus of songbirds, loud buzz of hummingbirds or low groans of howler monkeys. At times the animal life would stop and all we could hear was the peaceful dripping and breathing of the forest. We didn’t come across many other hikers while exploring the reserve but at one lucky spot a Red Brocket deer crossed our path then disappeared less than 2 meters into the thick undergrowth.
Nothing compares to the fuzzy feeling hiking through cloud forest gives us. The trees in this type of forest are the teddy bears of the tree world; every inch is smothered in soft moss, dripping ferns and squishy lichen making them come alive as they call for a big hug. The amount of green everywhere is incredible. From the darkest depths only a few meters off the trail to the translucent leaves on strange plants every possible shade of green is visible in the cloud forest.
At times, it can be hard to keep up with everything as every turn or hill brings a different perspective. With each step we we’re simultaneously looking ahead to watch for roots, rocks or other things to trip on, then quickly scanning the forest floor for the minescule life that seems to be everywhere, followed by an eye-level and canopy survey in hopes that we look at the right tree at the right time to see something move. All of this can take 4-10 seconds before we start back at the beginning watching our next step. Because there is so much to see and take in, we often found ourselves pausing for extended periods to look and listen to our surroundings. Doing so saved us from rushing as well as giving us the time to really be present.
Our proudest find was a Black Guan, a large bird that can only be found in parts of Costa Rica and Panama! The massive bird was sleeping in a tree and we weren’t sure what it was until – Rebecca started yelling at it and – it moved.
We have declared cloud forest our favourite place for hiking! Have you ever hiked through cloud forest? Where? We would love to hear about it!
Getting to and leaving Santa Elena: The Monteverde region and Santa Elena town are easy to access, mostly because Costa Rica’s whole transportation system is well organized. We got to Santa Elena by crossing the Pena Blanca border from Nicaragua. We were able to catch a bus heading towards San Jose, and get dropped off at a bus stop/intersection with a sign post for Santa Elena. From there we hopped on the Santa Elena bus for the last beautiful stretch into the mountains. It was very straightforward. Monteverde is a super popular place so wherever you are in Costa, it will only be a bus ride (or two) away. When leaving Santa Elena, we caught the first (6:30am) bus to San Jose and transferred to another bus there. San Jose has many bus stations so make sure you find the one that’s right for your destination. Whichever bus station you get dropped off at will be able to tell you if you need to take a cab to another station or not.
Accommodation: We highly recommend Chillout House. It is a kilometer or so out of town but the Brother and Sister who run it are the best hosts! Chillout House has four rooms, a good sized common area, shared bathroom, community kitchen and front yard with lots of hammocks. Edwin and Edith grew up in the Monteverde region – with their EIGHT brothers and sisters – working in the tourism industry and decided to open a bed and breakfast of their own. Both speak good English and Spanish, they offer free pick up if you book in advance and free rides into and out of town whenever you need one. You can find them on Airbnb and Trip Advisor. At $20/night for a double room and free breakfast, it’s hard to beat. However, if you want to stay right in town, there are plenty of good options for all price ranges.
Eating and drinking: Food is pretty expensive; we found most things comparable in price to what we pay in Canada. That being said, we didn’t eat out a tonne and recommend doing your own cooking to save a few bucks. For cheap eats, we found ourselves at Taco Taco a couple of times (the tortilla salad is fresh and delicious) and ate at I’m Hungry pizza (discounted if you stay at Chillout House) which served up a loaded thin crust pie. We brought a bottle of rum over from Nicaragua (1 liter of Ron Plata cost us about $4). A liter of rum or vodka in Santa Elena from the grocery store runs close to $30. Beer at the grocery store varies in price with many domestic and imported options.