I never knew that hiking in a cloud forest was something I needed in my life until we visited the Santa Elena Reserve in Monteverde, Costa Rica. It may sound stupid, but it’s true. Thomas was all about going hiking here and I was kind of “meh” about the whole thing until we started our walk.
I guess I hadn’t really considered that hiking in a cloud forest was something I had never experienced while growing up in the US. As we started walking I realized how unique this was as far as experiences go. Now I tell everyone who heads to Monteverde that the Santa Elena Reserve needs to be on their list of activities to do.
Background Info on the Santa Elena Reserve
What is a cloud forest?
I have to admit that I had no idea how to describe a cloud forest, but my always trusty friend Wikipedia helped me out here. So, here’s what I learned from reading the cloud forest entry.
A cloud forest is a tropical or subtropical, evergreen, montane, moist forest. It can be characterized by a frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover. Cloud forests are usually located at higher elevations and get a lot of rainfall throughout the year.
Only 1% of the earth’s woodlands consist of cloud forests. That means you are truly seeing something extremely unique by visiting a cloud forest in Costa Rica!
Monteverde is an especially unique cloud forest because it is directly in the middle of the Continental Divide. It is a mix of both the winds and weather from the Pacific as well as the winds and weather from the Caribbean. The Santa Elena Resere is located on the Caribbean side of the slope.
Flora you may experience
Even just within the Santa Elene Reserve we experienced a variety of different plants. It was as if every corner brought with it new plants. In fact, although an accurate inventory has never been completed it is believed that Monteverde is home to over 750 species of trees. Crazy right?
Also, it is believed that Monteverde is home to the largest variety of orchids in the world. I had no idea!
Fauna you may experience
We unfortunately did not see any animals on our hike, but we were also walking kind of fast. We knew we only had a few hours before we had to meet up with some friends. I’m sure if we had walked a bit slower and really looked out, we would have at least seen some things.
The Monteverde area is apparently home to over 60 types of amphibians and over 100 reptiles. Yes, there are 71 types of snakes you can find in this area. Does that freak out anyone else as much as it freaks me out? I absolutely hate snakes! I don’t mind that I’ve found a tarantula in my house twice, but if I had found a poisonous snake in there I would have probably made Thomas move.
There are over 90 species of birds which either call Monteverde home or pass through the area during migration.
You can also find a variety of mammals including; sloths, porcupine, deer, jaguars, and more!
Let us know if you see any unique wildlife in the comment section below. We’d love to know what you spotted!
History of the Santa Elena Reserve
The Santa Elena Reserve in Monteverde officially opened in 1992. Originally the plan was to try and use the land for agricultural research, but that was unsuccessful. It was then that the community opted to create the reserve as a way of preserving the cloud forest and to draw tourists in. The reserve is not a national park, but rather under the protection of the Arenal Conservation Area.
Important Info About Santa Elena Reserve
The reserve is open daily from 7:00am until 4:00pm.
The reserve costs $16 for adults, $9 for students, $7 for kids between the ages of 8 and 12, kids under 8 are free. I think this is a lot of money for taking a hike in the woods, but it’s good to note that the entrance fee goes towards maintaining the reserve as well as providing better education to local schools. I’m all about helping the local community, so I felt much better about paying this price after hearing that.
We both wore pants (it was kind of cold), long sleeve shirts, and rain jackets. We both wore regular sneakers, and although something a bit more rainproof would have been nice, our feet actually didn’t get that wet.
We brought our regular backpack with a rain cover. An alternative is to bring a dry backpack. We absolutely love our dry backpack for here in Costa Rica, but ours only has one strap and we didn’t feel like hiking with that the whole time. The rain cover worked perfectly fine in this situation.
We also packed our pocket binoculars. Pocket binoculars are one of those must-have items (in our opinion) for Costa Rica travel. Usually, if you spot wildlife it is a bit too far away to see it with the naked eye.
We also suggest packing lots of water and something like Gatorade or Powerade. Usually, I don’t drink things like Gatorade, but you have to remember you are at a high elevation. When I’m feeling a bit lightheaded from the altitude I find a drink like Gatorade is the best cure. They sell these types of drink at any mini market or supermarket in the country.
There are four main trails in the reserve which all vary in length. These trails provide a variety of lookout points. All the trails are very well maintained and you will have no trouble walking them. You will get a paper copy of the map when you pay admission. Ours got completely soaked, but here’s a picture so you can get a better idea of the trails.
We walked the Encantado trail and then did the Youth Challenge. They were both great.
Amount of time you need
We spent about three hours here and that was definitely enough time to get a nice long hike in. However, you could spend a lot longer here if you want to explore all the trails and grab a meal at the cafeteria.
There is a bathroom for guests to use near the start of the trail. When we were there it was really clean and well maintained. There is also a cafeteria where you can buy basic meals and a small gift shop.
You will need a 4×4 when driving in the Monteverde area. Almost all of the roads are unpaved and some can be really steep.
The road to the reserve is interesting. We thought we were going the wrong way because the road out here seemed to be leading us to the middle of nowhere with nothing else around. We kept going though, and it turned out to be the right way.
You will eventually pass the parking lot for Salvatura Adventure Park. The parking lot for the reserve is just past the adventure park.
To get here, you should actually type in “Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena” into your GPS or on Waze.
There is a free parking lot for guests to use. The Visitors Center is located next to the parking lot, but I don’t know how well they monitor parking lot activity. As always, just don’t leave anything of value in your car.
Helpful Tips for Santa Elena Reserve
– There are rubber boots for rent. We went back and forth over this. It was really rainy when we visited and we weren’t sure how wet the trails would be. In the end, we opted to not rent rubber boots and we were completely fine. The trails are all well maintained and designed in such a way that water does not really pool at all.
– You are at a high altitude. Take things slow because you may find yourself getting out of breath much faster than you are used to. I tend to always overdo it because I think, “What is wrong with me? Why am I so out of breath?” Yea, it’s just the altitude.
– You can also do guided tours. We wrote this guide for budget travelers, so we did not include any information on the guided tours. They are much more expensive, but I checked out some reviews on TripAdvisor and it seems that people really enjoy these tours. Honestly, I think we had a great experience on our own and although we didn’t see much wildlife, that was OK with us. If you want more info on the guided tours just click here.
– No matter which trail you do, definitely do a quick trip down the Youth Challenge Trail. This trail has a great lookout tower. It was a bit freaky climbing up the tower, but it was worth it for the 360 degree view from the top. It is so close to the nearby Salvature Eco Park that you can hear people zip-lining nearby. Because we were there at a time of extreme fog we couldn’t see much, but it was still beautiful. This is an example of our view. ↑ Maybe you’ll have better luck!
– It is best to come here during dry season. From January until about late March you can expect somewhat dry weather. It is not uncommon to have a light mist, but usually, at that time of year the rains are not heavy. However, this also means more visitors. If you travel here after mid-March you can expect heavier rains and deep fog. We got soaked when we visited, but with good rain gear, it was fine.
– We chose to visit this reserve because of fewer visitors. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve is a more popular destination than the Santa Elena Reserve. We had heard that Santa Elena is better to visit because it has great trails like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve but gets about half of the visitors. When we were there this was definitely true. We saw very few other people.
However, if you have the time I think it would be interesting to check out the Monteverde Cloud Forest as well. The Monteverde Cloud Forest is on the Pacific side of the divide and apparently has a bit different flora and fauna than Santa Elena.
If you visit both, let us know which one you liked more!
What to do after the Santa Elena Reserve
– The Santa Elena Reserve is right down the street from both Sky Adventures and Salvatura Adventure Park. Both of these places are great for zip lining. We haven’t been to Sky Adventures but Salvatura is excellent.
Zip lining is definitely not a budget activity, but if you want to go zip lining in Costa Rica we think this is the best area of the country to do it. The cloud forest views are just so unique!
We suggest reserving a spot ahead of time (you can do so on their website) to ensure you get a chance to zip line. It is a popular activity and during the dry season, it tends to get booked up fast.
– If you want to see a lot of wildlife, taking a Monteverde night tour is a fun way to do that. We did this and had a great experience.
– We also have a complete guide to Monteverde so you can get a better idea of the all amazing things you can do in the area as well as good restaurants and affordable accommodations options.
If you have any questions or comments about the Santa Elena Reserve just leave them in the comment section below. We love to hear from you and are always happy to help you out!
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