During the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, tourism explodes here in Monteverde. For visitors looking for a tropical escape, the cloud forest offers a temperate, naturalist’s wonderland, particularly ideal for those who want to be active outdoors but avoid the extreme heat and sun of the beach.

What Is a Cloud Forest?

Cloud forests are tropical, montane forests covered by persistent fog at the canopy level. These uniquely drippy, wet ecosystems are teaming with life, including many endemic species. Monteverde Zone is home to about 750 species of trees, just 25% fewer than the roughly 1,000 tree species found in the United States and Canada combined. The Monteverde region is also believed to be home to more orchids than any other place on earth.

My husband and I often compare walking through a cloud forest to scuba diving–suddenly life is found on all levels, in all dimensions. A single branch of a wild avocado tree teams with red flowering bromeliads and other epiphytes, white lichen, droopy moss, and delicate orchids. Another tree is strangled by the eerily fluid wrap of a ficus tree’s roots. The understory of the forest hangs with woody vines called lianas, which are contrasted by the fresh green of enormous tree ferns. Dead wood on the forest floor plays host to miniature white mushrooms and to liverworts that look like tiny green waves. And, that’s only the plants. Here in Monteverde we’ve been lucky to spot three-toed sloths, resplendent quetzals, bell birds, coatimundis, agoutis, white-faced capuchin and howler monkeys, just to name a few of the amazing creatures.

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What Reserve Should You Visit?

The question for Monteverde visitors is not whether to visit a reserve, but which one. After many days of hiking in the Monteverde region, I appreciate many reserves, each for different reasons, which I will explain below. If you are fortunate to make it to Monteverde but only have the time for one reserve, don’t worry. You can’t go wrong. Cloud forests constitute only about 1% of global woodlands, and regardless of the reserve you choose, you will see something special.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Just up the road from where my family lives, the famed Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve attracts about 70,000 people a year, for good reason. Of all the reserves mentioned here, it is home to the most primary (native old-growth) forest. Epiphytes (non-parasites like air plants and orchids that grow on other plants) make up almost 30% of the flora. For bird lovers, this is the one reserve where I’ve spotted both the Resplendent Quetzal (generally present in Monteverde January to July) and the Three Wattled Bellbird (roughly resident March to September), though they certainly can be found elsewhere.

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Liam walks through the cloud forest canopy in the Monteverde Reserve.

What I love about the Monteverde Reserve: admiring the epiphyte-laden trees on the the Sendero Bosque Nuboso, or Cloud Forest Trail, just inside the main entrance and to your right; strolling through the cloud forest canopy on the rust-red suspension bridge pictured above; standing up to the wind on the Continental Divide at the ventana, or window; admiring the nine varieties of hummingbirds that visit the feeders at the café just outside the reserve’s gate; and being able to access the reserve by public bus from Santa Elena.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

Unlike the visitor-accessible portions of the Monteverde Reserve on the Pacific (Western) slope of the Continental Divide, the Santa Elena Reserve is both at a higher elevation and on the Caribbean slope. The result: warm, moist Atlantic air comes flooding up into this reserve, creating a wonderfully drippy forest hanging with moss and other plant life that will have you regularly proclaiming awe. With one tenth the number of annual visitors that the Monteverde Reserve receives, we have enjoyed many of the trails here by ourselves. Founded in 1992, this reserve was one of the first community-managed reserves in Costa Rica. Proceeds from your admission will be fed back into the reserve and into the local high school.

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Positioned on the moist Caribbean slopes of the Continental Divide, the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve teams with life.

What I love about the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve: the quiet; the unbelievable verdancy; the impressively tall, canopy-level observation tower offering views of Arenal Volcano when the clouds part; and the community management. Like the Monteverde Reserve, this reserve has food available on site. In addition, you can make reservations for a private shuttle to take you there and back ($2 one way, set schedule, 2645-6332).

Curi Cancha Reserve

Curi Cancha is a private and more centrally located reserve. With lower, pre-cloud-level forests, only half of which are virgin, this much smaller reserve would seem to be at a disadvantage, and yet I find myself frequently returning. Why? First, it’s astounding to witness how much a forest can grow in a relatively short time in Costa Rica–since the 1970’s, in this case. This reserve also has maintained a small, open pasture. With these varied ecosystems and thinner forest growth than found in the  higher-elevation cloud forests, spotting wildlife is a lot easier.

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Visitors to Curi Cancha take a break from walking to enjoy hummingbirds at the feeders.

What I love about the Curi Cancha Reserve: the professional management (trails are well maintained and only 50 guests are allowed in at any given time); good wildlife-spotting potential; varied terrain; the hummingbirds at the beautifully epiphyte-laden tree in the pasture just up the road from the entrance; and the great nearby options for lunch (CASEM women’s cooperative in Monteverde village or, in the other direction, Flor Mar on the departing visitor’s right-hand-side of the road, before the Quaker School).

Bajo Del Tigre Reserve

Not far from Curi Cancha, Bajo Del Tigre is a small reserve well suited to families with young kids. With just a couple of miles of trails and a rustic children’s house with environmental activities that captivate my six-year old, this reserve is part of the much larger Bosque Eterno de los Niños, or Children’s Eternal Rainforest. The vast majority of of this 84-square-mile rainforest (about the size of Seattle) is protected, even from tourism. Children love learning that this private reserve, the largest in Costa Rica, was originally protected through funds raised by kids in Sweden. Though I have yet to try one, the guided twilight/night hikes come highly recommended.

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As part of their visit to Bajo Del Tigre, kids love learning the history of how niños, or children, lead the way in conserving Costa Rica’s largest private reserve.

Before You Go

Enjoy your visit to one or several of Monteverde’s wonderful reserves. Bring binoculars and a rain jacket–Monteverde averages over 100 inches (8+ feet) of rain per year. Most importantly, consider hiring a guide for a couple of morning hours. The Monteverde region is home to many extremely knowledgeable naturalists, and we find that with a guide we see twice as much as we would otherwise, and we always learn something new.

Next week I’ll share a post about my favorite non-reserve destinations in Monteverde–everything from warm, spring-fed pools to a hike with spectacular views of the Gulf of Nicoya. In the meantime, let us know about your experiences visiting reserves in Monteverde by leaving a comment here. Enjoy!