Monteverde cloud forest is at the heart of the Costa Rica Eco Tourism branding, and rightly so. I visited this place for three days two nights, mostly spending time in nature, and it was a blast.
How to spend two fun days in Monteverde
The village of Santa Elena is half a day away from the capital San Jose (takes about five hours by bus). Santa Elena is the town closest to Monteverde and most visitors, buses, and tour agents simply call it Monteverde, which is not precise but gets you where you need to go. From my previous trip to the eastern (Caribbean coast) of Costa Rica, I arrived in San Jose early in the morning and bought a bus ticket to Monteverde. You can leave your bags at the ticket office – it looks sketchy, but lots of tourists do it and companies rely on tourism income. That makes it easy to spend a couple of hours in the little capital city of San Jose.
Arriving in Santa Elena is pretty dramatic, as your bus will typically climb up windy mountain roads at around dusk. A cloud of dust and a cloud of fog enveloped our bus as faint rays of the setting sun attempted to pierce through the blur. Everything around us was illuminated in a soft orange glow of diffused light, and it was very romantic.
↑ The conservation area has a number of marked trails that criscross the park and go through different levels and areas in the park. There’s also this red suspension bridge from where you can see plants with hanging roots.
As soon as you arrive at the bus station, an army of hotel agents will swarm around you. “$40” one said, “$35 with breakfast” said the other, “$35 for a private room with a view” someone quipped from the back. Fortunately I had booked a place that morning so we escaped that situation fairly quickly and went directly to our hostel.
It gets slightly chilly at night, Monteverde was a welcome break for us for the last few days of sweltering heat of the eastern lowlands.
↑ There are about 6 trails (13 km long) accessible from the cloud forest reserve entrance. Trails are marked, well kept and offer different views of the forest.
Rising up early next morning, we boarded the first bus to the Monteverde cloud forest reserve. It’s a 30-minute journey from the town of Santa Elena, and if you see gringos waiting at an inconspicuous stretch of road at 6am, you know that’s where everyone is going. The journey was on dirt roads, apparently the locals frequently battle with tour companies to keep it that way, hoping to push back on wave after wave of loud and obnoxious tourists.
↑ Some of the more common sights – aerial roots that derive moisture and nutrition from the air and fog and cloud that floats through and covers everything (and everyone). The misty forests are full of dangling mossy vines, sprouting with ferns and bromeliads, and a large number of birds and bugs and such.
Buying our tickets and grabbing the trail maps, we set out to explore the park – at least the area open to public. The reserve only allows 160 people in at a time so arrive early, or you’ll have to wait. Early morning is also the time you have a better chance of noticing birds and wildlife. I suggest pick the longest trail to start with and get to the furthest point, making your way back through the forest at your leisure. Sections of the routes can get dark and muddy, but overall are very well kept.
↑ The biodiversity in these cloud forests is unparalleled. I visited in mid-April which is one of the drier seasons so the cloud cover wasn’t thick.
Trails have specific characteristics. El Camino is favourite with the bird watchers, Sendero Rio is a close walk from the park entrance leading up to a waterfall – do it at the end, this one was the most crowded. The trail to Mirador La Ventana is spectacular and you can see the continental divide running through this part of Costa Rica very clearly. Also, check out the short Sendero Wilford Guindon which has a pretty red bridge suspended in the canopy.
↑ We didn’t get to see much wildlife – probably because we stuck to the main trails and also because you need a trained eye to spot everything that’s around. Getting a guide is always a good idea if you want to see animals, although nothing is guaranteed and most creatures have adapted to tourist traffic and don’t show up for your photo session. Monteverde is a birdwatchers paradise, so for avid birders, get a guide!
There are numerous other tours you can do in Monteverde – coffee plantations, chocolate making, night treks, wildlife watching, etc. but we were most keen on trying some zip lining.
↑ Canopy and zip lining tours – every other store in the Monteverde village is a restaurant or a tour company. If you are looking for adventure activity, this is where the abundance of Costa Rica’s Eco tourism infrastructure is at its full glory. And why not, you are surrounded by some of the most beautiful rain forests in the world!
Picking an adventure tour company came down to three choices: Where (we wanted it the cloud forest), how high (very high!), and how fast (very fast!). With most options eliminated, we zeroed in on a tour that tailored to our needs and off we went. These companies process hundreds of tourists each day, and their zip lines crisscross large swathes of the forest.
It was my first time zip lining, and after crossing numerous valleys and marshlands on long zip lines (over 30 of them), jumping off cliffs and what not, I was ready for the climax – a very long zip line over a valley that indeed makes you feel like you are flying. Oh and the adrenaline rush!
If you are visiting Monteverde, and you must, there are few things to keep in mind. The town of Santa Elena is exclusively built to support tourist infrastructure, so there are plenty of options for everything. Book in advance as budget places tend to get full. You’ll be treated very well, but remember that you are guests in this country, so be nice to the locals and don’t argue over fifty cents.
↑ The tourist infrastructure in Santa Elena and Monte Verde operates on a commission basis. So that friendly person that’s showing you to a nice hostel, or a tour company, or wherever really, is going to charge a commission from the host and you’ll pay for it one way or another. Don’t fret, it’s not going to break the bank.
The conservation areas and parks are meant to preserve the biodiversity and natural habitats of the residents here – flora and fauna – not humans and definitely not tourists. Too often we saw groups of visitors talking loudly on the trails or playing music, leaving plastic wrappers and such. It’s no surprise that the animals know what parts of the forest to avoid. We also heard of “tours” where guides quote a very high chance of seeing animals and allow you to take pictures – because they take you to an area where animals are kept captive, somewhat like a zoo. Don’t do that, fellows.
Other than that, enjoy your visit to the Cloud Forest!