Life In the Big Green Jolly

Embrace local. Explore often.

Embrace local.  Explore often.

Visit Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

Blue dragonfly sitting on leaf at Santa Elena Cloud Forest

Trying to decide which cloud forest to visit in the Monteverde area of Costa Rica?

Read on for why I recommend the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

Cloud Forests

The cloud forests are the main draw of the Monteverde area.  Located above 5000′ in elevation, these rain forests really are above the clouds.

In addition to wildlife spotting, the cloud forests are incredible spots to view the symbiotic relationships of local flora and fauna.

Mossy tree in Santa Elena cloud forest
Typical mossy tree in the Santa Elena cloud forest

There are three cloud forests in the Monteverde area:

  • Children’s Eternal Rain Forest (Bosque Eterno de los Ninos) – the largest cloud forest at nearly 54,000 acres
  • Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – the 2nd to the largest of the three cloud forests at nearly 26,000 acres and the most frequently visited
  • Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve – the smallest of the three, it is 765 acres (about five times the size of Disneyland park)

I chose to visit the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve as it is reported to have the least amount of visitors.  Talking with other travelers over coffee, they said they visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve since it was the most popular but felt like they were tripping over crowds all day.

In addition to being the least crowded cloud forest, it is community-run. It is not a national park.

Getting there

The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is located about 4 miles northeast of the town of Santa Elena, Costa Rica.

Driving is a viable option if you have your own rental car.

Otherwise, ask your hotel about the times and pick up locations for the shared shuttle. Round-trip, I spent less than $5USD for the shuttle.

Hiking at Santa Elena Cloud Forest

At 5000′ elevation, the air is cool at the start of the day but quickly turns humid.  Tucked up under the forest canopy, the sunlight is dappled and it’s not unusual to be dripped on from the trees above.  The air has a mossy yet pure scent to it. Sounds shifted throughout my hike – from the swishing of the trees to the buzz of hummingbirds soaring by to birds and frogs chirping. Epiphyte or air plants (plants with no connection to the ground – they use other plants as support) abound.

There are five trails available in Santa Elena Cloud Forest.  The trails are clearly marked and at each intersection, a map was displayed.  Some of the longer trails, muddy and slow-going, added to the allure of adventure.  

Expect to get muddy. Wear sturdy hiking shoes. And be sure to stop at the boot cleaning station before hopping back on the shuttle bus.

Pit with hose to clean boots
Clean your boots when your hike is complete

How much time should you plan to spend at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve? Some tourists zipped through it in a couple of hours…check mark in the been there done that box. However, I spent seven hours in the park on a self-guided tour, including photography time.  

I heard many birds including hummingbirds that kept buzzing me, but only spotted the Great Curassow (Costa Rica’s version of a wild turkey).  

You can hire a guide for the park to help you spot birds and wildlife. One guide, hired by another couple, stopped me as I hiked past them and insisted I view a blue Motmot through her scope. So if bird-watching is high on your list, hire a guide.

On the Encantado trail, you might catch a glimpse of the Arenal Volcano if the clouds lift.

View of Arenal Volcano
Distant view of Arenal Volcano from Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

Our Experience Monteverde guide has more suggestions for your visit to this area of Costa Rica. Or check our 2-week guide to Costa Rica for an extended itinerary.

Map of location of Santa Elena Costa Rica