If you ask any seasoned Costa Rica traveler what are the must visit places in Costa Rica are, Monteverde is usually on the list. Voted as one of the wonders of Costa Rica, the Monteverde cloud forests are truly a spectacular sight to see. You would never imagine that a cloud forest would exist in a tropical country!
But what most people don’t know is that there are actually 3 cloud forest reserves: Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Monteverde is the name of the entire region encompassing the cloud forests and the towns, it’s not one town or just the cloud forest so people get confused. (Read our guide to visiting Monteverde.)
Many visitors spend just 1-3 days in Monteverde so they only have time to go to one of the three cloud forest reserves. They are all incredible but if you’re trying to decide which one to go to, this post will help.
(But of course, any one you visit will be an amazing experience!)
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserves, Which One Should You Visit?
First, let me explain a bit why the cloud forest is special. A cloud forest is a forest that has constant cloud coverage in high elevation meaning it is higher in precipitation and moisture. That is why flora and fauna thrive in this particular ecosystem.
So just imagine visiting a Washington/Oregon-like forest in a tropical country that’s 8-12 degrees above the equator! That’s pretty amazing right?
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
This is the most popular of the 3 cloud forest reserves. It was established in 1972 by the Quaker families and is now run by the Tropical Science Center, a non profit organization dedicated to protecting and saving the vulnerable ecosystem. The 4,000 hectares Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is home to over 100 species of mammals, 400 birds, 500 orchids and many more animals, making it one of the most important ecosystems in the world.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is about 5.5 kilometers from the town of Santa Elena. The road is unpaved when you are past Cerro Plano with plenty of signage to the entrance.
There is a large parking lot, bathrooms, a cafeteria and souvenir shop at the entrance as well as a hummingbird gallery.
Entrance fee for foreigners are $20 and you can pay in cash (USD or colones) or credit card. The reserve is open every day from 7 AM to 4 PM.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve has 11 trails with varying lengths of 305 meters to 2020 meters so it’s accessible for everyone of different physical levels.
Here is a map of the trails and our guide to hiking the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.
There are several viewpoints, a hanging bridge and a waterfall for points of interest.
You can choose which trails to do but for a $20 entrance fee, it’s best to enjoy it as much as possible.
We spent a whole afternoon hiking the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve on our own. We hiked from the entrance to the viewpoint up the Continental Divide, went to the hanging bridge and the waterfall and went back to the entrance from there. It took us about 4 hours total (including stopping for photos/videos). The total length we walked was about 5 kilometers.
The trails are very well maintained and laid out. There are signs are every cross section so it’s hard to get lost and you can take a map with you. We saw many people along the way as the parking lot was completely full the day we went. Since we went in the afternoon, we didn’t see any bird watcher groups, only those who were self hiking like us. We also saw many guided tour groups of older folk.
The views in the reserve are beautiful, especially the one up to the Continental Divide. You can see all the way to the Nicoya Peninsula and look over the cloud forest. It will leave you in awe.
The hanging bridge is very nice (especially if you’re not going to any of the eco parks like Selvatura or Sky Trek so you can get a taste of the famous Monteverde hanging bridges, a must do in Costa Rica.), it gives you a very different perspective of the forest. The waterfall is small, but charming.
When it comes to wildlife, we didn’t see too much. We saw a couple of coatis, saw a couple hummingbirds and heard lots of other birds. Most of the cloud forest reserve is fairly dense making it difficult to spot birds.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is extraordinary. The views from the Continental Divide were spectacular and it really makes you appreciate the fact that these delicate forests are protected.
Trails are well laid out, it’s easily accessible and convenient. However, it is crowded. The parking lot was so full, we had to park outside of it on the side of the road. There was about 10-15 minutes during the walk when it was just us, the rest of the time we were always around 2-3 groups and we had to make a line for photos at the viewpoint.
If you’re not keen on crowds, go early in the morning, like 7 AM when it opens as most tours don’t get there until around 8 AM or in the afternoon. Bird watching tours start early but it won’t be quite as crowded.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve opened in 1972, protecting 764 acres of cloud forest. It’s run by the School Board of the Santa Elena Technical Professional High School, one of the first communities to maintain it’s own private reserve in Costa Rica. It’s slightly higher in elevation but the change is noticeable, it’s considerably wetter and cloudier than its sister Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is 7 kilometers from Santa Elena town. Signage is excellent and it will take you up past Selvatura Park and Sky Trek (meaning those two ziplines actually go over and through the cloud forest). Road is bumpy but not too bad.
There is a large parking lot and the main entrance has restrooms, cafeteria and souvenir store.
It is open every day from 7 AM to 4 PM, tickets cost $13 for foreigners.
The trails in the Santa Elena Cloud Forst Reserve are much longer than the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. They range from .48 kilometers to 4.8 kilometers and will take most of the day if you want to walk a couple of them.
Here is a map of the trails.
Trails are extremely well maintained like Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and signage is very good as well. What’s even better is that there is a handicap accessible trail in Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve and a very nice one at that.
Since Santa Elena has more moisture, even the cloud forest feels different than Monteverde. Thick moss clings from every branch, fog hovers on the trail and leaves glisten with drops of water, giving off a faint mysterious atmosphere. It rained for the first 20 minutes we were there, making us feeling like we were exploring part of an enchanted forest.
It was breathtaking.
We were a bit short on time and it was raining pretty hard so we only walked the Encantado Trail and the viewpoint that looks over to Arenal Volcano was very cloudy. But on a clear day, you can see the entire Arenal Volcano and surrounding forest! There is also a look out tree, a huge ficus tree you can climb in to the top!
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve was stunning. I felt like I was back home in Washington with so much moss and rain!
Although we didn’t see any wildlife because of the rain, I met a couple who visited the day before (when it was super sunny) and they saw Resplendant Quetzals and a 2-toed sloth. They didn’t go with a guide but ran into a guided tour group who spotted the animals.
I would definitely get a guide if you want to see wildlife but I actually preferred to just enjoy the trees and walking through the forest in Santa Elena rather than looking for animals. But it would have been very interesting to have a guide to point out the different flowers, plants and trees since there were so many.
Since the trails are much longer, this is the ideal cloud forest reserve for those who love hiking. We could have stayed there all day (if it stopped raining at some point). The trails were not very difficult or steep so it is fine for any physical level but they are longer than the Monteverde Cloud Forest trails.
Children’s Eternal Rain Forest
Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, or Bosque Eterno de Los Ninos is the largest private reserve in Costa Rica encompassing nearly 23,000 hectares (nearly 6 times as big as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve!) It was founded by a group of children from Sweden who campaigned for funds to create this reserve and is now run by the Monteverde Conservation League, a non profit conservation organization.
There are 4 different stations and we only had time to visit one, the Bajo del Tigre station close to Cerro Plano. Bajo del Tigre protects a special “rain shadow forest.” Even though it’s only 1 mile from the cloud forest, the climate in the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest Bajo del Tigre reserve is considerably drier, creating a different ecosystem with different plants and animals.
If you have more time or want to hike more, the other stations are excellent choices. San Gerardo has views of Arenal and 7 kilometers of trails. Pocosol is currently closed for 2017 but that is accessible via La Fortuna and gets you deep into the rain forest.
Bajos del Tigre reserve is very close to Cerro Plano, just a 5 minute drive away. Signage is excellent and there is a small parking lot. There are bathrooms and a small rest area by the office.
It costs $12 for adult foreigners and $8 for children.
The trails are Bajo del Tigre are excellent, well maintained and has great signage. Here is a map of Bajo del Tigre reserve.
The trails are pretty short, the longest being 1 kilometer and shortest .1 kilometers. We walked to the mirador and looped back in well under 2 hours.
As soon as you enter the reserve, you can immediately tell the climate is much drier, completely different than Monteverde and Santa Elena. The leaves you step on are crunchy instead of soggy, the air is dry and the sun feels stronger.
The day we went, we were joined by a large group of students. These trails are excellent for children and older folks as there are benches every couple hundred meters, markers and a guard rail. The University of Georgia owns and operates the UGA Costa Rica, so a lot of students seem to go through this station. We didn’t see any other student groups at the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
The viewpoint or mirador is wonderful. The .1 kilometer path to get to it is quite steep so it may not be suitable for people who have trouble walking though but when you get to the bottom, you have a view of the whole forest in the valley.
But the rest of the trails are easy and suitable for everyone.
This station is perfect for kids or older people who don’t want to walk as much as the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. The trails are extremely detailed with markers, benches and a rail throughout the entire reserve. It’s a quick walk and if you’re going with kids, they give you a pamphlet of different birds and plants to look out for.
We saw an Emerald Toucanet and heard a ton of Keel billed toucans. We saw one large group of students and two couples in the reserve but since it’s fairly small, it felt like a lot of people. Since Bajo del Tigre reserve is a lot smaller than the other two, it’s great if you’re short on time since it only took us under 2 hours.
You can read more about our time at Bajo del Tigre Reserve here.
Thoughts About the Three Cloud Forest Reserves
- If you don’t want to be around a lot of people and want to hike a lot, visit Santa Elena.
- If you have kids/seniors or short on time, Bajo del Tigre reserve is excellent.
- For the classic cloud forest experience, head to Monteverde.
- For a truly off the beaten path, rain forest experience, go to San Gerardo Station or Pocosol when it opens in Children’s Eternal Rain Forest.
Tips for Visiting the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
- Don’t have the expectation of seeing a ton of wildlife. The trails through all 3 of the reserves only go through a tiny portion of the cloud forest so you won’t see animals everywhere.
- If you are visiting all 3, ask for the discount when you purchase tickets at the office.
- Bring a rain jacket and wear closed toed shoes. If you are visiting in rainy season, come prepared for lots of rain. Check our rainy season packing list for more tips.
- Because of the high elevation, mosquito repellent is not necessary.
- There isn’t a cafeteria at Bajo del Tigre station so make sure to bring snacks or eat before. Bring plenty of water.
- If you want to see wildlife or learn more about the flora and fauna, hire a guide. You can hire a guide at the Monteverde and Santa Elena offices and you can make reservations for a guided tour at Bajo del Tigre. Read more about hiring guides in Costa Rica.
- You can also do night walks through the reserves, this must be reserved in advance with a guide.
- Go early in the morning to avoid crowds and have more chances to see wildlife.
There are buses from Santa Elena town to both Monteverde Cloud Forest and Santa Elena Cloud Forest. The bus from Santa town to Santa Elena Cloud Forest is at 6:30 AM, 8:30 AM, 10:30 AM and 12:30 PM and returns at 9 AM, 11 AM, 1 PM, 3 PM and 4 PM. It costs $2 per person.
The bus from Santa Elena to Monteverde Cloud Forest is 6:15 AM, 7:30 AM, 1:20 PM and 3 PM and returns at 6:45 AM, 11:30 AM, 2 PM and 4 PM. The Sunday service is at 6:15 AM, 1:20 PM and 3 PM and returns at 11:30 AM, 2 PM and 4 PM.
I hope this post helps you decide which cloud forest reserve in Monteverde to visit and I’m sure that you’ll have a wonderful time at any of them!