Santa Elena Nat. Park cloud forest sanctuary
Santa Elena Nat. Park cloud forest sanctuary

I may say this all the time, but Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the most beautiful places in Costa Rica! Although I travel all around the country, my froggy heart is in the rainforest and Santa Elena is a unique area because it is actually a cloud forest. This means that the clouds settle into the forest, providing moisture for the plants and animals that live here. I know some humans think fog is creepy, but it's so serene here! If you are walking along the trails of this reserve, you'll notice dangling roots, lush forested areas and - of course - plenty of animals.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest is one of the first community reserves, which means it's not a national park. A joint effort of Youth Challenge International, a Canadian non-profit organization, the Costa Rican government and the Santa Elena community, this unique attraction opened up in March 1992.

You may have heard of the Monteverde Cloud Forest that is adjacent to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest, but you shouldn't overlook this magical place when you're planning what to do in Costa Rica. Because this spot gets about 10 percent of the amount of travelers as its neighbor, tours are much more intimate and guided tours are more quiet and smaller.

On your hike, you'll notice the incredible humidity it's nearly 100 percent year-round! With warm winds blowing over the Atlantic Ocean, and a cool breeze billowing through the Continental divide, the two create the dense clouds that bathe the forest with a near-constant mist. You'll want to come here prepared with a raincoat and warm, waterproof shoes rubber boots can be rented on super muddy days. The weather in Costa Rica is stunning all year round, but the average temperature here is about 64 to 70. This forest receives nearly 12 feet of rain every year! My brothers and sisters hop here almost every rainy season, but humans may prefer to come here during the dry season, which is between December and April. Don't be mislead, though, the dry season is still misty and windy! However, but during the rainy season, you may run into heavy downpours in the afternoons.

Very low clouds on Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Very low clouds on Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

Pick your Trail

Before setting out on your hike, you can chose from one of the four trails, which total about 8 miles. All the trails here are very well-maintained, but you may have to guide yourself through some moss, lichens, bromeliads and tree-dwelling orchids. On your hike, you'll see the famous epiphyte-coated trees plants that grow on other plants, like trees.

If you'd like to take a short gander through this unique ecosystem, you can go on a 45-minute walk or spend four hours exploring this park on the 3 mile trail (I'd recommend the latter if you have time, because you never know what kind of exotic animals you'll see).

You can pick from the Black Canyon Trail, Low Trail, Enchanted Trail or the Youth Challenge Trail (named after a student group) to explore the park. You'll find sunny openings to spot birds sporting brightly colored patterns along the Low Trail, or you can find a tower offering incredible views of five volcanoes along the Youth Challenge Trail. The Enchanted Trail is a popular choice as it passes along the Pacific to the Caribbean and is a notoriously great spot to find three-wattled bellbirds or howler monkeys. Whatever path you decide to take, you'll see something amazing!

Middle of the forest in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Middle of the forest in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

Flora and Fauna

Because of the wet and foggy conditions of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest, it's prime real estate for much of Costa Rica's flora and fauna. More than 400 bird species, 121 mammal species, 140 reptile and amphibian species, 800 different kinds of trees and 3,000 vascular plants can be found here!

If you are a bird lover, you simply must come to Santa Elena! It's one of the prime bird watching spots in the entire country, and for good reason. There are some unique creatures that call this area home, like the resplendent Quetzal. This bird is bright turquoise with a red belly, small yellow beak and a long feather-tail. For frogs like me, I can only view birds like the Quetzal from afar, but humans don't have to be as cautious. You may see one of these guys flying through the canopy of the cloud forest they love so much!

Closer to the ground, you'll find animals like three-toed sloths and Baird's Tapir, but you may even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a jaguar! Don't worry, they don;t attack unprovoked, but you may see deep claw marks on tree trunks or hear a deep roar shake the forest. Although they tend to only come out at night, you may catch a glimpse of one of these massive felines sunning during the day.

Morning light in Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Morning light in Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve