Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, North Puntarenas

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The Santa Elena Cloud Forest is one of those destinations that make you feel like you just uncovered a secret spot, overlooked by others. While Monteverde’s cloud forest gets more attention (it is bigger after all), it is Santa Elena’s cloud forest that offers you a more personal view of this unique environment. Because one abuts the other, Santa Elena’s forest offers a similar experience as Monteverde with fewer visitors, which lends the forest a magical air.

Flora and Fauna

The “clouds” that hover over the forest are actually a continuous mist, created by the extreme humidity at this altitude, about 1,600 meters above sea level. With this constant cover, the forest below is always moist. That makes it ideal for the wealth of plants that grow here, which include hundreds of species of beautiful orchids and ferns.

Of course, wildlife abounds here as well. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest is home to an astonishing number of animals. Feline species include pumas, jaguarundi and the endangered jaguar, which sports black spots over an orange-yellow coat that is prized for its beauty. Spider monkeys and sloths also make the forest their home, along with the bright red poison dart frog and the extinct golden toad.

Birdwatching Heaven

Costa Rica is considered a birdwatching paradise, and the cloud forest does not disappoint. Among the more than 500 bird species found here, you might catch a glimpse of the green and red resplendent quetzal, the odd three-wattled bellbird or the blue-throated toucanet. With less disruption from visitors, Santa Elena Cloud Forest may be the perfect spot for you to cross some of these magnificent creatures off your birdwatching “must-see” list. Birdwatching is big in Costa Rica, and Santa Elena is one of the best places for it.

Trails and Zip-Lines

Stretch your legs and spend the day on the forest trails or get a bird’s-eye view of the area on a zip-line tour. The cloud forests lie on the Continental Divide, Santa Elena at a somewhat higher elevation than its neighbor, Monteverde. On clearer days, visitors can enjoy a spectacular view that stretches to the distant Arenal Lake and Volcano.

Choose from a variety of zip-line tours, with the longest at 770 meters. If you’re not up for an aerial tour, Santa Elena also features a skywalk bridge that spans canyons to give you much the same sky-high views. Horse tours of the park are another option for exploring the forest.

Cloud Forest Is Run by Community

The town of Santa Elena is about 5 km from the cloud forest, and it is the town’s school board that manages the area. The community itself is responsible for preserving and developing the forest for visitors, a move that has benefited the area with tourism dollars while protecting it from development. Entrance fees to the cloud forest are used to aid local schools and maintain the forest reserve.

Monteverde’s cloud forest has a similar story of community involvement that protects and manages its resources. Between Santa Elena and Monteverde, there are several attractions, including a bat museum, hummingbird gardens, serpent house and butterfly garden, with displays of the area’s natural fauna.

Getting There

The Santa Elena Cloud Forest is located 150 km northwest of San Jose and is an easy drive. Santa Elena offers several hotels in a variety of price ranges, along with a bank, general store, health clinic and more. Bustling with backpackers, the town also includes a post office grocery store and several inexpensive restaurants.