One of Costa Rica's best-kept reserves has 13 km (8 miles) of well-marked trails, lush vegetation, and a cool, damp climate. The collision of moist winds with the Continental Divide here creates a constant mist whose particles provide nutrients for plants growing at the upper layers of the forest. Giant trees are enshrouded in a cascade of orchids, bromeliads, mosses, and ferns, and in those patches where sunlight penetrates, brilliantly colored flowers flourish. The sheer size of everything, especially the leaves of the trees, is striking. No less astounding is the variety: more than 3,000 plant species, 500 species of birds, 500 types of butterflies, and 130 different mammals have so far been cataloged at Monteverde. A damp and exotic mixture of shades, smells, and sounds, the cloud forest is also famous for its population of resplendent quetzals, which can be spotted feeding on the aguacatillo (similar to avocado) trees; best viewing times are early mornings from January until
September, and especially during the mating season of April and May. Other forest-dwelling inhabitants include hummingbirds and multicolor frogs.
For those who don't have a lucky eye, a short-stay aquarium is in the field station; captive amphibians stay here just a week before being released back into the wild. Although the reserve limits visitors to 250 people at a time, Monteverde is one of the country's most popular destinations. We do hear complaints (and agree with them) that the reserve gets too crowded with visitors at times. Early visitors have the best chance at spotting wildlife.
Allow a generous slice of time for leisurely hiking to see the forest's flora and fauna; longer hikes are made possible by some strategically placed overnight refuges along the way. At the gift shop you can buy self-guide pamphlets and books; a map is provided when you pay the entrance fee. You can navigate the reserve on your own, but the 2½-hour guided Natural History Walk (7:30 am, 11:30 am, and 1:30 pm) is invaluable for getting the most out of your visit. You may also take advantage of two-hour guided night tours starting each evening at 5:45 (reservations required). The reserve provides transport from area hotels for an extra $6. A guided walking bird-watching tour up to the reserve leaves from the park entrance each morning at 6 for groups of four to six people. Advance reservations are required.For more information, see the highlighted listing in this chapter.