Monteverde Cloud Forest and Santa Elena

Monteverde is a rain forest, but you won't be in the tropics—rather in the cool, gray, misty world of the cloud forest. Almost 900 species of epiphytes, including 450 orchids, thrive here; most tree trunks are covered with mosses, bromeliads, ferns, and other plants. Monteverde spans the Continental Divide, extending from about 4,920 feet on the Pacific slope and 4,430 feet on the Atlantic slope up to the highest peaks of the Tilarán Mountains at around 6,070 feet. Make Santa Elena your base of operations when visiting this area.

The area's first residents were a handful of Costa Rican families fleeing the rough-and-tumble life of nearby gold-mining fields during the 1940s. They were joined in the early 1950s by Quakers, conscientious objectors from Alabama fleeing conscription into the Korean War. A number of things drew them to Costa Rica: just a few years earlier it had abolished its military, and the Monteverde area offered good grazing. The cloud forest that lay above the dairy farms soon attracted the attention of ecologists. Educators and artisans followed, giving Monteverde and its "metropolis," the village of Santa Elena, a certain mystique. These days, Monteverde looks quite a bit different than it did when the first wave of Quakers arrived. New hotels have sprouted up everywhere, traffic grips the center of town, and there's a small shopping center outside of town on the way to the mountain. A glut of rented all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) contributes to the increasing din that disrupts Monteverde's legendary peace and quiet, and the paving of one access route will no doubt increase visitor numbers. Some define these moves as progress while others lament the gradual chipping away at what makes one of Costa Rica's most special areas so special. Reminiscent of a ski town in summer, Monteverde still lets you get away from it all, but you'll have to work harder at it than you used to. In any case, you'll not lack for things to do if seeing nature is a primary reason for your visit. The only way to see the area's reserves, including the Monteverde Cloud Forest, is to hike them.

Note that a casual reference to "Monteverde" generally indicates this entire area, but officially the term applies only to the original Quaker settlement, which is by the dairy-processing plant just down the mountain from the reserve entrance. If you follow road signs exclusively, you'll end up outside the town of Santa Elena, halfway to the reserve.

It takes a little effort to get here, and it can get crowded during high season, but this exceptionally well-protected reserve affords visitors one of the country’s best opportunities to view abundant—and stunning—wildlife and colorful high-elevation flora.

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