Dense clouds create a mystical jungle filled with lush vegetation. If it wasn’t for the persistent rain, the cloud forests in Costa Rica would be a great place to trek.
We’ve trekked in countless jungles all over the world but have never visited a cloud forest. The highlands in Costa Rica seemed like the perfect place to visit our first one. The cloud forests straddle the Continental Divide which is at 1,500 m (4,921 feet) of elevation. Warm, moist air blows in from the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean on the other. As the air rises in the mountains it cools, forming clouds. From the distance you can see a layer of dense clouds hanging low over the mountain tops.
There are two cloud forests near the neighbouring towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde. We chose to visit Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve as it is more natural and has fewer tourists than Monetverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Inside the reserve hiking trails range from ½ km to 5 km loops. The shorter trails are paved, but the longer ones are natural. This is what we thought we wanted however, natural in a cloud forest means wet and muddy.
When we first arrived, moisture was dropping down on us from the saturated trees above. It was a nice, peaceful walk through the dense, misty jungle. The interesting thing about cloud forests is the vegetation. This jungle was more overgrown than anything we had seen. Trees were plastered in moss, lichen, ferns, vines and flowers. It was difficult to see the trees’ bark because they were covered in other vegetation. Even benches were covered in thick moss.
The problem with hiking in a cloud forest is that there are no panoramic views. We hiked up to a viewpoint, but all we saw was the inside of a cloud.
In addition to the lush green vegetation, there were colourful flowers including False Birds of Paradise, bright Passion flowers and many other unusual ones. Some flowers were growing directly on the tree bark.
The day began cloudy as you would expect, but part way into hiking the longest loop it began to rain and then pour. When it rains, which is most of the time, this natural trail is one big mud puddle. There were places where wooden steppingstones were placed to help, but instead they acted like hovercrafts over the wet mud, giving us an unexpected ride.
There are many animals in the cloud forests, but we all we saw was one caterpillar. Animals are not easy to spot because they hide from the rain under the dense foliage.
By the end of the hike we were soaked, covered in mud and shivering from the cold. It was good to visit a cloud forest, to see a very dense jungle, but it’s very messy. It will probably be our last cloud forest.
Santa Elena is a cute mountain town with nice shops and restaurants. The sky was usually clear but there were always clouds hovering over the mountain tops above. It was very windy when we were there. Most days these strong winds blew moisture from the cloud forests resulting in horizontal rain in town. Toward the ocean, the sky is usually clear and there are terrific views of the Pacific coast.
Monteverde Butterfly Gardens
There are over 1,200 species of butterflies in Costa Rica. Ten percent of the butterfly species in the world are found in this small country. To compare, there are 750 species in all the US and only 350 in Canada. Monteverde Butterfly Gardens was one of the first butterfly farms in Costa Rica. They have 3 greenhouses simulating the three different climates in Costa Rica. As you walk from greenhouse to greenhouse you can see the different plants and butterflies from each zone. Entry fee includes a guided tour of the site by very enthusiastic guides. We learned a lot about butterflies and why they have different characteristics in different zones. Some taste good to predators so they hide using camouflage techniques. Others are toxic. Predators have learned to avoid these ones so the butterflies can be bright and colourful. Taking advantage of this, some good tasting ones mimic the look of toxic ones.
A few of our favourites were the blue morpho, owl and postman butterflies. The blue morpho is deceptive. The underside of its wings are plain brown with many eyes. When it flies you get quick glimpses of the stunning iridescent blue on the top of its wings. We saw these butterflies in a few places in Costa Rica. They have an erratic flying pattern and rarely stop so getting good pictures was difficult. We would watch in awe as their beautiful blue wings fluttered past. Owl butterflies are the largest butterflies in Costa Rica at a length 20 cm. Their predators think they are owls because of the owl eyes on their wings. The postman butterfly received its name because it visits the same flowers in the same order every day.
Not only do they have butterflies at the gardens, they also have a few interesting insects. There are leaf cutter ants; stick bugs; a tarantula that cleans out its nest every day to keep out ants; and a scorpion that gives birth to 40 babies at one time. She eats the ones that don’t obey her orders.
On the Caribbean side of the mountains, is the popular mountain community of La Fortuna. It’s at the base of Arenal Volcano and is known for its many mountain activities. We visited in February, which is supposed to be the dry season, but it had been raining there for weeks. Before we left for La Fortuna, we met a couple who were recently there. They said in the 2 days they visited, it rained for 2 ½! We decided to go anyway, but as it turned out we only had one morning without rain. It’s not much fun visiting a waterfall or hiking up a volcano in the rain. We did go for a short walk in town visiting Iglesia de La Fortuna de San Carlos and its lovely garden. There is supposed to be a great view Volcan Arena behind it, but all we saw were clouds.
We walked along a road toward Arena Volcano for an hour before it began to rain again. Its a pretty area with papaya and apple orchards and small farms. We saw many birds including a toucan, but we never saw the volcano.
The capital of Costa Rica is not a common tourist stop, but we thought we’d see what it has to offer. We found lovely colonial buildings, parks, museums and a long pedestrian mall. Most of the colonial buildings are scattered through the busy downtown as there is no typical Old Town.
San Jose has many parks within walking distance of downtown. They are small, but have lovely sculptures, park benches and walking paths. Admittedly, there isn’t much for tourists in San Jose, but we were able to fill a day with sightseeing.
Getting to Santa Elena/Monteverde
By car – Santa Elena is accessed from the TransAmerican Hwy just north of Puntarenas. The road is a winding mountain road, but was in good condition.
To/from San Jose – There are two buses daily between San Jose and Santa Elena. Leaving from bus Terminal 7-10 in San Jose and Trans Monteverde bus depot in the middle of Santa Elena. Cost is 3000 colones and it takes 4 ½ hours.
To/from Puntarenas – There are 3 buses daily between Puntarenas and Santa Elena. The bus stop in Puntarenas is not marked, but taxis know where it is. The cost is 1600 colones and it takes 3 hours.
Getting to/from other destinations by bus is possible but a bit more complicated as you will need multiple buses. With a little planning it’s not as difficult as it sounds.
To/From La Fortuna – In Santa Elena, take a bus to Puntarenas and then another to Tilaran and then a third bus to La Fortuna. Another option is to take a jeep/boat/jeep combination. Tickets for these can be purchased from travel agents in both town.
To/from Liberia/Tamarindo area beaches etc – In Santa Elena either take a bus to Puntarenas and then to Liberia or Tamarindo or get off on the InterAmerican Hwy and flag down a bus going to Liberia or Canas and then catch another bus to your stop. If getting off on the highway it’s better to take the bus to Puntarenas that travels via Rio Lagarto. The bus driver will know where to drop you off.
We used the website https://centrocoasting.com/ . The information is current, accurate and very helpful.
Visiting the cloud forests
Getting to the cloud forests – Both cloud forest are a few kilometers out of town. There are buses from Santa Elena town to both Monteverde Cloud Forest and Santa Elena Cloud Forest. Buses cost $2 per person each way and can be arranged through your hotel.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Entrance – $16 USD for foreigners
Hours -7 am to 4 pm
Hiking trails – The trails range from ½ km to 5 km and are natural.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
Entrance – $25 for foreigners
Hours – 7 am to 4 pm
Hiking trails – 11 paved trails ranging from 305 m to 2 km.
Getting to La Fortuna
By car – La Fortuna is located on Hwy 42. The roads are in good condition so would be an easy drive from San Jose, but a long day from Liberia or Monteverde.
To/from San Jose – In February 2020 there was only one direct bus per day between San Jose and La Fortuna. It leaves from bus Terminal 7-10 in San Jose and the bus terminal in La Fortuna. Another option is to take one of the many buses to Ciudad Quesada where you can catch a connector to either San Jose or La Fortuna.
To/From Liberia/Tamarindo etc – This is a long day so take the earliest bus from Liberia to Canas (there is one bus from Tamarindo passing through Canas), then take a bus to Tilaran and then one to La Fortuna.
To/from Santa Elena – see above
Coming Next: Which Costa Rican Beach is for me?
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