The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica
Central America, Costa Rica, Travel Tips

Getting Our Nature On At The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

The moment I was well enough to travel again after the nasty illness that nearly broke me in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, I was on a bus to Costa Rica, ready to forget all my woes and embrace la pura vida.

Mak had been in Costa Rica for a number of days by that point, intent on seeing as much of Central America as possible in his limited time frame.  I couldn’t blame him; we’d never agreed to stay together at all times and I would have felt guilty asking him to postpone his trip on my account.

I hadn’t done much research about Costa Rica prior to our trip (I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kinda girl) and as such was impartial to which destinations I visited.  The decision to skip the Pacific coast beaches and reunite with Mak in the mountain town of Santa Elena instead was a no-brainer; after all that I’d just been through in Nicaragua I was desperate for the comfort only a 9-year friendship could provide.

It took an entire day of traveling and no fewer than five buses to get across the border and up the bumpy mountain roads to the tiny town of Santa Elena.  I received the warmest of welcomes from my travel buddy and the amicable staff at Pensión Santa Elena; I was confident that my luck was finally beginning to turn around.

Despite its diminutive size, there’s plenty to keep visitors busy in Santa Elena; we were given the full rundown of our options, none of which were particularly budget-friendly, but we’d come for the wildlife and adventure activities so damn it, that’s what we were going to do.

Perhaps more well-known than Santa Elena is neighboring Monteverde, a Quaker settlement and major ecotourism destination.  Home to several nature reserves including the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (recently named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Costa Rica), Monteverde attracts visitors looking to learn about some of the country’s incredible biodiversity.  The region is home to over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, tens of thousands of insects (and, you know, those gigantic furry tarantulas) and 2,500 plant varieties–and 420 of those are orchids!

I still wasn’t feeling 100% healthy, so I suggested the least strenuous option for the following morning: A tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

The entrance fee is a bit steep–$18 for foreigners–and the cost of hiring a guide is an additional $15 (one day in Costa Rica and my wallet was already feeling the pinch).  Guests can wander the reserve independently, but it’s highly recommended to do a guided tour to get the full experience.

Our guide, Sergio, turned out to be the most amazing tour guide we could have asked for.  He was a serious nature geek in every sense–his extensive knowledge of the forests, the plant and animal species, and conservation issues blew my mind throughout our 2.5 hour tour.  He even mimicked bird calls like a pro!  He’d been working at the reserve for a total of five years, both conducting research and guiding tours.  He oozed with passion for what he did, and it was contagious.

On top of all that, he was astonishingly deft at spotting forest creatures and interesting flora hanging out high up in the forest canopy and even used his telescope to get us close-up shots of what we saw using our iPhones!  And between you and me, internet, there’s something I find incredibly sexy about a guy who can say “sexual dimorphism” in multiple languages (iiiis that weird?).

We arrived at the reserve by taxi and our tour began just after 7:30am.  The biodiversity made itself immediately apparent; before we’d even entered the park we saw a gorgeous green scarab (or a forest brooch, if you will) on a tree near the ticket office.

Scarab, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

A forest brooch–they also come in gold!

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

Well-maintained walking paths.

Once inside, my head swirled trying to keep up with all the knowledge Sergio was dropping on us: epiphytes are the plants that grow above the forest floor; strangler figs literally strangle and kill their host trees; birds sometimes form temporary mixed-species flocks to better defend against predators; hummingbirds build their nests in spiky trees to keep monkeys from stealing their eggs, and some hummingbird species migrate to Costa Rica ALL THE WAY FROM NORTH AMERICA.  Every new piece of information was somehow more fascinating than the last; I could have listened to that guy talk all day.

Monteverde, Costa Rica

So much greeeen!

Strangler fig, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Strangler fig choking out its host on the left.

We saw more plants and animals than I could possibly keep track of, including a green viper and the hairy legs of a few sleepy giant tarantulas.  Much to my own surprise I would have liked to see the tarantulas out and about, but unfortunately they are among the nocturnal forest creatures; they do offer a night tour but we had no plans to take one.

Monteverde, Costa Rica

Mak using the telescope and a close-up of a hummingbird in its nest.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Another amazing close-up taken through the telescope and our trusty guide on the right.

Toward the end of the tour, we got exciting news from another guide; they’d spotted the bird Monteverde is famous for, a crown jewel of the birding world, the Resplendent Quetzal (funny side note: for awhile Mak didn’t know “resplendent” was part of the bird’s name; he just thought Sergio really loved this bird).  We high-tailed it to another part of the reserve and were rewarded with a rare sighting of this crested beauty.

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

The elusive and oh-so-Resplendent Quetzal! We were very fortunate to spot one at this time of year.

Our tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was worth every last cent.  We would have been remiss to visit Costa Rica and not do a wildlife outing of some kind.  If you find yourself in Monteverde, I highly recommend this tour.  Ask for Sergio.

With our guide at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

The man, the myth, the legend, Sergio.

Tips for visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

You can get to the reserve from Santa Elena by bus or taxi.  The bus is cheaper, but you have to catch it at 6:15am to make it in time for the tour, so a taxi allows for more flexibility (and by flexibility I mean sleeping for an extra hour).

But don’t oversleep!  Tours leave promptly at 7:30am and you don’t want to miss out on having a guide; it definitely made the experience for us.

Bring a rain jacket and a few layers; the temperatures can be brisk in the mountains and rain is always a possibility.

If you are a student, bring a valid student ID to pay a significantly cheaper entrance fee ($7 instead of $18).

If you don’t have a good zoom lens on your camera, bring your smartphone–real cameras don’t work as well for telescope photos like the ones above.

When the tour is over, hike up to the lookout point (called La Ventana) for a great view from above the trees.

If you love your tour, don’t forget to tip your guide.

This was easily my favorite guided tour yet.

What’s been your best tour experience?

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  • Reply David Ouellette November 17, 2014 at 10:11 am

    This looks awesome Leah, nice post! I didn’t get there when I was in Costa Rica, but I recently came back from a cloud forest in Ecuador and saw some similar wildlife. Keep it up!
    David Ouellette recently posted…Santa Marta, ColombiaMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera November 17, 2014 at 8:29 pm

      Thank you David! There are so many great places in Central and South America to see wildlife like this, I’m sure Ecuador was just as good, I’ve heard amazing things about Mindo especially!

  • Reply Sumit Surai November 17, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Wow! Great photography!
    Sumit Surai recently posted…Tapovan Hills , Deoghar – Where Religion Meets AdventureMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera November 17, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      Thank you! I was so impressed with the photos we got using our phones, all thanks to our guide!

  • Reply Mark and Kate @vagrantsoftheworld November 17, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Great twitcher photos. Cloud forests are amazing. It is a shame Costa Rica is becoming so expensive. Guess you could high tail it back to Nicaragua for some cheap living.
    Mark and Kate @vagrantsoftheworld recently posted…Comment on Two Ways To Spend One Day In Granada, Nicaragua. Pt 1- Morning by Jessica (Barcelona Blonde)My Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera November 17, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      Yeah everyone keeps saying Nicaragua is attracting more tourists now because it’s so similar to Costa Rica but way cheaper. I liked both but I do think Nicaragua has some catching up to do in terms of tourism infrastructure.

  • Reply elaine schoch November 17, 2014 at 11:45 am

    I love it when the tour guide is more than just a guide but rather an expert you can truly learn from and who wants to share everything they can with you to ensure the best experience…
    elaine schoch recently posted…Fun Fact Friday: 15 Fun Facts About BreckenridgeMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera November 17, 2014 at 8:33 pm

      Absolutely, we were so happy we paid for this guided tour! We wouldn’t have been able to spot anything on our own! And the background knowledge to go along with what you’re seeing makes the experience so much richer.

  • Reply Justine November 18, 2014 at 1:06 am

    I took a guided tour of this same cloud forest when I was on a family trip in Costa Rica in, like, 2005. And I still remember that tour and my tour guide! My guy was seriously well-educated and incredibly passionate about the flora and fauna. It was impressive. I’m glad you had an equally awesome experience 🙂
    Justine recently posted…A Frugalista’s Guide to Kuta, BaliMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera November 18, 2014 at 7:29 am

      I’ve had lots of really amazing tour guides lately, all over Central America in fact, but this one really stood out! It was truly an unforgettable tour.

  • Reply estherjulee November 18, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    this looks amazing!! jacob has really been getting into wildlife photography, so he would have been all over this. also loved reading your about me page. 🙂 don’t know that we’re as adventurous as you guys… but we definitely try our best to live outside our comfort zone. we could work on our backpacking though.. our gear does not get used nearly as much as it should.
    estherjulee recently posted…Backpacking Gear List for the Zion Narrows Hike + Additional TipsMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera November 18, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      Ah nonsense, I would definitely consider you guys adventurous! Anyone who tries to keep things exciting and break routine from time to time, even if that means exploring the area where you live instead of other countries, is adventurous in my book! And thank you for the compliment! 🙂

  • Reply Franca November 19, 2014 at 8:17 am

    I usually don’t like guided tours simply because I love the freedom to stop and go at my own pace. The best one I’ve ever done was probably the “free tour” in Berlin where you just tip at the end and I happily did because the guide was so good I couldn’t actually believe it, I guess because it was based on tips the guide really had to to his best to deserve them.
    The tour you did in the forest is a dream for me simply for the amount of animals you saw and the knowledge about them you learnt, that would definitely be a tour that I’d happily join, no brainier! 🙂
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  • Reply Agness November 19, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Wow, I’ve never done it, but it looks like so much fun! Jealous! Jealous! Jealous!

    • Reply LaMochilera November 19, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      It was so much fun! I hope you get to experience it someday!

  • Reply Traveling Ted December 2, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    I will be hiking in Monteverde and Santa Elena in one week from today. I can’t wait. I hope I am as lucky as you and get to see the respledent quetzal. Thanks for the tips and the link to the pension.
    Traveling Ted recently posted…5 reasons to ski the Great Bear ChaseMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera December 2, 2014 at 7:11 pm

      So glad you found it useful, Ted! I hope you get to see the resplendent quetzal too! It’s very…resplendent!

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