One of the most heavenly hikes in Costa Rica is the Santa Elena Reserve
Tucked up in the mountains near the Pacific Ocean, thick clouds form via warms winds that whisk over the Continental Divide. These clouds engulf the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve and make for an unforgettable rainforest experience. The area receives about 12 feet of rain throughout the year, creating a nutrient-rich environment for lush vegetation and ample food for wildlife to thrive.
Situated just 4 miles (7 km) from the town center of Monteverde, the spectacular Santa Elena Reserve boasts 765 acres of cloud forest (high elevation forest with constant cloud cover at the height of the canopy) making it one of the most beautiful, and most accessible, places to observe nature in Costa Rica.
Getting to the reserve, and the surrounding area, is an easy drive from San Jose; just take Route 27 to Route 606 and head on up to the town of Santa Elena. There, you can either continue driving a short distance to the reserve or take the public shuttle from town that leaves at various times in the morning and early afternoon.
The best place for avid walkers and hikers to begin their journey through the forest is at the main visitor’s center. One has the option of a guided tour, a solo trek, or a group hike. No matter which choice is made, every individual lucky enough to experience the magnificence of this wildlife reserve will be in awe of its pristine beauty.
Trails for every hiker
There are four different trails that provide four unique perspectives from which to experience the forest. Each has been crafted to suit various types of travelers.
The Black Canyon Trail serves as the longest hike, taking between three to four hours to complete. This three-mile hike was made for trailblazers and keen outdoorsmen to really immerse themselves in the natural environment.
For the bird watcher extraordinaire, the Enchanted Trail provides fantastic observation of the numerous bird species the reserve has to offer. 2.1 miles of forest wind their way through the valleys of the landscape, eventually taking its passengers to the Caribbean side of the land and back around to the heart of the rainforest.
The Low Trail (1.6 miles) encompasses creeks and more open canopy that is great for bird watching, and the Youth Challenge Trail extends about one mile ending at an observation tower. From there one can observe the entire Santa Elena Reserve, Lake Arenal, Arenal, Rincon de la Vieja, Tenorio, and Miravalles volcanoes.
Flora and fauna
Each tree in the forest represents an entire ecosystem of plants settling into their homes, interesting insects scurrying about, and animals taking refuge. The reserve is teaming with epiphyte and bryophyte plants, among a vast expanse of other plant types. Long vines and thick moss are staple members of the vegetative economy as they battle to reach sunlight through the canopy.
Many unique animals call the Santa Elena Reserve home, as well. Walking the trails one may find the well-known Quetzal bird maneuvering among the branches, howler monkeys making their presence known, and three-toed sloths making their way, ever so slowly, to their next meal.
What to bring
Don’t forget your camera! Hiking boots and rainwear are also recommended items, as the weather in cloud forests can change abruptly. As with any hike, we recommend dressing in layers so that you can unwrap a bit if you get too warm, and then re-layer when that hilltop rest-stop starts to turn chilly. Be sure to bring some cash, as the entrance fee is $12 for adults and $6 for students, which goes towards the preservation of the environment.
As the lesser known of the two major reserves in the area, the Santa Elena Reserve provides the attraction of a wonderful travel destination without the bustling crowds. After a superb cloud forest experience and a revitalizing hike, visitors looking for a bite to eat can make a stop at the restaurant located near the entrance and purchase a souvenir of their time spent at the reserve.