Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Last Updated: Jun 05, 2013
Dew clings to the fuzzy, green moss that envelops every tree trunk and vine hanging in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Droplets hanging perilously from the fuzz refract the morning light before dropping to the forest floor, wet with fallen leaves. There are few places on earth that so eloquently illuminate the power and beauty of nature than underneath the canopy in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve where eight miles of trails weave through the 765 acres of vast, immersive cloud forest.
Location : 4 miles from Santa Elena
Area : 765 acres
Hours : 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily
Telephone : 2645-5390
Entrance Fee : $12 adults; $6 students
Guided Tours : $15 per person; 7:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Walking the trails, one can feel almost insignificant compared to the massive trees bearing the weight of hundreds of different species of bromeliads, mosses, orchids, lichens and liverwort; everything climbing, reaching, grasping toward the canopy to absorb the sunlight. A single tree can have as many as 200 different species of plants growing on it; an ecosystem unto itself.
Santa Elena's unique habitat is in part thanks to its location high on the Caribbean side of the continental divide in the Tilaran Mountains. Clouds, born in the Caribbean, traverse across the over land in attempt to pass above the Tilaran Mountains before giving up and falling upon the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
The Santa Elena Technical Professional high school, Costa Rican Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Education manage the Santa Elena Reserve to promote natural resources conservation, support local educational programs and encourage sustainable tourism.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest is approximately 3.5 miles northeast of downtown Santa Elena, the cloud forest, is slightly lower in elevation than the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is also less popular, making for quiet trails and smaller guided tours.
Average Temperature: 64 to 70° degrees
Average Annual Rainfall: 144 inches (12 feet)
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest is moist year-round. Dry season lasts from Dec.-April, though the cloud forest is almost always windy and misty with light rain. A short Indian summer arrives in July, as the dry season’s misty, windy conditions return, and downpours are less common.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is ideal for hiking, bird and wildlife watching. The reserve does not permit camping.
Hiking along the reserve’s trails is the best way to see the forest’s epiphyte-laden trees. Beginning at the visitor’s center, several trails lead hikers through mostly primary growth cloud forest (about 80% of the reserve) where moss, lichens, bromeliads and tree-dwelling orchids cover almost every surface.
Four trails, totaling eight miles, lead from the visitor center into the reserve including a two-thousand foot long handicap-friendly trail. The hikes vary in length from less than one mile to three miles and take anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours to complete. On wet days, rubber boots may be rented at the visitor’s center before setting out onto the trails.
The longest park pathway, the Black Canyon Trail (Sendero Cano Negro – 3 miles), takes about three to four hours to walk. The Enchanted Trail (Sendero Encantado – 2.1 miles) is excellent for birding as it climbs and descends through valleys, passing from the Pacific to the Caribbean sides and back again. The well-maintained trail is a common place to spot three-wattled bellbirds, quetzals and howler monkeys. The Low Trail (Sendero El Bajo – 1.6 miles) has many creek crossings and passes through more secondary growth forest, providing a diverse canopy and sunny openings for birding. The Youth Challenge Trail (named after a Canadian student group) extends nearly a mile to an observation tower with views of the entire reserve, Lake Arenal, Arenal, Rincon de la Vieja, Tenorio and Miravalles volcanoes – on clear days you can see all the way to Lake Nicaragua.
Flora & Fauna
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve teems with life – the wet and cloudy conditions provide an ideal habitat for both flora and fauna. In fact, scientists have already recorded more than 400 bird species, 121 mammal species, 140 reptile and amphibian species, 800 tree species and 3000 vascular plant species, and believe that many other species still await discovery.
Birdwatching is one of the reserve’s most popular activities, and the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is well known for its 30 hummingbird species, toucans, great green macaw, three-wattled bellbird, resplendent quetzal, black-faced solitaires and other hard-to-spot bird species. Mammal lovers spot howler monkeys, coatimundis and sloths in the trees. Other highlights include five cat species (ocelots and jaguars are the easiest to spot, though incredibly rare), tarantulas, tens of thousands of insect species, poison dart frogs, tree frogs and more.
Note: Quetzal-seekers will have their best opportunity to see the birds in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve during April and May; as the birds migrate to a higher elevation and denser forest for nesting.
There's an information office, gift shop and small cafeteria on site.
It's helpful to bring hiking shoes and a wind-breaker or light jacket. The continental divide can be windy, and the weather may change rapidly without warning.
Driving: From the town of Santa Elena, drive north from Banco Nacional, going down a steep hill and then taking the first cement road to the right. Follow the signs for Selvatura and Sky Adventures, but continue past them; the dirt road dead-ends at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
Public Shuttle: Daily shuttles leave at 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Reservations are required for the $4 (two-way) journey and will pick you up from your hotel. Shuttle's phone: 2645-6332.
Taxi: A taxi from Santa Elena should cost approximately $9.