Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve: Uncrowded Nature

Last Updated: May 9, 2024

Monteverde has several nature reserves where you can hike through lush cloud forest. There’s the popular Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Curi Cancha Reserve, and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Another option, the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, is probably the least visited, but still has a lot to offer. In this post, we’ll explain what to expect on the trails at the Santa Elena Reserve and why this spot is so good for birdwatching and quiet nature discovery.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve Guide

Location

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena) is located in Monteverde in the high altitude mountains. Monteverde is best known for its cloud forests and has been a popular ecotourism destination for many years.

Interestingly, Monteverde is located at the Continental Divide, the point where the Caribbean and Pacific slopes meet. While the Monteverde Reserve and Curi Cancha Reserve are on the Pacific side, the Santa Elena Reserve is just over the Continental Divide on the Caribbean slope.

Access

The Santa Elena Reserve is located about 20 minutes from downtown Santa Elena. To get there, you’ll take the side road leading to Selvatura Park and Treetopia Park (formerly Sky Adventures). This dirt road climbs up the mountain, giving the Santa Elena Reserve a slightly higher elevation than the other reserves in the area.

The road is steep in places with many potholes so a 4×4 vehicle is best, especially in rainy season (May through November). However, many people make the drive in a regular sedan.

Entrance Building
Entrance to the Reserve

Background

Unlike most national parks and reserves in Costa Rica, which are run by the government, Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is administered by the local high school. In 1992, a non-profit organization called Youth Challenge International collaborated with the Costa Rican government and the community of Santa Elena to start this project.

Today, the Santa Elena Reserve consists of 766 acres (310 hectares). About 8 miles (13 km) of trail passes through this pristine swath of cloud forest in different loops. Trail options range from a long 7.4 miles (12 km) for those looking for a good hike to a short 0.9 miles (1.4 km) for those interested in an easier walk.

Here is a picture of the trail map.

trail map santa elena cloud forest reserve

Our Hike at Santa Elena Reserve

We had already been to Santa Elena Reserve before and had done one of the longer trails, but on this visit, we had our two young kids with us. That meant doing one of the shorter trails. Luckily, our friend Esteban, a local guide from Monteverde, was with us and knew where to go. He brought along his son (age 10). He was dressed in guide attire as well and carried along binoculars.

Esteban led us onto the Youth Challenge Trail. He said that this would give us a good feel for the cloud forest and take us to the observation tower.

Guided Tour Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Our guide, Esteban

First Wildlife Encounters

We started on the paved path, Esteban leading the way with his spotting scope. We hadn’t even been walking for five minutes yet and Esteban stopped to show us something.

A bird was sitting on a nest in a short tree right beside the trail. It was a Scaled antpitta. This type of bird is known to follow army ants. Army ants come through the forest in long, organized lines (hence the name army) to eat other types of ants, wasps, and other insects. The Scaled antpitta follows the army ants and eats any bugs that are flushed out along the way.

This mother bird was sitting patiently on the nest while we took a close up look at it through the scope from a distance. Esteban snapped some great photos with our phones and the scope.

Bird Nest
Close up through the scope of the nesting bird 

Just past the nest, Esteban stopped again. This time it was to show us a Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine up in a tree. This porcupine species is one of the few that lives in trees. Although it was far away, we could see it well with the scope. It was curled up, sleeping, but we could still make out its spikes and prehensile tail.

Esteban explained that animals are harder to see at the Santa Elena Reserve in general, it is better for birding, so we felt fortunate to have seen the porcupine.

Porcupine Santa Elena
A Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine through the scope

Environment

The trails converged and soon turned to well-maintained gravel.

All around us were giant trees reaching towards the sun with short brushy trees and plants taking up every inch of the forest floor. The landscape was covered in layers of green. Moss and lichen grew on top of branches and leaves because of all the moisture in the air. The Monteverde area receives a lot of rain year-round and is often misty. This helps keep the foliage lush and green.

Trail Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Trail through the thick cloud forest

One standout tree we saw was a towering milk tree. Our guide told us that it was about 400 years old!

Giant Milk Tree Santa Elena
The giant milk tree covered in plants and vines (yos in Spanish)

More Birds and Other Sightings

As we continued on, Esteban watched and listened for more birds. We were able to spot a number of them, including various woodcreepers, a Tufted Flycatcher, Collared Redstart, Common chlorospingus, and a Costa Rican warbler (endemic). Esteban got out his phone to let us hear some of the birds’ calls.

Birdwatching
A Common Bush Tanager (Common chlorospingus)

We also saw some other interesting wildlife like a glass winged butterfly with see-through wings, a giant millipede, and some caterpillars.

Our youngest son who loves flowers spotted a small red flower just off the trail. Esteban explained that this was called a Santa’s boot due to the boot-like shape. It is related to African violets.

Santa's Boot plant
Santa’s Boot flower

Observation Tower

Soon we reached one of the highlights of the hike: the observation tower. This was recently built and really adds to the experience.

We climbed the few sets of stairs to the top. From high up above the tree line, we got a panoramic view of the surrounding mountain range and forest. It was fairly clear that day, so we could even catch faraway glimpses of Arenal Volcano in between the fast-moving clouds!

Observation Tower Santa Elena Reserve
View from the Observation Tower. The base of Arenal Volcano is in the distance.

After spending some time at the tower, we continued on the loop and headed back to the entrance.

Orchid Garden

Before leaving, we made a quick stop at the orchid garden next to the entrance. Although not many flowers were blooming at the time of our visit (July), there were rows and rows of orchid plants. We imagined that when they’re blossoming, it must be beautiful.

Orchid Garden
Orchid garden near the entrance

Planning Your Visit to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

Entrance

Visitors: $18 adults, $15 senior citizens (age 65+), $12 students, $9 children

Nationals and Residents: $6 adults, $5 senior citizens (age 65+), $4 students, $2 children

You don’t need to buy tickets in advance.

Hours

Open every day, 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Guided Tours

If you’re mostly interested in experiencing the beauty of the cloud forest, you don’t need a guide to visit the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. The trails are well marked and easy to follow. Be sure to take a picture of the trail map and ask at the ranger station for trail recommendations when checking in.

But if you’re interested in learning more about the cloud forest and seeing birds and animals, we recommend a guided tour.

If you’d like to take a tour through the guide/small local company we used, we’d be happy to help with the arrangements. He and his team are all naturalist guides with ICT certification from the Costa Rican government. Use the booking links below. We’ll contact the company to make the reservations. You won’t pay until your reservation is confirmed, and we’ll update you along the way by email. Booking through us doesn’t cost anything extra and helps support our website.

Cost of Santa Elena Private Tour (only your group/family; 3 hours): $70 per person + admission. Children 5 and under are free.

Cost of Santa Elena Group Tour (8 person maximum; 3 hours): $45 per person + admission. Children 5 and under are free.

Flower Cloud Forest

Accessibility

The trail closest to the entrance, Mundo Joven, is fully handicap accessible. The paved path is short (0.3 miles/0.5 km), but a wonderful option for exploring the cloud forest for those with limited mobility. It’s also great for families who would like to use a stroller.

Amenities

The Reserve has a cafeteria with basic lunch items like casados (traditional lunch plates of meat or fish served with rice and beans and side salads), quesadillas, sandwiches, burgers, nachos, and tacos. They also can make smoothies and have other drinks available.

Restrooms are at the beginning of the main trail near the entrance.

Conclusion

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve was one of the first reserves that we hiked in Monteverde when we moved to Costa Rica and is still one of our favorites. Its uncrowded trails and gorgeous cloud forest scenery are memorable. And now with the observation tower, the experience is even richer.

Have a question about visiting Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve? Ask us below.

Last Updated: May 9, 2024

Looking for more information to plan your trip to Monteverde? Check out these posts:

Monteverde Hotel Guide: Check out our picks for hotels with cloud forest views, easy access to town, and onsite restaurants. 

Café Monteverde Coffee Tour: Monteverde has several coffee tours but this one is unique because it focuses on sustainability. It also has a great tasting at the end.

Finca El Paraiso: A Sustainable Farm Tour in Monteverde – This dairy farm is a fun spot to take the kids and offers the chance to make local cheese.

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