If the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve were Costa Rica's only attraction, nature lovers would still flock to the country. This reserve, on the steep slopes of a mountain range and 120 mi/195 km northwest of San Jose, is home to rare and unusual wildlife, including jaguars and pumas, although the thick vegetation and daily mists from which the reserve takes its name can make viewing them difficult.
Among the 450 species of birds in the reserve are emerald toucanets and the aptly named resplendent quetzal. Listen for the call of the three-wattled bellbird, which emits a loud metallic "bonk" in the ear of a potential mate. The best birding occurs September-April when many birds are migratory.
Getting to Monteverde used to be tough: You had to spend several hours on dreadful roads. However, the paved road now continues to the town of Guacimal, and plans are in place to finish it all the way to Santa Elena. An extended stay is a good idea in high season (December-May), because you may have to wait a few hours to be admitted to the park. (The number of people allowed in is limited.)
The hiking trails in the reserve are excellent but sometimes muddy. Take rain gear, as well as warm clothing in any season.
The community of Monteverde, near the reserve, is an interesting stop. It was founded in the early 1950s by American Quakers who were attracted to Costa Rica because of its lack of an army. The Quakers built a cheese factory in this pleasant town and have taken charge of maintaining the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and raising funds for its expansion. If you visit the cheese factory, you can try all the local specialties, including the beloved Palmito cheese. (If not, you can purchase Monteverde cheese in almost any market.) There are also coffee plantations that offer tours.
Comfortable accommodations, including a wide range of alpine lodges, are available, but be sure to book well in advance. It can be difficult to get around Monteverde because of its mountainous terrain, but taxis (all four-wheel-drive vehicles) are easily accessible and affordable.
The main village is Santa Elena, about 1 mi/2 km below Monteverde, which is actually a community of widely dispersed individual homes. Most services and facilities are in Santa Elena, which has some of the more interesting attractions locally. Our favorite is the serpentarium, displaying all manner of snakes. The local community operates the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, with all the same species (plus spider monkeys) as the more popular Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Nearby Selvatura offers several attractions, including a rain-forest canopy walk plus the Jewels of the Rainforest insect collection.
Small businesses have sprung up to cater to the influx of travelers. The businesses tend to be environmentally and culturally sensitive—from a gallery specializing in hummingbird art and feeders to cooperatives selling local women's needlework to a small butterfly garden.
Guided tours, including group tours in English and Spanish and early morning bird watching tours, are available most days. To get to the reserve, take a bus from Santa Elena's Banco National, which leave at 6:15 am, 7:20 am and 1:15 pm, or take a taxi. Toll-free phone 888-456-3212. http://www.monteverdeinfo.com.
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