The technical definition of a cloud forest is not universally agreed upon but in general terms it refers to tropical or subtropical mountainous regions where conditions allow for consistent cloud cover. This causes significant moisture to condense on the canopy which in turns drips to the plants below. These important ecosystems occupy approximately 1% of the earth’s surface and are home to an immense diversity of unique flora and fauna, many species of which can be found nowhere else.
The Monteverde area is one location where cloud forests thrive, and provide some of the best opportunities to experience these productive ecosystems firsthand. There are currently four reserves in the area which have various levels of protection. The Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves are the most well known but there are also the private Curi-Cancha Reserve and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in the area which are well worth exploring.
For our first hike we chose the Curi-Cancha Reserve ($14 USD entrance fee) which is lesser known, but it contains a mix of primary and secondary forests in the lower reaches, which allows for good viewpoints.
As you venture further into the reserve you encounter mainly primary forest and gradually reach slightly higher altitudes.
We had chosen to hire a local professional guide for our first hike and we would recommend this whenever you can. All of the guides we have encountered in Costa Rica have been knowledgeable, professional and extremely proud of the biodiversity of their country. Rafael was no exception and we would have missed so much without him.
As you are walking through the forest there are many sounds and to the untrained ear most are indistinguishable. We have done quite a bit of birding but when we are in a new area are still unable to determine the species we are hearing. Additionally, trained guides like Rafael are able to imitate almost every bird and animal sound in the forest which can draw them close out of curiosity or to see who is encroaching on their territory.
One of the birds we were interested in seeing was a resplendent quetzal which is one of the reasons many people travel to Monteverde. We heard one off in the distance, but even after repeated calling Rafael was not able to get us close to it. We did see several three-wattled bellbirds whose distinctive appearance and call are unmistakable. This species has the loudest call of any on earth and can be heard for over a kilometer.
We spent about 4 hours on the trails of the reserve and with Rafael’s assistance we were able to identify over 40 species of birds of which nearly half were life time sightings for us. Of equal enjoyment was the great exercise in a wondrous natural setting and all that we learned of the cloud forests from Rafael. We arrived back at the parking lot just as the rain began.
For our next hike we chose the Monteverde Cloud Biological Forest Reserve ($20 USD entrance fee) and decided to do the hike without a guide. We wanted to take our time, explore the trails and we were comfortable enough to at least hear and spot the birds and animals along the way. As well, we wanted to use the opportunity to stand astride to Continental Divide which runs through this reserve. If we were fortunate enough to spot a quetzal then that would be an added bonus.
Since we weren’t going to be with a guide we gathered as much information as we could at the main entrance. As it turned out there was a quetzal nesting area just 100 m from the entrance and we headed there straight away. We were treated to the unforgettable sight of both a male and a female feeding a young chick in a nesting box. It was a remarkable experience and one that will always remain with us. Unfortunately the sun was directly behind them so we weren’t able to get any shots as spectacular as the one we featured above.
We set out on the 2 km long Sendero Bosque Nubosa trail that gradually winds upwards through some magnificent vegetation with very scenic viewpoints. We met few people along the way and the scents, sounds and visual features of the forest placed us in a very primeval setting, far away from the modern world.
At the end of the trail we took another short path further upwards to La Ventana look-off which is astride the Continental Divide. From this panoramic viewpoint at an elevation of around 1280 m you are able to look across both the Caribbean and Pacific slopes. The vegetation is remarkably different at this point with stunted trees and forests sculpted by the winds giving way to the giants of the cloud forests below.
The trail system within the park is very well marked and maintained. Given the amount of rain within the reserve it is obvious that a lot of care and attention has been given to keep the surfaces reasonably dry, even and very easy for walking. As we gradually descended along a different route the feeling of being in a different time remained with us until we arrived back at the entrance.
During our time in the reserve we identified 15 different species of birds, including 5 life time species. Compared with the number of species identified with a guide, this is quite low, however we felt that we did not miss too many and were able to spend as much time relaxing along the way as we wanted to.
There is a very reasonably priced ($1.50 USD) bus service to and from the reserve which we took back into town in the early afternoon rain. While we were waiting we took the time to go across the street from the entrance to a fabulous hummingbird feeding area which is free of charge. There were at least 50+ hummingbirds there and if you stood still around the feeders you could actually feel them buzzing by your head. Their colours are exquisite and we could have spent hours there!
We were very satisfied with both of our cloud forests hikes and they solidified for us the main reason for visiting Monteverde area. The unique flora and fauna, the spectacular habitats and vistas all combine with the friendly and proud residents of the cloud forests to create an experience like nowhere else in this country with so many memorable areas. We’re already looking forward to another visit in the future.