Mist-shrouded trees laden with bromeliads, vines and thick mosses stretch hundreds of feet into a thick forest canopy perpetually covered by clouds where thousands of acres of primary forest give way to a Quaker community. Strung between huge areas of protected cloud forest, you can find the Tico village of Santa Elena and the Quaker settlement of Monteverde.
Monteverde’s history dates back to the beginning of the last century, when the first Costa Rican families arrived at the area. The terrain was nearly inaccessible at that time. They started to plant Costa Rica’s signature crop, coffee, as well as sugar cane, beans, corn and plantains. In the 1950s, the Quakers arrived.
A group of Americans, who were escaping prison sentences imposed for draft evasion, had become disillusioned with government policy back home and decided to settle somewhere else. Because Costa Rica had recently abolished their armed forces, they chose to explore this Central American country. They eventually found what they were looking for in Monteverde. The Quakers started to protect large tracts of forest in order to preserve their source of water and shortly after, the first “technical tourists” arrived: biologists and foreign students attracted by the abundant, unique wildlife. They spread the word about Montverde’s uniqueness and soon after, restaurants and lodges started to appear in order to cater for the tourists’ needs. With the tourism boom, many Costa Rican families who lived near the Monteverde Reserve moved to outlying areas in order to continue their agricultural traditions.
Nowadays, Monteverde still preserves the flavor of yesteryear. After making their way up to the area on the still unpaved dirt road, visitors can find old farms that seem to be lost in time and their original infrastructure still intact. Tourists can thus garner a vivid cultural experience here, with a focus on sustainable tourism. At the same time, both towns offer a variety of hotels, restaurants and attractions. You can find internet cafés, banks, medical service and tourist information here.
The area protects around 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of forest. Monteverde is home to more than 100 species of mammals, 120 species of reptiles and amphibians and over 2,500 species of plants. Flower lovers will find 420 different kinds of orchids. Exotic creatures roam the lush forests, including jaguars, ocelots, and the rare Resplendent Quetzal.
The Monteverde area consists of three non-profit nature reserves:
Monteverde Reserve is one of the most famous cloud forest reserves in the world as well as one of the most important protected areas in Costa Rica. The reserve provides a life sanctuary of over 4000 hectares of cloud and rain forest where visitors can find a surprising biodiversity due to the unique geographic, topographic and climatic conditions in the area.
Santa Elena Reserve is one of the first reserves managed by the local community. Opened in 1992 with the help of a Canadian non-profit organization, the Costa Rican government and the Santa Elena community, the reserve consists of an area of 310 hectares. The philosophy behind the reserve is that long term sustainability is not only the concern of the reserve but also the community as a whole. Proceeds from entrance fees, guided tours and the souvenir shop are either reinvested in management of the reserve or used to help upgrade technology and fund courses in environmental education, biology, agriculture, languages and tourism at a local high school, which uses the reserve as a natural class for students and teachers.
The Children’s Eternal Rainforest (Bosque Eterno de los Niños) is the largest private reserve in Costa Rica. Owned by the Monteverde Conservation League, it protects an area of 22,500 hectares of tropical forest. The Monteverde Conservation League is a private, non-profit association that was established by Monteverde community members in 1986 out of concern for the threatened forest in the Tilarán Mountains. Around the same time, a fourth grade teacher, Eha Kern, and her class from Sweden learned of their efforts and joined in by raising money to contribute to the purchase of threatened rain forest. Since then, children and adults from over 40 countries have raised money. It is named Children’s Eternal Rainforest in honor of all the children who have contributed to its protection.
All three reserves offer excellent hiking opportunities. If you want to spot animals, you have better chances doing this by joining a tour with an experienced guide who points out the animals for you. All reserves offer twilight and night tours with trained guides. This is a great opportunity to see the wildlife as many animals are nocturnal. For most tours you need to make a reservation beforehand.
Monteverde is also famous as a birding area. It is possible to spot birds throughout the area, with or without guides, even though chances might be better with an experienced guide. Professional birding tours often stop at Monteverde. In fact, one of Costa Rica’s famous Christmas bird counts takes place annually in Monteverde.
Next to hiking in the nature reserves, there are other hiking possibilities in the area.
Cerro Amigos is the highest point in the area (1.842 meters) and offers excellent views of the surrounding cloud forests. On a clear day, you can see Arenal Volcano as well as the pacific coast. This free hike takes around three hours. Go early in the morning as the weather is more likely to be clear.
San Luis Waterfall
The San Luis Waterfall is approximately 10 km away from Santa Elena. Visitors can either choose to hike the full distance or drive up to the San Luis Research Station (www.ecolodgesanluis.com), from where the hike takes around 45 minutes. Visitors get to see a beautiful 150-meter waterfall with a pond nestled in primary cloud forest.
Monteverde was one of the first areas to offer canopy tours in combination with sustainable tourism. Many local companies offer zip-line tours, suspended bridges in the forest canopy, and much more.