Bordering the Monteverde Reserve is the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. This 310-hectare (765 acre) stretch of land was originally intended to be used for agricultural research and education in the area. This plan ultimately failed as the land proved to be unfit for farming and in 1989 it was converted into a protected cloud forest reserve. Together with Youth Challenge International, a Canadian based non-profit organization, the community of Santa Elena established an ecotourism reserve which was opened to the public in 1992.
The beautiful Santa Elena Cloud Forest is one of the first community administered reserves in the country. Instead of being a national park, it is protected by the Arenal Conservation Area. The community of Santa Elena decided to establish the reserve in order to preserve the cloud forest and use tourism as a means of sustainable economic development. Proceeds from entrance fees, guided tours and the gift shops are reinvested in the preservation and management of the cloud forest reserve. They are also used towards local educational programs. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is excellent example of how a community can promote long-term sustainability that does not concern only the reserve, but the community as a whole.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest is located on the Caribbean side of the Continental Divide in the Tilaran Mountains. It is cloudier and wetter than Monteverde because of its higher elevation. Warm North-Easterly trade winds, filled with moisture, blow in over the Caribbean. As they sweep up the Continental Divide, they cool and condense, forming large clouds that fall upon the Santa Elena Cloud Forest in a constant soft mist.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is Monteverde’s less-visited sister, making it a great spot to observe typical flora and fauna of the Monteverde region, like the Resplendent Quetzal and Three-Toed Sloths. It is home to 400 bird species, 121 mammal species, 140 reptile and amphibian species, 800 different kinds of trees and 3,000 vascular plants.
Other residents of the reserve include Jaguars, Vampire Bats, the highly intelligent, white-faced Capuchin Monkey and the Collared Pecary, a small mammal that resembles a pig. One of the most famous residents of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve you cannot miss seeing is the Mantled Howler Monkey.
Home to boisterous howler monkeys, Santa Elena is one of the best places to hear and see these loud mammals. At night, one may be able to hear them from up to 3 miles away! The monkeys howl in order to communicate with other group members, as well as to mark territory so that other monkey groups do no stray into their area. Mantled Howler Monkeys have beards and long, thick hair which may be black, brown or red in order to blend in with the trees. They also have long tails that are used as a third arm to cling onto trees. Make sure to look for them up in the trees as they are rarely on the ground.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is open from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM every day of the year. There are four guided nature walks a day (available in English and Spanish) that start at 7:30 am, 9:00 am, 11:30 am and 1:00pm, as well as night tours. Santa Elena also has various trails and an observation tower, which visitors can explore on their own. At the entrance, there is a restaurant and gift shop with bathroom facilities.
Make sure to go hiking while you’re at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. There is a system of well-maintained trails that are great for all levels. We recommend that you bring a good pair of steady shoes that you do not mind getting wet or a pair of hiking boots. There are five trails as well as an observation tower as well where you can see the Arenal, Tenorio, Miravalles and Ricon de Vieja volcanoes on clear days, and even the Nicoya Golf! This is a unique feature of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, making it a must-see during your vacation in Costa Rica.
There are over 12 km of trails you can explore. They are more natural than the trails in Monteverde, which makes them a bit trickier to hike. If you plan your day out right, you can visit all five of them. Are you up for the challenge!?
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Hiking Trails
- Sendero de Desafío de Juventud: The mile long “Youth Challenge Trail” takes about an hour to complete. It is the easiest and fastest trail to hike in the reserve. The Youth Challenge Trail is great for birdwatching, and volcano observation on clear days. There is an observation tower at the end of the trail with stunning views of Arenal Volcano and other natural landmarks on clear days. If you want to see the volcano, make sure to get to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve early before fog and mist roll in, obstructing the view of the surrounding area.
- Sendero Caño Negro: The 3 mile (4.8 km) “Black Canyon Trail” takes about three and half hours to complete. It loops around the Santa Cloud Forest Reserve, making it the longest trail in the reserve. It is a reasonably demanding walk with steep ups and downs. You can see lots of wildlife on this trail.
- Sendero Encantado: The 2.1 mile (1.4 km) “Enchanted Trail” takes about two and half hours to complete. It is a great trails for birdwatching and wildlife view. If you´re lucky you might even see a Resplendent Quetzal or a Howler Monkey!
- Sendero El Bajo: The 1.6 mile (2.6km) Del Bajo Trail takes about one and half hours to complete. It goes through a second-growth forest with a variety of birds.
- Sendero Mundo Joven: The 0.3 (0.48) “Young World” Trail is a great option for families as it only takes ten minutes to complete.
Do not miss out the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. With 10 percent of the amount of travelers in Monteverde, it is a great spot to go on quiet and smaller tour, or simply enjoy the serenity of this beautiful cloud forest.