Set atop the spine of Costa Rica’s continental divide, Monteverde is a world above the coastal towns that dot the country's famous shoreline. It is a place of cloud forests and coffee plantations, monkeys, mist, and friendly locals. The town of Santa Elena is small and quaint, filled with tasty restaurants and folksy artisan shops, while the nearby rainforest hosts a remarkable amount of biodiversity.
Due to its high altitude – some 4,662 ft (1,440 m) above sea level – Monteverde is privileged to receive a steady supply of clouds and the life-giving moisture that they contain. This moisture, often in the form of fog, catches on the branches of the tallest trees and drips down to the other organisms below. This helps to support a complex and far-reaching ecosystem, one that harbors over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, tens of thousands of insect species, and over 2,500 varieties of plants, 420 of which are orchids alone.
Visitors can explore this internationally recognized environment from trails and trams, along canopy tours or inside museums. It’s wise to plan on spending at least a few days to adventure through this verdant and mountainous world.
MONTEVERDE'S CLOUD FORESTSOften taking the form of fog, these clouds hover around the upper canopy of the forest before condensing onto the leaves of trees and dripping onto the plants below.
Understandably, the sun has a hard time breaking through this thick veil of clouds. This causes a slower rate of evaporation and thus provides the plants with a bounty of life-giving moisture. This moisture helps to promote a huge amount of biodiversity, particularly within the type of plants known as epiphytes.
These plants grow on other plants (including trees) non-parasitically, collecting their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris that surround them. Common examples include lichens, orchids and bromeliads, all of which are abundant in Monteverde. Cloud forests also tend to host a large number of endemic species, as their unique climates and specialized ecosystems create habitats that are not found anywhere else on Earth.
Climate change is expected to seriously alter the nature of these forests. Models suggest that the low-level cloud coverage will be reduced, and as a result, temperatures will go up. This could cause the forests’ hydrological cycle to change and potentially even dry up. This alarming theory gives traveler’s all the more reason to act in environmentally responsible ways both at home and abroad.
Monteverde’s two cloud forest reserves provide visitors with a wealth of opportunity to explore, adventure, and learn about these wonderful ecosystems.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was established in 1972 and initially covered some 810 acres (328 ha) of forested land. Nowadays, its protective reach extends over 35,089 acres (14,200 ha) and encompasses eight life zones atop the Continental Divide. There are over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles living within its bounds. It’s one of the few remaining habitats that support all six species of the cat family – jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis – as well as the endangered three-wattled bellbird and resplendent quetzal. Over 8 miles (13 km) of trails are available for visitors to explore on their own or with a guide.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve was established in 1989 and is managed and operated by the community of Santa Elena. It was one of the first reserves in the country to be directly controlled by the local community (as opposed to a government agency), and is an excellent example of what people can do to both preserve and learn from their immediate environment. It has a similar sampling of plants and animals as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve; however, it also acts as a habitat for spider monkeys, which the Monteverde Reserve does not. Its 765 acres (310 ha) host trails ranging from 1-3 miles (1-5 km) in length, as well as an observation tower that affords fantastic views of the Arenal Volcano on days that it is clear.