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Get to Know: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

Even by Costa Rican standards, where rich biodiversity and pristine ecological preserves are practically par for the course, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a cut above. Here, atop the Continental Divide, elfin woodlands give way to an extraordinary alpine jungle where monkeys and jaguars roam wild. The cool air is thick with mist and the haunting melodies of the Americas’ most splendid feathered fauna. The myriad species that make their home here are the result of an incredible conservation history unlike anywhere else on the continent. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

Whether you’re trekking through the canopy on a series of thrilling suspension bridges or meandering the moss-mottled trails 200 feet below, exploring Monteverde will replenish your connection to the wonders of the natural world. After all, who says having your “head in the clouds” has to be a bad thing?

Here’s everything you need to know before you head for Costa Rica's verdant gem.

Where Is Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve?

A blanket of clouds floats over the lush flora and rolling landscape of the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

About a three-hour drive from San José, Costa Rica, the Cloud Forest Reserve is stationed atop the Tilarán mountain range, about 60-some miles from Arenal Volcano, another popular ecotourism destination. It’s named for the nearby town of Monteverde, which was settled in part by Quakers who fled Alabama in the 1950s to avoid the draft. In 1972, they sought to protect the lands above their community by establishing a reserve. Guests on a Lindblad-National Geographic expedition will have the chance to meet and learn from a family member of one of the original Quaker homesteaders.

To date, the Monteverde Reserve Complex—which also includes Bosque Eterno de Los Niños (the Children’s Eternal Rainforest) and the state-run Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve—is one of the most preeminent majority-private conservation efforts, protecting and studying nearly 68,000 acres in total.

What Is a Cloud Forest and Why Is It So Special?

Cloud forests are nature’s original terrariums, where consistent cloud cover creates the effect of a glass cloche. They occur where tropical or subtropical forest meets the mountains, cloaking the canopy in a magical, dreamlike fog. That mist condenses throughout the day, dripping down into the forest's understory (the layer of trees and shrubs between the forest floor and the canopy) where it nourishes a lush, evergreen abundance of life. 

Along with Central America, cloud forests can be found in many other parts of the world from Africa and Australia to Southeast Asia. Unfortunately due to changing climate, the unique atmospheric conditions that enable these forests to form are increasingly rare; they now account for just about one percent of global woodlands, making them all that more special.

Spectacular Flora of the Forest

Plant lovers and photographers alike will rejoice at the extensive number of species found in the reserve, including orchids, yellow jacobinia, and ferns.

Over 3,200 plant species have been found in Monteverde Cloud Forest, and about 10% are endemic to the reserve. To put this into perspective, there are as many as 755 different tree species across seven distinct microclimates, meaning one square mile may contain more tree diversity than the entirety of the United States! The humid climate is also ideal for epiphytes—plants that absorb nutrients from the air—like lichen, bromeliads, certain ferns, and of course, orchids.

More than 450 orchid species bloom throughout the year, including near-microscopic miniature orchids, a personal favorite of Federico Chacón, a naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic. “You’ll see trees completely covered in epiphytes as if they are wearing a coat of plants,” he recalls. “It gets to the point where you’re not sure which leaves belong to the tree and which ones don’t. It’s truly incredible to see.”

The Wildlife of Monteverde Cloud Forest

One of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet, Monteverde is home to more than half the animal species found across Costa Rica; that’s approximately 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity. Visitors are guests in the verdant home of 425 bird species, 600 different kinds of butterflies, and 120 mammal species, like two-toed sloths, agoutis, tapirs, ocelots, and white-faced capuchins. Although these captivating creatures are not so easily found amongst the tangles of dense, old-growth forest, when you explore with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic you'll be accompanied by expert naturalists whose trained eyes and ears will lead the way.

When Is the Best Time to Visit Monteverde Cloud Forest?

December through March make for ideal hiking conditions in the cloud forest.

December through March are the best months to experience this crown jewel of the Costa Rican highlands. The rainy season spans from May until November, when the trade winds break and the mist rolls in. Annual rainfall averages around 118 inches, but the number of annual “dry days”—days without any clouds or major moisture—has risen from about 25 in the 1970s to well over 100 days per year. This may seem to bode well for tourism, but not necessarily in the long term, as it puts the precious wildlife who rely on this rarified habitat at risk. It’s one of few places where researchers have been monitoring weather data for decades, Chacón shares, likening it to “the canary in the mine of global warming.”

What Is the Temperature Like in the Cloud Forest?

In the mountains, temperatures tend to be colder than in the lowland tropics with a mean annual temperature of 64° Fahrenheit. Not only is the cloud forest higher in altitude—about 5,000 feet above sea level—but the consistent cloud cover allows less sunlight to cut through the fog. In the evening, temperatures may drop into the mid-50s, so it’s smart to bring layers and always have a lightweight rain jacket at the ready. It can get quite windy and, even without rain, the humidity hovers between 70-90 percent.

What Is It Like to Explore the Cloud Forest?

Up in the forest's emerald wilds, you might spot species like a Hoffman's two-toed sloth lounging in the canopy.

As word travels about the wonders that await in Monteverde, the Reserve has grown into a major ecotourism destination. Certain popular spots can be busy, but as Chacón put it, “You could easily spend four to seven days and still not experience all there is to offer.” Eight miles of sustainably managed trails enable visitors to hike on their own or with a guide. And the Sky Walk’s suspension bridges and adrenaline-pumping ziplines offer a true birds’-eye view—which is both fun and practical. Many of the most iconic native species are found in the canopy, Chacón explains, which, without the Sky Walk, would be inaccessible beyond the scope of your binoculars.

If you’d rather not subject your wildlife encounters to Mother Nature’s whims, head to one of the many local preservation and research projects. Follow a leafcutter ant colony at the Butterfly Garden, marvel at the high-traffic feeders of the Hummingbird Garden, or visit the indoor Bat Jungle, where the main exhibit reverse-engineers a nocturnal environment during the day, allowing guests to observe the “nightlife” of eight bat species.

Beyond bearing witness, at every turn, there’s a chance to learn from passionate biologists about the remarkable roles these creatures play in sustaining their endangered ecosystem. It’s hard to leave without a renewed dedication to do the same in our own hometowns.