The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is a state owned non-profit reserve created in March 1992, in order to help preserve the unique cloud forest surrounding them and to use tourism as a tool to benefit community development, thanks to the help of Youth Challenge International, a Canadian Non-profit Organization, the Costa Rican government and the Santa Elena Community, making it one of the first community managed reserves in the country, located high on the Tilarán Cordillera slopes.
The original vision was to use this land for agricultural research and education. But, for multiple reasons, the farming proved to be unsuccessful, and in 1989, it was decided to convert the land into a cloud forest reserve. The philosophy of this reserve is unique, where long term sustainability is not only a concern of the Reserve, but of the community as a whole, making it an excellent example of what people can do to preserve and learn from their environment.
A cloud forest is a highland forest characterized by nearly 100% humidity throughout the year. Here in the Santa Elena Clod Forest Reserve, warm North-Easterly trade winds, filled with moisture, blow in over the Atlantic. As the winds sweep up to the Continental divide, they cool and condense to form clouds, bathing the forest in a constant soft mist.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is even cloudier and wetter than the Monteverde Reserve because of its higher elevation. Here, the cloud forest receives an incredible 4m (12 ft) of rain every year.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve has 83% of primary forest, with the remainder being mature secondary forest. Birds are less abundant than in Monteverde Reserve, but you can find a wide variety of birds as the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal, Three-wattled Bellbird, and animals such as Red brocket deer (Mazama Rufina), sloths, coaties, ocelots, howler, capuchin and spider monkeys, as well as a wide variety of insects, amphibians and mammals which never even come down to the forest floor, making it a perfect place for hiking, bird watching, volunteering or do some research.
One of the most characteristic features of the reserve is the abundance of vegetation, where competition for growing space is so intense that trunks and branches are almost entirely covered with a variety of lichens, liverworts, bryophytes, mosses and epiphytes, mats store moisture, which is especially important in the dry season (from February to May).
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve trails will take you on an amazing journey of discovery as you blaze your way through the hanging vines and moist vegetation. The reserve has four main trails: the Caño Negro Trail, the longest trail (4.8km – 3.5hrs); the Encantado Trail, excellent for bird watching (3.4km – 2.5hrs); the El Bajo Trail, extends through more secondary growth forest (2.6km – 1.5hrs); and the Youth Challenge Trail, ideal for lookouts (1.4km – 45min), which are more natural and more difficult to walk than those of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. There is also a tower offering beautiful views of 5 Costa Rica volcanoes on a clear day: Arenal, Rincon de la Vieja, Tenorio, Miravalles and Poas, where visitors can even appreciate the Nicaragua Lake, as well as similar habitat and wildlife like the one in Monteverde reserve.
This reserve together with the Children’s Eternal Rainforest (El Bosque Eterno de los Ninos), the Arenal Conservation Area and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, constitute a contiguous conservation area of approximately 28,000 hectares (69,000 acres), with plans to raise funds to buy and restore adjacent farmlands for future inclusion into the Santa Elena Reserve. Conservation efforts in the area are concentrating on establishing forest corridors, so the Resplendent Quetzal, American Pumas, Jaguars, Ocelots and Red Brocket Deer have large territories in which to forage and breed.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is the less visited sister reserve of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Less crowded, lush green forests full of flora and fauna, this reserve boasts one of the best places to hear and see howler monkeys in all of Costa Rica.
The Reserve is administered by the Professional Technical School of Santa Elena. All the profits from entrance fees, guided tours and the souvenir shop are dedicated to help and to give support to the education of Santa Elena’s youth. They are also invested into the development of courses in environmental education, biology, agriculture, language and tourism. In using the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve as a natural classroom, students and teachers harness an unlimited educational resource that can be used for anything from studying tropical plant ecology to leading tours.
At the entrance of the reserve, you can find a visitors center, a restaurant, a souvenir shop, boots for rent, etc. The reserve also has a canopy tour with pulleys and cables running between platforms. Other nearby Costa Rica parks includes Monteverde Biological Clod Forest Reserve.
Getting to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve:
From San Jose take the Pan-American highway North to kilometer 133, then turn right towards Sardinal, 1 km after the Aranjuez River and Cuenca Restaurant, until you reach Santa Elena (about 29 Km). Once you reach Santa Elena, continue for another 6 km following the signs. Now you can also take the new Caldera Highway to Puntarenas and then follow the same directions to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. From Sardinal to Santa Elena, you will need a 4×4 car, even during the dry season, since some 20 km correspond to a gravel road.
From Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR), drive south on the Pan-American Highway through Liberia, Bagaces, Cañas and Las Juntas to Sardinal. Here, turn to the left at the gas station to Santa Elena (about 29 km). Once you reach Santa Elena continue for another 6 km following the signs to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. From Sardinal to Santa Elena, you will need a 4×4 car, even during the dry season, since some 20 km correspond to a gravel road.
Take a bus San Jose – Monteverde, which takes about 5 hours, making the stop at Santa Elena (Transmonteverde S.A, 2222-3854). We recommend buying the ticket the day before to secure your space.
You can also take a bus Puntarenas – Monteverde, which takes about 2 hours (Transmonteverde S.A, 2222-3854). There is also a bus service leaving from downtown Santa Elena to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
Location: 5km (3 miles) north of Santa Elena town, between Puntarenas and Alajuela provinces, Costa Rica.
Santa Elena GPS Coordinates: 10.317369,-84.824386 (10°19’2.53″N, 84°49’27.79″W)
Size: 310 ha (765 acres)
Altitude: from 1,300 m (4,800 ft) to 1,700 m (5,600 ft.).
Schedule: from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. all the year round. Night walks from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (with previous reservation)
Toll Free: 1-888-456-3212
Telephone: +(506) 2479-8811
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192