Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth. And one of the best ways to explore its natural heritage is by taking a road trip across some of the country’s National Parks. Driving in Costa Rica is easy and there is plenty to see along the way.
We rented a car at Liberia airport and set a course for the Continental Divide for some wildlife watching in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Monteverde is a spectacular spot, whether you are looking for wildlife, fairytale-like rainforest or adventure activities like zip-lining. In my opinion, it is one of the must-visit destinations in the country. So even if you only have a week or ten days in Costa Rica, try to include a visit to Monteverde in your itinerary. You won’t regret it!
Las Pumas Wildlife Rescue Center
We had half a day to get to Monteverde, so we took our time stopping first at Las Pumas Wildlife Rescue Center and then at a waterfall along the way for an afternoon swim.
Las Pumas was on our itinerary because it houses five out of six Costa Rica’s wild cats: Jaguar, Puma, Jaguarundi, Ocelot, and Margay. It was a good opportunity to have a close look at the cats since the chances of spotting most of them in the wild were pretty slim.
Inevitably, I fell in love with a margay that lounged in its enclosure in such a relaxed manner that it appeared to have melted down the branch it was lying on.
Back on the road we soon reached the foothills of Costa Rica’s continental divide and as the road started to climb the scenery began to change quite dramatically.
The rural countryside was replaced with lush green forest, cloaked in low hanging clouds and fog. The road clung to the sides of mountains and the edges of deep canyons where clouds hung below the level of the road. The air became much cooler, which was a welcome relief.
By the time we arrived in Monteverde, it was already dark. Thankfully the owner of the Airbnb cottage we rented – Casa Inspiracion, provided us with very detailed driving instructions, so we found the house reasonably quickly.
It was too late to go on a night walk and we opted for a quick dinner in town and a shopping trip to the local grocer for breakfast ingredients.
While most of Costa Rica enjoys a balmy tropical climate, Monteverde is located at the top of Costa Rica’s Continental Divide at 1,500 meters of elevation and it gets quite cold, especially in the evenings. Driving from the sea level and arriving in Monteverde after dark, we were quite unprepared for the frosty evening temperature and shivered in our shorts and flip flops while we waited for some take-out food in town.
Casa Inspiracion is a cozy little house perched on a forested piece of land and surrounded by spectacular mountainous scenery. The owner will cook dinner if you have enough Spanish to give her a call and place an order. Otherwise, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in town.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
A cloud forest is a fascinating, almost mystical environment. So here are some facts about these misty forests.
What is the cloud forest?
A cloud forest is a tropical or subtropical evergreen montane forest characterized by canopy-level cloud cover and consequently low level of sunlight. Without sufficient sunlight, moisture from the clouds gets trapped by the vegetation and condenses into fog.
Cloud forests are characterized by the shorter trees with gnarled trunks and branches and by the abundance of mosses covering almost every surface. These mist-shrouded mossy forests represent only 1% of the global forest cover.
Apart from Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, you can see cloud forest at the top of Poas Volcano and in various pockets along the top of Costa Rica’s Dividing Range (mountain range running through the middle of Costa Rica).
What is the difference between a cloud forest and a rainforest?
The main difference between a rainforest and a cloud forest is that the former forms at low elevation and the latter, at a higher elevation above sea level. Consequently, rainforests tend to be warmer than cloud forests.
In terms of appearance, the rainforests are dominated by taller trees with straight trunks, while the trees in the cloud forests tend to be shorter and have gnarled and twisted trunks and branches.
Cloud forests are much more humid environments, characterized by persistent fog, thick moss hanging off tree branches and an extraordinary abundance of epiphytes, like orchids and bromeliads.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Animals
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to an astonishing diversity of plants and animals, about 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, to be precise. There are approximately 3,000 different plant species, over 100 mammal species, 400 species of birds and 161 species of amphibians and reptiles.
More than half of Monteverde cloud forest mammals are made up of bats. There are at least 58 different species of bats here. All five species of Costa Rica’s wild cats occur in Monteverde: ocelot, margay, oncilla, puma, jaguar and jaguarundi, as well as three species of primates, over 15 species of long-tailed rats and mice, tapir, peccaries, coatis, rabbits and squirrels to name a few.
Monteverde birds include the magnificent Resplendent quetzal, toucans and toucanets, hummingbirds and a number of raptors.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
In the morning, following a delicious homemade breakfast, we headed to Santa Elena Reserve for a hike in the cloud forest.
The scenery in the cloud forest was quite magic, though it wasn’t particularly cloudy. In fact, it happened to be such a clear day that we were lucky enough to get clear views of Arenal Volcano from the viewing platform, which doesn’t happen very often. A visit to Arenal Volcano is one of the most popular things to do in La Fortuna, but since we were not going there, it was a nice perk to see the volcano from a distance.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to a spectacular abundance of wildlife. However, cloud forest animals are difficult to spot – the thick forest conceals them from sight, and not surprisingly we didn’t see much on our hike through the forest. We heard a few birds, but the only one we actually saw was the Black Guan. Probably simply because it’s a very large bird and it makes a lot of noise.
There are, of course, some White-nosed coatis scraping in the leaf litter at the visitor centre’s car park.
Most Monteverde animals stay concealed during the day and emerge only after the sun has set. There is a video monitor at the visitor centre that plays footage from the camera traps in the area, and I was happy to see a puma selfie.
There are plenty of fun things to do in Monteverde, but since we only had one full day in the area, we concentrated on wildlife watching hotspots.
Hummingbird Gallery in Monteverde
After a very late lunch, we headed to Monteverde Reserve, to the Hummingbird Gallery. We hoped to spot an Olingo, but it didn’t show.
The hummingbirds, however, were out in force. Being there in that tiny garden surrounded by dozens upon dozens of tiny brilliantly coloured birds, that beat their wings too fast for a human eye to see, was absolutely awe-inspiring. There are 14 different species of hummingbirds that visit the gallery, although we were only able to identify half a dozen of them.
We were surrounded by Violet saberwing, Green-crowned brilliant, Stripe-tailed hummingbird, Coppery-headed emerald, Purple-throated mountain gem, Steely-vented hummingbird, Green violet-ear and a few Bananaquits.
Monteverde wildlife on a Night walk
I would’ve liked to stay at the gallery longer to see what animals visit the feeders at night, but it was closing and we also had to rush to join the spotlighting walk that we booked with Kinkajou night walk outfit in town.
The night walk should’ve been the perfect opportunity for wildlife watching in Monteverde, but in reality, it was quite disappointing. The reserve was very crowded and the guides were uninterested. As a result, we only saw two mammals: Two-toed sloth and Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine.
The dwarf porcupine, however, is a very curious creature. Unlike Asia’s porcupines that are rather clumsy and live on the ground, the Mexican porcupine is an agile climber with a prehensile tail. Also, unlike the impressive quills of the terrestrial porcupines, the spines of the Mexican porcupine are short and only visible on its head. The rest of the spines are covered with long black fur on its body.
Apart from mammals, we spotted a pair of Stripe sided palm pit vipers, an exquisite Eyelash viper, Speckled racer, Red-eyed stream frog, and Emerald tucanet, or rather a barely identifiable part of one and a magnificent Tarantula – one of the more striking Monteverde animals.
The following morning, we woke up to the views of a thick blanket of fog hanging low over the mountains. That was the weather much more typical of a cloud forest. Our drive down the mountain, on the way back to the Pacific coast, was interrupted by frequent stops to photograph or simply enjoy the spectacular scenery.
Here is the list of wildlife species we observed during our brief time at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Visiting in Monteverde
How to get to Monteverde
You can visit the Reserve on an organized day tour from San Jose or Liberia. Most tour agencies will have some options.
To visit the park independently and allow yourself more time for exploration, it is best to rent a car. It is an easy 3hr drive from San Jose via Route 27 or a 2.5hr drive from Liberia via Route 1.
There is also a public bus service from San Jose to Santa Elena town that departs twice a day (6.30 am and 2.30 pm). From Santa Elena, you can take a taxi to the reserve.
Where to stay in Monteverde
There are a number of lodges and resorts on the road leading to Monteverde, with Trapp Family Lodge located the closest to the Reserve entrance. You can even stay in a treehouse for something different!
If you are travelling with a group, renting a house on Airbnb might be a better alternative. We stayed at the lovely Casa Inspiracion and thoroughly enjoyed the experience
Or you can stay within the reserve at Monteverde’s own La Casona lodge if you don’t mind simple lodgings.
Tours and Attractions nearby
If you have more time at Monteverde, consider checking out these attractions and activities
- Monteverde Orchid Garden
- Bread making in the forest experience
- Authentic Farm experience in Monteverde
- Mega Mix Adventure Tour – ziplining and rappelling
- Selvatura Park Hanging Bridge
More on Costa Rica
- 25 Landmarks in Costa Rica to Add to Your Bucket List
- Road trip: Costa Rica Wildlife & National Parks
- Whale watching in tranquil Drake Bay, Costa Rica
- Corcovado National Park: 3 days of spotting wildlife including Costa Rican puma
- Spotting Wildlife in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica
- Exploring Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica
- Wildlife of La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica
- Tirimbina Lodge: wildlife, rainforest and Costa Rica’s longest suspended bridge
- Costa Rica’s Continental Divide and Poas Volcano
- Wild Adventure of Getting to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica