Disneyland, Only Damper – Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Costa Rica

Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, one of Costa Rica’s most hyped and popular destinations, was a disappointment–primarily because it’s one of Costa Rica’s most hyped and popular destinations which makes it a bit like Disneyland, only damper.

trail Monteverde Cloud Forest National Park, Costa Rica

Karen on one of a handful of trials open to visitors to Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.

What started out as a right-headed attempt to protect one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth has “developed,” largely unchecked, into something that looks and feels like Disneyland, only damper.

Santa Elena, the main town servicing the reserve, is a jumble of sushi joints and Italian restaurants (though we were grateful for our awesome meal at Pizzeria Tramonti). Then there are the wall-to-wall serpentariums and ranariums with captive snakes and frogs on display amidst tacky gimmicks only outdone by the souvenir shops hawking shot glasses and beer bottle openers and t-shirts and overpriced bags of coffee.

It wasn’t always this way.

Before the tourists trampled Monteverde

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve was pioneered by Quakers and the park, which is now administered by the Centro Cientifico Tropical (CCT), created in 1972 to keep development from spreading unchecked. Only 3% of the 1,000 acre (4,000 hectare) park is open to visitors. That’s great since it truly protects the lion’s share of the park. That’s bad because the tens of thousands of people who visit the park every year are crammed into a very, very small area on just a handful of trails.

hummingbirds Monteverde cloud forest national park, Costa Rica

These hummingbirds are just one of the more than 400 species of birds that are seen in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.

The reserve is home to 100 species of mammals, more than 400 species of birds have been sighted, 120 different amphibians and reptiles, tens of thousands of insects and 3,000 species of plants including 500 different orchids, the highest diversity in the world. However, human traffic has surely caused any wild animal with half a brain to retreat to the other 97% of the park by now.

sloth Monteverde cloud forest national park, Costa Rica

A sloth and a baby (we think) seen in a gorge off a trail in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.

Like all parks and nature reserves in Costa Rica, admission is steep–US$17 per person and that does not include a guide (not required) or transportation from Santa Elena to Monteverde. Tour operators in town quoted us anywhere from US$36 to US$55 per person for transport, admission, and a guide. One good thing is that your US$17 admission is valid for the whole day so if you want to visit the park early, when the animals are most active, then return later in the day you can do that.

hummingbird Monteverde cloud forest national park, Costa Rica

In addition to a few miles of trails, Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve also has a large hummingbird habitat with lots of very, very popular feeders.

We spent about three hours in the morning in Monteverde walking most of the well-maintained trails with a guide through clouds (of course) and over a dramatic bridge installed at just about canopy height. It wasn’t until the last half hour that animals appeared and we (and everyone else in the park at that time) log-jammed to set up scopes and train cameras on resplendent quetzal and a two-toed sloth basically next to each other in a gorge off the trail.

Quetzal Monteverde cloud forest national park, Costa Rica

A resplendent quetzal spotted in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.

Your admission to Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve also gets you in to their hummingbird habitat where the brilliant little birds dart alarmingly close to you as they travel back and forth between their favorite feeders.

Hummingbird flying Monteverde cloud forest national park, Costa Rica

The brilliant colors of hummingbirds are caused by refracted light, not pigment. Their feathers actually have no color at all.

Hummingbird in nest Monteverde cloud forest national park, Costa Rica

We came eye to eye with this hummingbird in its nest while crossing a bridge near the canopy in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.

Hummingbird detail Monteverde cloud forest national park, Costa Rica

The brilliant colors of hummingbirds are caused by refracted light, not pigment. Their feathers actually have no color at all.

Something else they don’t tell you about Monteverde

It’s cold and windy in and around Monteverde and Santa Elena. The average annual temperature is 65 degrees. It’s also damp all year-long with peak rain coming in October. The driest month (that term being relative in a cloud forest) is March. We can’t tell you how many tourists we saw wandering around Santa Elena and the reserve shivering in the clothes they packed for the beach.

One activity that seems to hold some promise is the option of horseback riding from Santa Elena to La Fortuna, the town at the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park. The trip takes you through villages and protected land, including the rarely visited Children’s Eternal Rainforest (Bosque Eterno de los Niños in Spanish), the largest private reserve in Costa Rica. However, since it’s a one-way trip we couldn’t do it because it would have meant abandoning our truck in Santa Elena.

Sadly, Monteverde and Santa Elena seem to have been sacrificed to the perpetually hungry gods of tourism. Our advice is to skip it and visit the cloud forest around San Gerardo de Dota instead. You’ll feel like you have the place (and its quetzals and maybe even tapirs) to yourself.

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica


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12 comments on “Disneyland, Only Damper – Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Costa Rica

  1. Totally agreed with you. I lucked out in that the reserve was relatively empty the day I visited, and I stayed in a charming little eco-lodge far removed from the touristy areas (or at least it was back in 1999). But for me, Monteverde pales in comparison to less-visited areas such as the Rio Frio, Tortuguero, Tambor and Tirimbina. But I’m glad to see you got great photos of my favorite Monteverde residents, the Hummingbirds.
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  2. I’m amazed you were able to get that close to the hummingbirds! They are cute little creatures. I didn’t realize the colour of their plumage was caused by the way the light hits them. I learned something new. 😀

  3. Like Bret I visited here about a decade ago, and it wasn’t so busy – although we did get there early morning. We hunted for the elusve quetzal to no avail, only to find one sitting on our transport back when we finished tramping around. Always the way eh 😉

  4. This is very one-sided. LIke all popular destinations, businesses grow and the visitors need restuarants and other services. However, once you get away from the center there are beautiful reserves to hike in, Monteverde has other parks to hike in such as the Santa Elena Reserve, Curi-Cancha and the Children´s Rain Forest,

    There are many tours such as horse riding that take you away from all the tourist attractions and the scenery is simply stunning.

    There is a reason people keep coming up to Monteverde! One can´t judge the whole area by the village of Santa Elena and the Monteverde Reseve. There is so much else to see.

    As for the temperature… yes, of course it is cooler, it is on the top of a mountain but such a break from the hot, humid climates of the beaches. It is great to get away from the heat for a couple of days!

    • Hi Janet and thanks for your comment. As noted in our post we were tempted by some of the trips and tours that take visitors away from the hub bub of Santa Elena, including horseback riding from Santa Elena to La Fortuna via the Children’s Eternal Forest protected area. And we agree that it was great to get away from the heat for a while but we were prepared for it. We noted the number of profoundly underdressed tourists as a way of warning any readers who head to Santa Elena that they’d best pack a sweater. On a related note–we’ve been told that some of the hotels and restaurants that have proliferated in Santa Elena are currently facing very, very difficult times since visitor demand is not sufficient to keep them all in business. It is possible to grow too big, too fast.

  5. Trans-Americas Journey makes it sound like Disney is a bad thing — there is a reason why millions of people visit Disney locations every year — good service and interesting things to see attract people to Disney — Monteverde has grown to accommodate visitors with excellent restaurants, beautiful hotels, better roads and great service. Despite Trans-Americas Journey’s negative spin, Monteverde is still a mystical place — the town, although touristy has its rural, cowboy charm and I always tell people Monteverde doesn’t have vertical rain — it has horizontal rain. Monteverde is great for families and people looking for their eco-fix who can still enjoy guided hikes in the reserves, coffee tours and much more! Adventure seekers can also be wow’d by the amazing canopy zipline tours, horseback riding and other activities because there are now a lot of interesting options to choose from. Costa Rica is lucky because there are other beautiful Cloud Forests, but often with fewer services than Monteverde. There’s something for everyone in Costa Rica. The only thing I’m concerned about is the diminishing amount of rain in the Cloud Forests because of climate change — my advice is to visit ANY Costa Rica Cloud Forest as soon as possible so you can still have a chance to experience the light, horizontal, mystical and yes, damp rain!

    • Thanks for your comment, Christine. As always, our opinions are our own and meant only to offer current information and personal insights to our readers whom we believe are also in search of authentic, off the beaten path experiences that either come with zero hype (off the radar rocks) or surpass the hype. It is our opinion that Monteverde (like Disneyland) does neither. This destination may very well satisfy many, many other travelers. It simply did not satisfy us.

  6. I do always wonder with this kind of place about whether visitor numbers should be limited artificially somehow. The problem that arises then, though, is that businesses won’t get as much income unless the prices go up for everyone. And that creates a bit of a false economy.
    Of course, when the alternative is that there is serious ecological damage, then small town economies are put into comparison.

  7. Costa Rica definitely has some of the most diverse forests. It’s incredible to see all the pictures you got. This is one of the inside looks that I’ve seen that has incredible pictures of the birds that you can see while visiting the forests. Thanks so much for sharing and taking the care to put up great pictures, I felt like I was there or eat least, really really wanted to be there!
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