Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves: Birds, Sloths, and Tarantulas, Oh My!

Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves: Birds, Sloths, and Tarantulas, Oh My!

Our guided tour in Monteverde Cloud Forest was scheduled for 7:30am. This is when most tours start there. The early morning is the best time to catch the animals. If we wanted to take the bus to the park we needed to take the first one at 6:15 a.m. Ugh. Most of our friends know that is normally pretty early for us, but it is much easier getting up in the morning in a tropical place. I now get up about 6-6:30 a.m. every morning. I also tend to siesta in the late afternoon. I have to admit it is pretty great.

Image of Emerald Toucanet
Emerald Toucanet

Monteverde’s park is more popular than Santa Elena’s and gets a lot more visitors per year. The park is one of the top attractions in all of Costa Rica. It costs $18 per person for admission. Santa Elena’s park is smaller and doesn’t see as many visitors. That can be a treat because you don’t see many people and means it can be easier to spot animals. It costs $14 to get inside to hike.  Both have several species of plants and animals that do not exist elsewhere in the world.

What is a cloud forest? I wasn’t quite sure what the difference was myself when I first started this adventure. The main difference is elevation. A cloud forest is at just the right altitude that mist actually collects through the woods. We had two gorgeous sunny days to hike in the cloud forests. The temperatures were a little cooler and we couldn’t ask for better weather to see animals. However, I was a little disappointed. I was actually hoping for some crazy, misty, fog that would sweep over the scary, enchanted forest. I think I have seen too many movies. It was probably for the best. I am sure Mark didn’t want to listen to me complaining all day that I was cold and everything was wet.

The Monteverde Park opens at 7am and with our early bus ride we were there in plenty of time. We spent another $20 each in order to get a guided tour. It was well worth the money. As an added bonus we were the only two in this English group, so we basically had a private tour. Mark thought another group of two bailed because they didn’t want to be with the Americans. I disagreed. Either way, it worked out best for us.

Image of Quetzal
We were welcomed by five Quetzals conveniently gathered at the entrance of the park.

Immediately on arriving at the park, we were able to see white face monkeys swinging from the trees. Next, we were lucky enough to see the mythological Quetzal which our guide says is only seen in the front of the park once or twice a year. These birds settle at different altitudes within the park throughout the year and don’t usually get that high up until later in the season. Our guide explained that their long tails were used in head dresses for royalty. Quetzals are very colorful and the majority of people coming to this park are hoping to check this off the list of animals they saw.

Adrian, our tour guide, showed us a variety of other birds using his birding scope.  We took turns looking at the birds up close and getting great pictures through the scope. Other beautiful birds we saw were Black-faced Solitaires, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Brown Wrens, Orange-bellied Torogons, Blue-crowned Motmots and the Emerald Toucanet which is the smallest of all the toucans in the cloud forest. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.

Image of suspension bridge in Monteverde
That’s an awful lot of sun for a cloud forest.

One of the highlights on the hike was a suspension bridge. It was exciting, high and a little scary at the same time because it wobbled a bit with every step. As we were stepping off the bridge we were able to see a Two-toed Sloth up in the trees. Adrian, exclaimed, “Julie, don’t you see it?” To be honest all I saw

Image of Two Toed Sloth
A Two Toed Sloth with insomnia.

was some huge bird’s nest, but as it turns out that was the sloth. It started moving around in the trees and we could all see it. We learned it was rare to see a sloth moving around in the day time. They usually just hang out sleeping in the trees. They eat leaves and branches that are close to them and only come down from the trees once a week to go to the bathroom.  That’s why they are called sloths.

We finished our tour in an area where they have numerous humming bird feeders. It was a research project to track all the different species of humming birds in the area. I believe they have over 20 different types of humming birds all varying in size. Our wonderful guide wanted to make sure he pointed out every variety. They moved so quickly that I could probably watch them for hours.

If you ever find yourself in need of a guide in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, please look Adrian up. He did a great job. We learned several bird calls, signals that certain animals were around and a lot of history of the area. We were even given a demonstration on pollinating an orchid which we both found very fascinating.  This also helped us save money on future hikes because now we knew what we were looking for and listening to while we were hiking in other parks which is really great when you are on a budget.

Image of a Coati
This guy was just a little too used to human contact.

Mark thought he looked like Keanu Reeves sfrom the Matrix with a goatee. He was very friendly and very enthusiastic about what he was doing. Despite his many years of being a guide he was still excited about all the wildlife and specifically helping us get pictures of his favorite bird the Quetzal. He focused more on making sure that we were able to see as many different birds in the park as we could vs. covering more area hiking. Before we left he gave us his email address and asked us to send him some copies of some of our rare finds that day, especially the unheard of playful sloth photos.

After our tour, we planned to eat lunch and then go hike the park on our own. We were visited by some of the park’s coati which are known as a tropical raccoon, but have a tail like a possum. I took a video of the mom playing with her cub. Then, one came over to see what Mark and I had for lunch. The staff shooed them off when they started begging for Pringles.

The next day we went to Santa Elena Reserve. In order to go to this park by bus you need a reservation. We simply set it up with the hostel the night before and they picked us up at 8:30am for $4.00 each which included our bus trip home.

Image of Emerald Toucanet
Millipede in Santa Elena

This park was much smaller. We nearly walked the entire park in one day. You could easily do it if you are walking and not stopping to look around on a regular basis. It is pretty steep and there are a lot of stairs. The only reason we didn’t walk the whole park was we were just done with hiking and figured we could use some Taco Taco.

Image of fallen tree in Santa Elena
A fallen tree in Santa Elena. You can see the steps of the old trail still attached to the base of the tree and the new trail leading up on the far right.

The benefit of it not being the most popular park was that we didn’t see too many people while we were hiking. That meant it was quiet with a lot of opportunity to listen for animals. We saw a lot more close up insects on this trip, partly because I was looking for frogs, which I never found in this area. Adrian told me that they don’t come out much during the day up here and that we would need to go on a night hike to see frogs in the cloud forest. He did let me know how to spot them and told me that they were much more active in the day in Manuel Antonio.  We did see a crazy looking millipede with multiple hard circle shells, a walking stick missing two legs and a really huge blue/black bird that I think was a Black Guan.

Image of walking stick
This poor guy had lost a couple of legs but was still soldiering on with the four he had left.

Thanks to Adrian, we didn’t need to get a guide at this park. We were now aware of the different bird calls and how to look in bird holes to find hidden tarantulas. We found out that skill wasn’t really needed when I almost stepped on a huge tarantula right in the middle of one of our trails.

There were two spots on the trails that were my favorites. One was the lookout tower on the youth challenge trail and the other was the lookout point on the main trail that circled the park. The tower was really tall and gave you great views over the mountains to the Pacific. The lookout point actually gave us great views of Arenal volcano and was a great place to stop and have lunch.

Image of The view of Arenal Volcano from Santa Elena
The view of Arenal Volcano from Santa Elena

We had a great day of hiking and ended the day at around 7 miles. In case anyone was wondering, I did pack my pedometer which is how we have been able to track these long hikes. We made it back to our hostel in time for some vino and a nice burrito from Taco Taco. It was a great end to a wonderful day.

18 Responses to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves: Birds, Sloths, and Tarantulas, Oh My!

  1. All I could do is smile with amazement, and think how cool this had to be, these pictures are GREAT, and one more thing, I was thinking today how I miss Julie’s favorite expression around the office HUG! I could hear you saying that Julie has you were having to get up at 6AM. Thanks for the smile you put on my face!

  2. Julie your packing has always impressed me. Didnt think it would take long to figure out your back pack. Quite impressed with your writing skills as well.

  3. One mention of the word tarantula would render them all “lookout” trails! Great report and some keen observations. Sounds like the guide Adrian was put into your life for a reason. Good reading!

  4. Looking forward to going back to Costa Rica and visiting the Arenal area for the first time so love the tips! I must admit though, not so sure if I want to see a tarantula! 🙂 I know it’s crazy, I am NOT a morning person at all either but always up at 6 am there!

    • I think you will be okay in the Arenal area. It is much drier there, so unless you go looking for them I wouldn’t worry too much. It is crazy how vacation time changes your sleep patterns. I get up early, but I go to bed a lot earlier too.

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We're Mark & Julie

We quit our jobs at the end of 2013 to backpack around the world. We're sharing our stories, travel advice and hopefully some inspiration. Read more...

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