Though Monteverde gets all the attention, this exquisitely misty 310-hectare reserve, just a fraction of the size of that other forest, has plenty to recommend it. You can practically hear the canopy, draped with epiphytes, breathing in humid exhales as water drops on to the leaf litter and mud underfoot. The odd call of the three-wattled bellbird or low crescendo of a howler monkey punctuates the higher-pitched bird chatter.
While Monteverde Crowd…er…Cloud Forest entertains almost 200,000 visitors annually, Santa Elena sees fewer than 20,000 tourists each year, which means its dewy trails through mysteriously veiled forest are usually far quieter. It’s also much less developed; plus your entry fee is helping support another unique project.
This cloud-forest reserve was created in 1989 and opened to the public in March 1992. It was one of the first community-managed conservation projects in the country, and is now managed by the Santa Elena high school board and bears the quite unwieldy official name of Reserva del Bosque Nuboso del Colegio Técnico Profesional de Santa Elena. You can visit the reserve office at the high school.
The reserve is about 6km northeast of the village of Santa Elena. This cloud forest is slightly higher in elevation than Monteverde, and as some of the forest is secondary growth, there are sunnier places for spotting birds and other animals throughout. There’s a stable population of monkey and sloth, many of which can be seen on the road to the reserve. Unless you’re a trained ecologist, the old-growth forest in Santa Elena will seem fairly similar in appearance to Monteverde, though the lack of cement blocks on the trails means that you’ll have a much more authentic (note: muddy) trekking experience.
This place is moist and almost all the water comes as fine mist, and more than 25% of all the biomass in the forest are epiphytes – mosses and lichens – for which this place is a humid haven. 10% of the species found here aren't found in Monteverde, which is largely on the other side of the continental divide, but both are home to the quetzal. Remember rule No 407 of cloud forests: it’s often cloudy.
There’s a simple restaurant, coffee shop and gift store. Note that all proceeds go toward managing the reserve as well as to environmental-education programs in local schools. Donations are graciously accepted.