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The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve (tel. 2645-5122; www.reservamonteverde.com) is one of the most developed and well-maintained natural attractions in Costa Rica. The trails are clearly marked, regularly traveled, and generally gentle in terms of ascents and descents. The cloud forest here is lush and largely untouched. Still, keep in mind that most of the birds and mammals are rare, elusive, and nocturnal. Moreover, to all but the most trained of eyes, those thousands of exotic ferns, orchids, and bromeliads tend to blend into one large mass of indistinguishable green. However, with a guide hired through your hotel, or on one of the reserve’s official guided 2- to 3-hour hikes, you can see and learn far more than you could on your own. At $18 per person, the reserve’s tours might seem like a splurge, especially after you pay the entrance fee, but I strongly recommend that you go with a guide.

Perhaps the most famous resident of the cloud forests of Costa Rica is the quetzal, a robin-size bird with iridescent green wings and a ruby-red breast, which has become extremely rare due to habitat destruction. The male quetzal also has two long tail feathers that can reach nearly.6m (2 ft.) in length, making it one of the most spectacular birds on earth. The best time to see quetzals is early morning to midmorning, and the best months are February through April (mating season).

Other animals that have been seen in Monteverde, although sightings are extremely rare, include jaguars, ocelots, and tapirs. After the quetzal, Monteverde’s most famous resident used to be the golden toad (sapo dorado), a rare native species. However, the golden toad has disappeared from the forest and is feared extinct. Competing theories of the toad’s demise include adverse effects of a natural drought cycle, the disappearing ozone layer, pesticides, and acid rain.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees, Bromeliads, Monkeys, Hummingbirds . . .

Because the entrance fee to Monteverde is valid for a full day, I recommend taking an early-morning walk with a guide and then heading off on your own either directly after that hike or after lunch. A guide will certainly point out and explain a lot, but there’s also much to be said for walking quietly through the forest on your own or in very small groups. This will also allow you to stray from the well-traveled paths in the park.

A Self-Guided hike through the Reserve

I know I strongly recommend going on a guided tour, but if you’re intent on exploring the reserve on your own, or heading back for more, I suggest starting off on the Sendero El Río (River Trail) ★★. This trail, which heads north from the reserve office, puts you immediately in the midst of dense primary cloud forest, where heavy layers of mosses, bromeliads, and epiphytes cover every branch and trunk. This very first section of trail is a prime location for spotting a Resplendent Quetzal.

After 15 or 20 minutes, you’ll come to a little marked spur leading down to a catarata, or waterfall. This diminutive fall fills a small, pristine pond and is quite picturesque, but if you fail in your attempts to capture its beauty, look for its image emblazoned on postcards at souvenir stores all around the area. The entire trek to the waterfall should take you an hour or so.

From the waterfall, turn around and retrace your steps along the River Trail until you come to a fork and the Sendero Tosi (Tosi Trail). Follow this shortcut, which leads through varied terrain, back to the reserve entrance.

Once you’ve got the River Trail and waterfall under your belt, I recommend a slightly more strenuous hike to a lookout atop the Continental Divide. The Sendero Bosque Nuboso (Cloud Forest Trail) ★ heads east from the reserve entrance. As its name implies, the trail leads through thick, virgin cloud forest. Keep your eyes open for any number of bird and mammal species, including toucans, trogans, honeycreepers, and howler monkeys. Some great specimens of massive strangler fig trees are on the trail. These trees start as parasitic vines and eventually engulf their host tree. After 1.9km (1.2 miles), you will reach the Continental Divide. Despite the sound of this, there’s only a modest elevation gain of some 65m (213 ft.).

A couple of lookout points on the Divide are through clearings in the forest, but the best is La Ventana (The Window) ★, just beyond the end of this trail and reached via a short spur trail. Here you’ll find a broad, elevated wooden deck with panoramic views. Be forewarned: It’s often misty and quite windy up here.

On the way back, take the 2km (1.2-mile) Sendero Camino (Road Trail). As its name implies, much of this trail was once used as a rough all-terrain road. Since it is wide and open in many places, this trail is particularly good for bird-watching. About halfway along, you’ll want to take a brief detour to a suspended bridge ★. Some 100m (330-ft.) long, this midforest bridge gives you a bird’s-eye view of the forest canopy. The entire loop should take around 3 hours.

Admission, Hours & Tours -- The reserve is open daily from 7am to 4pm, and the entrance fee is $20 for adults and $10 for students and children. Because only 220 people are allowed into the reserve at any one time, you might be forced to wait. Most hotels can reserve a guided walk and entrance to the reserve for the following day for you, or you can get tickets in advance directly at the reserve entrance.

Some of the trails can be very muddy, depending on the season, so ask about current conditions. Before venturing into the forest, have a look around the information center. Several guidebooks are available, as well as posters and postcards of some of the reserve’s more famous animal inhabitants.

Night tours of the reserve leave every evening at 6:15pm. The cost is $17, including admission to the reserve, a 2-hour hike, and, most important, a guide with a high-powered searchlight. For an extra $5, they’ll throw in round-trip transportation to and from your area hotel.

Other Attractions in Monteverde

It seems as if Monteverde has an exhibit or attraction dedicated to almost every type of tropical fauna. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but I really wish these folks would band together and offer some sort of general pass. However, as it stands, you’ll have to shell out for each individual attraction.

Butterflies abound here, and the long-established Monteverde Butterfly Garden ★ (tel. 2645-5512; www.monteverdebutterflygarden.com), located near the Pensión Monteverde Inn, displays many of Costa Rica’s most beautiful species. Aside from seeing the hundreds of preserved and mounted butterflies, you can watch live butterflies in the garden and greenhouse. The garden is open daily from 8:30am to 4pm, and admission, including a guided tour, is $15 for adults, $10 for students, and $5 for kids ages 4 to 6. If you can, visit between 9 and 11am, when the butterflies tend to be most active.

If your taste runs toward the slithery, you can check out the informative displays at the Herpetarium Adventures ★ (tel. 2645-6002) in Saing Elena. It’s open daily from 9am to 8pm and charges $13 for adults, $11 for students and $8 for children.

The Bat Jungle ★★★ (tel. 2645-7701; www.batjungle.com) provides an in-depth look into the life and habits of these odd flying mammals. A visit here includes several different types of exhibits, from skeletal remains to a large enclosure where you get to see various live species in action—the enclosure and room are kept dark, and the bats have had their biological clocks tricked into thinking that it’s night. It’s quite an interesting experience. The Bat Jungle is open daily from 9am to 8pm, and the tour lasts around 45 minutes; the last tour starts at 6:45pm. Admission is $13 for adults and $11 for students. Children under 6 are free.

If you’ve had your fill of birds, snakes, bugs, butterflies, and bats, you might want to stop at the Orchid Garden ★★ (tel. 2645-5308; www.monterverdeorchidgarden.net), in Santa Elena across from the Pensión El Tucano. This botanical garden has more than 425 species of orchids. The tour is fascinating, especially given the fact that you need (and are given) a magnifying glass to see some of the flowers in bloom. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for students and $ 5 for kids ages 12 to 6. It’s open daily from 8am to 5pm.

Agricultural & Culinary Tourism

Several options are available for those looking for a glimpse into the practices and processes of daily life in this region. Don Juan Coffee Tour ★★ (tel. 2645-7100; www.donjuancoffeetour.com) is a local, family-farm operation, which offers a 2-hour tour on their sprawling farm. Coffee is the primary crop and focus of the tour, although these folks also have a range of crops, including macadamia; a trapiche, or sugar cane mill; and small boutique-chocolate production area. As a bonus, you get a snack and coffee tasting, and you may even get to meet the farm’s namesake septuagenarian, Don Juan. The tour costs $35 for adults and $15 for children 6 to 12, including transportation.

El Trapiche Tour ★★ (tel. 2645-7780 or 2645-7650; www.eltrapichetour.com) is another family-run tour, which gives you insight into the traditional means of harvesting and processing sugar cane, as well as the general life on a farm that includes bananas, macadamia, and citrus groves. Back at the farmhouse, you get to see how the raw materials are turned into cane liquor, raw sugar, and local sweets. The 2-hour tour includes a ride in an ox-drawn cart, and a visit to the family’s coffee farm and roasting facility. Depending upon the season, you may even get to pick a bushel of raw coffee beans. Tours run daily at 10am and 3pm, and cost $32 for adults, and $12 for children 6 through 12, and include transportation.

Finally, if you want a detailed explanation of the processes involved in growing, harvesting, processing, and producing chocolate, be sure to stop by Café Caburé  for their Chocolate Tour. You’ll take some chocolate beans right through the roasting, grinding, and tempering processes, in the 45-minute tour. The tour is offered most days at 1:30pm, and by appointment. The cost is $10.

Learn the Language

The Centro Panamericano de Idiomas ★ (tel. 2645-5441; www.cpi-edu.com) offers immersion language classes in a wonderful setting. A 1-week program with 4 hours of class per day and a homestay with a Costa Rican family costs $550. They offer language seminars on topics such as social work, medicine, and security. Be sure to check their website for the dates the seminars are taking place.

Loose & Limber

If you’re interested in a massage treatment or yoga class, head to Río Shanti (tel. 2645-6121; www.rioshanti.com). This delightful spot offers regular, open yoga classes, private lessons, and various massage treatments. Their little boutique and shop sells handmade jewelry, clothing, and a range of oils, scents, and lotions, most made with organic local ingredients.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.