The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve (tel. 2645-5122) 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 eyes, those thousands of exotic ferns, orchids, and bromeliads tend to blend into one large mass of indistinguishable green. With a guide hired through your hotel, or on one of the reserve’s official guided 2- to 4 1/2-hour hikes, you can see and learn far more than you could on your own. At $23-$85per 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 to get the most out of the experience.

Because the entrance fee to Monteverde is valid for a full day, consider taking an early-morning walk with a guide and then heading off on your own either 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 a small group. This will also allow you to stray from the well-traveled paths in the park.

Perhaps the most famous resident of the cloud forests of Costa Rica is the quetzal, a bird with iridescent green wings and a ruby-red breast, which has become extremely rare due to habitat destruction. The male quetzal 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.

A Self-Guided hike through the Reserve

If you’re intent on exploring the reserve on your own, I suggest starting on the Sendero El Río (River Trail) ★★. This trail, which heads north from the reserve office, puts you immediately in the middle 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 the River Trail and waterfall are behind you, consider 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, trogons, honeycreepers, and howler monkeys. The trail has some great specimens of massive strangler fig trees, which start as parasitic vines and eventually engulf their host tree. After 1.9km (1.2 miles), you will reach the Continental Divide. This might sound daunting, but there’s a modest elevation gain of only 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), much of which was once used as a rough all-terrain road. Because 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 mid-forest bridge gives you a bird’s-eye view of the forest canopy. The entire hike should take around 3 hours.

Admission, Hours & Tours -- The reserve is open daily from 7am to 4pm, and the entrance fee is $25 for adults and $12 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 info center. Several guidebooks are available, as well as 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 $23, including admission to the reserve, a 2-hour hike, and, most important, a guide with a high-powered searchlight. For an extra $5, round-trip transportation to and from your hotel can usually be arranged.

Exploring Outside the Reserve

In addition to everything mentioned below, all of the area hotels can arrange a wide variety of other tours and activities, including guided night tours of the cloud forest.

Bird-Watching & Hiking

You’ll find ample bird-watching and hiking opportunities outside the reserve boundaries. Avoid the crowds at Monteverde by heading 5km (3 miles) north from the village of Santa Elena to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve ★★ (tel. 2645-5390; daily 7am–4pm). This 310-hectare (765-acre) reserve has a maximum elevation of 1,680m (5,510 ft.), making it the highest cloud forest in the Monteverde area. The reserve has 13km (8 miles) of hiking trails, as well as an info center. Because it borders the Monteverde reserve, a similar richness of flora and fauna is found here, although quetzals are not nearly as common. The $16 entry fee at this reserve goes directly to support a variety of good causes, including conservation and improving the local schools. Note that the child's entry fee is $7. Three-hour guided tours are $33 per adult, $20 children, not including the entrance fee. (Call the number above to make a reservation for the tour.)

Located just before the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, and sharing many of the same ecosystems and habitats, the Curicancha Reserve ★★★ (tel. 2645-6915; daily 7am–3pm and 5:30–7:30pm) is an excellent alternative, especially if you’re looking to avoid the crowds that can sometimes be found at the area’s namesake attraction. The reserve covers 86 hectares (240 acres), of which almost half is primary cloud forest. The trails here are rich in flora and fauna, and quetzals are frequently spotted here. Entrance is $20 adult,s $6 for children, and a 3- to 4-hour guided hike can be arranged for an additional $25 per person.

Sky Walk ★★ (tel. 2479-4100; daily 7am–4pm) is a network of forest paths and suspension bridges that provides visitors with a view previously reserved for birds and monkeys. The bridges reach 39m (128 ft.) above the ground at their highest point, so acrophobia can be an issue. The Sky Walk and its sister attraction, Sky Trek (see “Canopy, Canyoning & Bungee,” below), are about 3.5km (2 1/4 miles) outside of Santa Elena, on the road to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Admission is $43, which includes a knowledgeable guide. For $104 per person, you can do the Sky Trek canopy tour and Sky Tram, and then walk the trails and bridges of the Sky Walk. Reservations recommended; round-trip transportation from Santa Elena is $7 per person.

To learn even more about Monteverde, stop in at the Monteverde Conservation League (tel. 2645-5003), which administers the 22,000-hectare (54,000-acre) private reserve Bosque Eterno de Los Niños (Children’s Eternal Rain Forest) as well as the Bajo del Tigre Trail. The Conservation League has an info center and small gift shop at the trail head of Bajo del Tigre. In addition to being a good source for information, it also sells books, T-shirts, and cards, and all proceeds go to purchase more land for the Bosque Eterno de Los Niños. The Bajo del Tigre Trail ★ is a 3.5km (2.3-mile) trail that’s home to several different bird species not usually found within the reserve. You can take several different loops, lasting anywhere from 1 hour to several hours. The trail starts a little past the CASEM artisans’ shop and is open daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission is $16. These folks also do a 2-hour night hike that departs at 5:30pm, and costs $25 per adult and $21 per student. All of this is free for kids 6 and under.

Finally, you can walk the trails and grounds of the Santuario Ecológico ★★ (tel. 2645-5869; daily 7am to 5:00pm), a family-run wildlife reserve located down the Cerro Plano road. This place has four main trails through a variety of ecosystems, and wildlife viewing is often quite good. As it’s a bit lower in altitude, there are a few species that can be seen here that you won’t see higher up. There are a couple of pretty waterfalls off the trails. Admission is $17 for self-guided hiking on the trails; $35 adults, $31 students, and $29 children during the day for a 2-hour guided tour; and $30 adults, $25 students and $23 children for the 2-hour guided night tour at 5:30pm.

Other Attractions in Monteverde

It seems as if Monteverde has an exhibit or attraction dedicated to almost every type of tropical fauna. Butterflies abound here, and the long-established Monteverde Butterfly Garden ★ (tel. 2645-5512; daily 8:30am–4pm), 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. Admission, including a guided tour, is $15/adults, $10/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.

Monteverde Theme Park ★ (tel. 2645-6320; daily 9:30am–8pm), a couple of hundred meters north of the Monteverde Lodge, has several attractions. A variety of amphibians populates a series of glass terrariums; nearby is a butterfly garden and canopy tour. The entrance fee ($18 for adults, $14 for students, $12 for those under 18) gets you a 45-minute guided tour, and your ticket is good for 1 week, allowing for multiple visits. Stop by at least once after dark, when the tree frogs are active.

The Bat Jungle ★★★ (tel. 2645-7701; daily 9am–6pm) 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.  Admission is $16 for adults and $14 for students. Children under 6 are free.

If you’ve had your fill of critters, you might want to stop at the Orchid Garden ★★ (tel. 2645-5308; daily 8am–5pm), 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 $14 for adults, $11 for students and free for children under 12.

Agricultural & Culinary Tourism

If you’re looking for a glimpse into the practices and processes of daily life in this region,  Don Juan Tours ★★ (tel. 4001-8714) is a local, family-run operation that offers a 2-hour tour of its sprawling farm. Coffee is the primary crop and the focus of the tour, although there are a range of crops, including macadamia; a trapiche, or sugarcane mill; and a 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 $33/adults and $10/children.

Finca Madre Tierra ★★ (tel. 2645-5206) is a carbon neutral farm owned by the family that runs the Hotel Belmar. It’s 20-minutes from Monteverde and produces coffee, cheese, organic vegetables, and sugarcane, suppling much of the produce for the hotel’s restaurants. Three-hour farm visits, which include snacks and transportation to the farm, are $50 per person.

El Trapiche Tour ★★ (tel. 2645-7780 or 2645-7650) is another family-run tour, which gives you insight into the traditional means of harvesting and processing sugarcane, 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 on the season, you may even get to pick a bushel of raw coffee beans. Tours run daily at 10am and 3pm, and cost $35 for adults, and $10 for children 10 through 12, and include transportation.

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 its Chocolate Tour. You’ll take some chocolate beans right through the roasting, grinding, and tempering processes during the 45-minute tour. The tour is offered most days at 1pm and 4pm. The cost is $18.

Finally, if cooking local foods is what you are after, Santuario Ecológico ★★ (tel. 2645-5869) offers classes that demonstrate typical recipes like chorreadas (corn pancakes), prestiños (sweet, fried tortillas), and casados (typical lunch plates) for $25 per person.

Learn the Language

The Centro Panamericano de Idiomas ★ (tel. 8861-6552) offers immersion language classes in a wonderful setting. A 1-week program with 4 hours of class per day costs $460. The center also offers language seminars on topics such as social work, medicine, and security. Be sure to check its website for seminar dates.

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.