Teaching Traveling: Have you ever heard of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica? Though it’s near Monteverde, it is lesser-known and less crowded than the famed ecotourism rainforest in that town. Further, its entry fees support both environmental protection, and the local schools!
I never had heard of this spot, until my former student, Steph (now 23 years old!), was hosted there by the environmentally-conscious small group travel company, G Adventures. Note: Links to G here are affiliates that provide a small commission upon purchase, at no extra cost to you.
Steph, tell us about your experience in this cloud forest of Costa Rica!
Steph: Waiting is not my favorite. I lean towards instant gratification vehemently. On my journey to Costa Rica, I waited in line at airports, waited for planes to taxi, waited in airports for layovers, and waited four hours in San Jose to clear customs. But the waiting was more than worth it, because I got to literally be inside a cloud.
We woke up bright and early at 6:30am and got on a bus to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Though this was Day 4 of the tour, there were still a few jet-lagged-laden yawns on the bus. Even so, we powered on the uneven dirt road leading up to the rainforest. Full hearts, sleepy eyes… can’t lose.
Lose, we did NOT!
Riding up the cloud forest was magical. Proliferating clouds lingered calmly over the tall trees. The trees did not seem to mind. The air was misty with rain, but that did not stop the hummingbirds from flying about on their morning commutes.
I glued my eyes to the window, breaking every law of my germaphobe body, hungrily tracing trees from roots to tree-top. Most branches got lost in the clouds, baiting my appetite for more nature. I waited for this. In fact, I circled it almost daily in the itinerary in preparation for this Costa Rica trip.
I opened my window and took in the freshest air I had inhaled in months!
The light drizzle danced on my curly hair tips, but they, too, didn’t seem to mind. As we soon came to learn, “there are two seasons in the cloud forest: rainy season, and very rainy season.”
At one point, I forced myself not to keep my eyes on the road ahead as I could only see a few feet. I looked at our bus driver. He was unfazed by the giant clouds that enveloped us. This wasn’t his first rodeo.
TT: Amazing! Tell us more about this cloud forest adventure.
S: The first step out of the bus was almost petrifying. I had forgotten what fresh air is! The air was crisp, with hummingbirds carelessly vocalizing their skills and misty breeze caressing our faces. We were approximately 5000 feet above sea level, and the tour was about to begin!
Our guide, Jonny, was a recent graduate at the local high school, and he quickly went into the conservational tourism field in the cloud rainforest. It is always a delicious experience having a local guide who grew up in the community because you get insights beyond what Google search could have yielded. WAY beyond that!
Jonny started with a big smile in his face and said, “Wow. Good morning. We have a great group today!”
He was right. It was a great group, and we all looked around in giddy excitement and disbelief that we were actually in a cloud. This forest is home to over 2,000 plant species and about 400 bird species. This was simply breathtaking, and as a nature-lover, I don’t know how the cloud forest ever escaped my travel list. Each step deeper in the forest, I was more and more glad that G Adventures made a trip to Costa Rica, and this was one of the stops!
This was worth the wait.
TT: Definitely worth the wait! What did you learn about the growth of the cloud forest?
S: Jonny started the tour by explaining the history behind the orchards and the different species in Costa Rica. We took great pictures of the different plants that grow in the cloud forest.
Then we slowly hiked higher in altitude (as my water bottle started leaking) to spot some crafty crickets that camouflaged themselves with the vast green wildlife around them. It started to drizzle, and we walked under canopies of trees and saw toucans taking rest stops.
“Did this land always exist? Like that with animals roaming around?” I wondered out loud.
“Partially,” he responded.
There was a hurricane a few decades ago that destroyed a portion of the land. He explained that after a traumatic event like that, the soil and environment (animals, plants, etc.) need time to trust the area again. Conservation efforts can take decades, and sometimes animals have to be re-introduced to a forest.
We walked past trees that were decaying in the ground. When a herculean tree of 50 meters long and 10 meter wide falls, there is a gap in the sunlight that can immediately reach the light-hungry plants even beneath the soil. And as the cycle continues, those plants grow to replace the big tree decaying.
The plants on the ground often have to wait years before they can get enough sunlight to grow. Sometimes they get so impatient that they coil their branches around and up mammoth trees to get the nutrients from the sun.
TT: Delicious, delicious sun. How does the protection of the cloud forest work?
S: The fact that the Santa Elena Cloud Forest is protected is fairly new. The reserve was established in 1992, so it’s less than 30 years old. Today, over 300 hectares (about 740 acres) are protected in a way that helps nature as well as the surrounding people.
It is a community managed reserve, in partnership with Youth Challenge International, the Costa Rican government, and the Santa Elena community. All entrance fees and proceeds go to the local high school in Santa Elena to advance education in biology, tourism, technology, and more.
TT: Inspiring! So, did you see any dramatic wildlife?
S: Let me paint the scene for you when I did…
“This leaf is very soft because the tree soaks up a lot of water and the water moves all the w…” Jonny was explaining, when I spotted something.
“OH MY GOSH — DID YOU SEE THAT CAT THING?” I leaped back.
“What, what did you see?” In one move, Jonny had opened his booklet of all the species believed to be roaming around.
He was flipping through the pages.
“Not this one. Not this one. This cat’s too big. No not enough fur. This one is too yellow-y… THIS ONE. I saw this cat-like brown leopard scurry away over there,” I pointed, half-scared that it would come back because I tattletaled.
“Did anyone else see the leopard?”
“Yeah! It went right there!”
I wasn’t hallucinating. Someone else in our group had seen it, and somehow, kept his cool.
“Wow. That is very lucky. We have had our suspicions that this leopard species is back, but haven’t quite been able to to spot it yet,” Jonny said.
TT: Yeek! Any other wild animal encounters in the cloud forest?
S: Yes. Jonny surprised all of us when he said, “Ok, great. Now, we are ready to see the tarantula.”
Some people screamed. Others pulled out their cameras. Others made excuses of “forgetting” something back on the bus (me).
We mustered on the slippery journey down to the enemy’s courts. Tarantulas can feel vibration in the soil so they crawl away in their nests buried in the ground. We got very close and took a picture of the tarantula resting in its home.
TT: What an experience all in one day! What do you want readers to learn from this?
S: I’ve heard it said that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. Every time I go on a new adventure, I learn that to be more and more true.
I never imagined that I would be inside of a cloud, but that’s the great thing about nature — the more I see the more I want to see. There are vast, deep, thriving ecosystems that we can experience and learn from, but sometimes the comfort of our own home countries can be too convincing.
I love that G Adventures partners with sustainable local companies that treasure and protect the environment, not just for now, but for future generations. Through that partnership, these communities open their homes to us — albeit, a home of 700 plus acres of wildlife bursting and animals scurrying!
For the goal of community partnerships helping the world, G is now doing a movement called “50 in 5” where they’re aiming to raise $5 million to create 50 new community development projects around the globe.
I take nature for granted, and sometimes I blanket myself in my big city life and lack the confidence to get my boots dirty (literally). It was impressive being outnumbered by even hummingbirds. Snails, crickets, leopards, butterflies, and tarantulas — I saw species up close and personal.
The day came to an end, and we were headed for our next adventure. We rode down the mountain and we stared in wonder at the Cloud Forest. It was still there, even at midday — marvelous in all its glory — ever-changing and ever-growing.
I highly recommend the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve to any and all!
TT: Thanks so much, Steph! Readers, what questions or comments do you have? Have any of you been to Costa Rica or to a cloud forest? How was it? If not, would you like to go? We eagerly await your comments!... fans. Share it around! *