For a relatively small country, Costa Rica packs a punch when it comes to outstanding wildlife and nature opportunities. Anyone with an eye trained on eco-friendly, conservation-minded travel and rain forest adventures has likely considered a trip to this lush Central American paradise. A jewel box of iridescent hummingbirds, magenta orchids and neon-bright parrots, with a soundtrack of soul-stirring hoots, howls, chatters and calls throughout the jungle, Costa Rica engages all of our senses.
Now Entering: Monteverde Cloud Forest
Above a cloak of the misty rain forest, mountains soar up above the clouds. Temperatures start to fall around 3,000 feet and the warm air from the forests below transforms into an ethereal fog. Moss- and lichen-draped trees add to the Lord of the Rings aura. This is a cloud forest—or, in Spanish, bosque nuboso. Specifically, Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Here, situated atop Costa Rica’s Continental Divide at the bottleneck of North and South America, the fog nourishes the plants and trees, which then release that moisture into small creeks, which flow to larger streams and rivers. Think of a cloud forest like a sky sponge, or a living aquifer. This sponge effect has been considered sacred by many civilizations, including by the Indigenous peoples of Luzon in the Philippines, who were strongly against deforestation in their region.
There are cloud forests the world over, including Panama, Pakistan, Cambodia and, of course, Costa Rica. All told these rare forests cover approximately 1% of global woodlands in tropical and subtropical mountain environments.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, established in 1972 and now encompassing more than 35,000 acres, is flanked by pristine and remote beaches on both the Pacific and the Caribbean. It is comprised of eight life zones, more than 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles. Six species of cat live here: jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays and jaguarundis. Here, too, live the endangered three-wattled bellbird and resplendent quetzal. Supporting 2.5% of the biodiversity on Earth over a landscape of rain forest, hazy mountains, rushing rivers and active volcanoes, Monteverde is home to many indicator species, which means they are sensitive to environmental changes and can throw up a figurative red flag when an ecosystem is threatened.
One of the rain forest’s most inviting aspects for conservation- and nature-centric travelers is Monteverde’s proximity (three hours by car) from San Jose, Costa Rica. With more than eight miles of trails available for exploration, the reserve lends itself to intensely authentic experiences like those you can have on our Natural Jewels of Costa Rica nature trip.
Wildlife of Monteverde Cloud Forest
As you venture through this Costa Rica cloud forest, you’ll likely be rewarded with glimpses of spiders, howlers, squirrel monkeys, sloths, tree frogs and anteaters. There are birds aplenty, from the eye-catching resplendent quetzal to the tiny hummingbird. By the sea, you can see green sea turtles and leatherbacks crawl up onto the shore at night to lay their eggs. Here’s just a taste of the wonderful wildlife Monteverde holds in store.
With its shimmery green plumage, the resplendent quetzal manages to both blend in with the cloud forest’s emerald canopy and yet stand out with its iridescence. Look closely: the quetzal is brown, not green—so ephemeral in its coloring, in fact, that you can’t quite put a finger on it. The other birds of the rain forest rely on the quetzal for seed dispersal, which they do by swallowing whole fruits like avocados and regurgitating the pits far and wide. The best viewing time in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is during the quetzal breeding season from mid-February to June or July.
Flicking their long tongues in and out in search of the rain forest floor’s termites and ants, smaller, tree-swelling anteaters are also known as tamanduas. They live in the lowland and middle-elevation habitats of Costa Rica. The giant anteater is a rare sighting, but if you see one, you’ll know it by its enormous bushy tail and unique coat. Look to the trees for the nocturnal silky anteater, which clings to the branches with its semi-prehensile tail.
Named for the brown-hooded robes that a group of friars called the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin wore (the distinctive robes came down over their eyes), the capuchin monkey has a dark body and crown surrounding its striking, white face. If they’re not on the prowl for food, they’re typically found napping. Look for them in groups of up to 35, led by an alpha male and an alpha female.
Look for the caiman, the smaller cousin of the croc, lounging on the banks of freshwater riverine habitats, in mangrove swamps and in certain saltwater environments. They’re found most often in the lower wetlands of Costa Rica on both ocean coasts. The spectacled caiman is one of the most common—and smallest—crocodilians, at 3.9 to 6.6 feet in length.
Howler Monkeys & Squirrel Monkeys
The cloud forest comes to life each morning with the call of the howler monkey, as the males greet another day—and each other—with guttural sounds reminiscent of a lion’s thunderous roar. These bearded folivores’ cries can carry as far as 3 miles. You’ll hear it again at dusk, or any time during the day that a trespasser comes too close to their territory, which ranges from 3 to 25 acres. If you see one mid-howl, notice the throat, which balloons outwards, inflating and resonating. The female call is more a loud wail or groan. The howler monkey vocal sound is one of the loudest made by any land animal. The most abundant species of monkey in Central America and one of the largest New World monkeys, the howler is sure to be one of the most-spotted animals on your Monteverde trip.
Look for smaller squirrel monkeys in the lowland rain forest on the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica. They’re very social, congregating and traveling in groups of 30 members or more. These omnivorous monkeys feast on fruits, insects, lizards, leaves, flowers, nectar and buds, often foraging for food beside the capuchin monkeys from May through October. The squirrel monkey is active day and night, bounding across the forest floor on all fours, sheltered by the jungle understory from predators above.
An icon of the Central American rain forest, the jaguar has long been revered. It rarely makes appearances today, but if you’re very fortunate, you might glimpse this rich, golden-hued mammal, recognizable by its black rosettes. They tend to live in jungle, lowland savanna and coastal mangrove habitats. They can grow to more than 7 feet long, stand 2 feet at the shoulders and weigh up to 200 pounds.
Who doesn’t want to glimpse the lethargic, leisurely sloth? Cleanliness is not a virtue when it comes to these arboreal animals. Their matted hair is home to parasitic moths, mites and green algae—all of which work hard to keep the sloths camouflaged from predators such as jaguars and eagles. Look for the herbivorous three-toed sloth and the omnivorous two-toed sloth. The former is more active during the day, making it easier to spot.
Plants of Monteverde Cloud Forest
All that noisy, flying, scrambling, tree-hugging wildlife wouldn’t be in Monteverde at all if it weren’t for the plant life that also thrives here. The cloud forest acts as nature’s terrarium and is home to a huge amount of flora biodiversity, especially plants known as epiphytes. These plants grow on other plants —without harming them—drawing moisture and nutrients from the air, rain and debris that surround them. With their unique climates and specialized ecosystems, cloud forests are also host to many endemic plant species. This is the place to see plants and flowers you don’t see at home and to add another level of appreciation for the incredible display of life found in Costa Rica. Look for these exotic plants among the approximately 2,500 species of flora that thrive here (including the giant strangler fig trees!).
These are best seen at the Monteverde Orchid Garden, where you can appreciate their delicate beauty through a magnifying glass. There are more than 460 species to inspect, alongside a knowledgeable Nat Hab Expedition Leader who can explain their growth process.
Especially colorful, bromeliads are hard to miss. Like many plants in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, bromeliads are epiphytes, adhering to tree branches and adding to the lush landscape of the forest. Frogs often lay their eggs on bromeliad leaves, which are the perfect shape to hold water.
Don’t overlook the humble lichen! This is the lifeblood of the cloud forest, adding another layer of green and providing food, cover and nesting materials for birds, mammals and insects.
This flowering vine, of which there are hundreds of species, often produces fruit (passionfruit, anyone?), but it’s the flowers you’ll notice first: wide-open petals with filaments that resemble a crown.
Conserving the Cloud Forest
According to an international study led by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) that was published on April 30, 2021, in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, “… despite conservation efforts, up to 8% of some [tropical cloud] forests have been lost in the past 20 years due to logging and small-scale farming.” This percentage encompasses the cloud forests that are found in 60 countries around the world. Satellite data shows that between 2001 and 2018, approximately 2.4% of the total area of cloud forests on Earth was lost.
In addition to human factors, the climate change is also to blame. The cloud base continues to move downwards or upwards depending on the particular region, which leads to a loss of water supply. WSL states that about 40% of the loss is occurring even in protected areas.
“Tropical cloud forests are probably home to the largest concentration of terrestrial species in the world. These regions, already small and fragmented, continue to lose area, with dramatic consequences for biodiversity and its functions,” says Walter Jetz, co-author of the study and director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change in the United States.
In Costa Rica, specifically, the System of Private Reserves and Biological Corridors (SIREP) that was created in Monteverde is being successfully expanded to other cloud forests in the country to preserve key ecosystems. All told, the program protects 11,120 acres of cloud forest, lowland rain forest and transitional dry forest. The Tropical Science Center, the first Costa Rican non-government environmental organization, was established in 1962 and works to conserve, sustain research efforts, promote ecotourism and develop sustainable initiatives to protect the Monteverde Reserve, as well as other private reserves and biological corridors in Costa Rica.
One of the ways you can help support the Monteverde Cloud Forest is through thoughtful, eco-minded travel with a conservation tour company such as Natural Habitat Adventures. We’ll take you right to the heart of the Monteverde for canopy skywalks and explorations of ferns, orchids and giant strangler figs. We’ll meet a great variety of birds in the Curi-Cancha Reserve, where 50% of the land is virgin forest, with the remainder restored to native forest from pastureland in recent decades. We’ll watch for resplendent quetzal, three-wattled bellbird, ocelot, white-faced capuchin monkeys, armadillos and much more in this most-studied montane cloud forest environment in the world.
We also visit Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula, home to Central America’s densest populations of scarlet macaws, tapir and jaguar, as well as some of Costa Rica’s largest trees. You’ll come away with a profound respect for and dedication to preserving one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems.