Certain things can add a country to my list of favorite destinations: meeting people, who will stay in my life forever, for example. Or being surprised by a landscape which exceeds my wildest imaginations. Not only Iceland and Canada made their way onto my list that way, but also Costa Rica.

When I decided to travel Costa Rica I would have never thought that we would stay in a room without A/C or actually wear long-sleeve T-shirts, but then again we hadn’t planned our detour to the Monteverde Cloudforest – it came „by accident“, or rather with a spontaneous temptation to explore Costa Rica’s chilly highlands.

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Crossing Costa Rica slowly from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean every traveler will naturally find the unexpected green dreamland between the waters. Popular for its constant swell and dreamy sandy beaches, Costa Rica shows its other side once you go inland and up. A cloudforest is a rainforest in higher altitude with mist and clouds always around the corner, creeping over the tops of the trees. Temperatures are much lower and the constant humidity feels rather cold compared to the hot and humid coast. Cloudforests can be found around San Isidro de El General, the Arenal National Park and the villages of Monteverde & Santa Elena – the latter being our choice, as touristic infrastructure is excellent and yet the villages are not too crowded in low season. Monteverde is easy to reach from San Jose and a perfect pit stop on your way to the Arenal volcano.

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A Bed in Paradise

Can you spot the hotel in the jungle? Checking in at Monteverde Lodge & Gardens we started our trip with enjoying a cup of coffee on the balcony of our forest-view room. Never have I experienced a hotel where “being close to nature” was acted out so literally. The room’s big windows and balconies face towards the estate’s garden, the interior is made up of with wooden panels and rustic furniture. Walking by the glass walls made me feel like being actually outside. The surrounding garden is a little forest itself and brings the cloudforest onto the lodge’s doorstep. It’s a great place for a morning run and features a calm pond with frogs, a stone-framed lookout over the valley and far-flung trails through the forest.

Breakfast is included in the hotel price, so there is enough time to choose daily activities over a cup of coffee. With the help of the front desk staff – who else would better know their way around the jungle of tourist agencies in the village – we prepare a master plan for the next two days.

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Tired from crossing Costa Rica’s mountains, we didn’t want to go too far and therefore tried the lodge’s restaurant El Jardin (The Garden). Once again, a Costa Rican chef surprised us with delicious fusion cuisine. The most basic traditional dish includes meat, rice, beans and salad – not necessarily a culinary revelation. But at El Jardin we were served local produce with a twist – our top choices: the Chicken Chipotle and the Blueberry Tenderloin.

When you’re this close to the Equator days often end early, your best best is to get a good night’s rest and prepare to rise with the first monkey calls.

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Early Birds

A shuttle bus took us and other visitors to the entrance of the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve where we met our naturalist guide for a private 3h tour through the forest. Armed with rain jackets and a telescope we made our way on the trails of the reserve. Our guide explained the different micro-climates of the area and the high grade of biodiversity. While mammal sightings are rare in a popular spot like this, we were lucky enough to encounter a variety of insects, caterpillars and birds – including the pretty Quetzal and the interestingly sounding three-wattled Bellbird, which both breed in the Costa Rican highlands and are true highlights of the area.

After finishing off our tour at the Hummingbird Garden, we grabbed a quick lunch at the reserve’s restaurant. Prepare a dollar and get onto the shuttle bus back into town. The official currency of Costa Rica is the Colon, however US dollars are accepted (sometimes even preferred) in most touristy places.

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Take a Break

After a wet day at the cloudforest peppered with sightings of rare animals, the hotel’s whirlpool is the right place to go. It sits in a giant glass cubicle partly covered in green twines, partly opening up into the forest. For eager nature lovers the lodge also has a library and little movie theater to supply its guests with info about the surrounding cloudforest. Before taking off for dinner, don’t hesitate to lounge in front of the crackling fireplace close by the bar – and once you’re already there, have a drink. I followed the barkeeper’s recommendation and went for a Guaro Fever – guaro rum, lemon and fresh watermelon!

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Where the locals dine and drink

In so-called (but never accurately) dry season the village’s infrastructure has to keep up with streams of tourists from all over the world. In calmer green season however, noone has to worry about a booked out restaurant – there are endless options to choose from. We follow our tour guide’s recommendation and head to Morpho’s and munch away on a plate of yummy chicken pasta accompanied by white whine.

To put the cherry on top we pay a visit to the Tree House restaurant and sip on a fruity bedtime drink. As the name might give away, this restaurant is built around a giant tree – again nature is right by your side!

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Chocolate & Coffee…

…is all it takes to make us happy. Guides at Don Juan’s Coffee Tour explain everything one needs to know about the growing and production of coffee and, to increase the delicious-factor, let you mix your own chocolate and press super-sticky sugarcane juice. Reaching the daily limit of sugar never was that much fun!

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Flying high in the afternoon

Costa Rica is a hub for zip-lining, so naturally there are various tour companies in town offering zip-lining tours, one faster and more extreme than the other. Our No. 1 pick is Selvatura. Not only does their 3-hour canopy tour include 15 cables, but they also offer all sorts of combination packages. Their other attractions include a Butterfly Garden, a Hummingbird Garden and an Insect Museum. A more quiet alternative is the Treetop Walkway & Suspension Bridges. On the 2-hour self-guided hike one crosses 8 suspension bridges and gets up close to all the layers of the cloudforest – from the ground to the top canopy.

Monteverde Cloudforest

Visiting the Costa Rican highlands in Monteverde Cloudforest was a most welcome break from the hot and humid coastal parks of Corcovado National Park and Tortuguerro National Park. It is a great place to see a very different and unexpected side of Costa Rica and made me appreciate this paradise land even more!

Thank you to Diego Blanco of Monteverde Lodge & Gardens for charming us into a spontaneous visit to the cloudforest and the hotel’s staff for taking such good care of us!

all photos by Brian Shaw
except ‘boy at coffee tour’ by Kathi Kamleitner