Monteverde & Northwestern Mountains – Walk Among the Clouds in Nature’s Playground
Misty cloud forests, steaming volcanoes, and sky-blue waterfalls create a sense of wonder and awe in the Costa Rica’s Northwestern Mountains. Everything seems larger and more colorful here, from towering trees in Monteverde’s dense cloud forest, sky-blue pools in Tenorio, golden dry forests and boiling mudpots in Guanacaste, and thundering surf along the Pacific. And the wildlife is nothing short of extraordinary.
Literally up in the clouds in the Tilarán Mountain range, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve straddles the Continental Divide with over 4,125 hectares/10,193 acres of dense cloud forest, with more than 13 km/8 mi of hiking trails. It hosts more than 400 bird species, 100 mammal species (including all six species of Costa Rica’s wild cats), and more than a thousand amphibian and reptile species. Orchids also thrive in this constantly moist environment. Birdwatchers flock to the reserve hoping to glimpse the elusive resplendent quetzal; the mid-February to May nesting season is the best chance to spot one.
The Monteverde region sees about 250,000 visitors each year. Several less-known (and less crowded) cloud forest parks in the region offer hiking trails as well as hummingbird gardens, butterfly gardens, serpent exhibits, and insect collections. For more active adventure, there is no shortage of canopy zip line tours, hanging suspension bridges, and even canyoneering that include rappelling alongside waterfalls.
North of Monteverde, near Arenal, Tenorio Volcano National Park introduces remarkable blue waters to the color palate. Centered on four volcanic peaks, you can hike trails to the 1,913 m/6,287 ft summit for extensive views, hike along hanging suspension bridges, see geysers and waterfalls, and watch for the park’s abundant wildlife. But Tenorio’s pride are the shimmering, pale-blue river and waterfalls of el Rio Celeste created by the scattering of sunlight and reflected by the riverbed (most of the rocks on the river’s bottom are covered by a substance composed of aluminosilicates – a combination of aluminum, silicon and oxygen – that absorb all colors, except blue, present in sunlight. The rejected blue rays of the sunlight create a visual sensation in the human eye of blue water.)
Further north, Guanacaste introduces sabanero (cowboy) territory, where extensive cattle ranches dot the landscape. Unlike the verdant Monteverde region, Guanacaste is the driest region in Costa Rica, wrapped in golds and browns,, and especially during the dry season from May to November. An active volcano crowns the Guanacaste Mountain range in the Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Like so many of the incredible sights in this region, the park’s active volcano, boiling mudpots, thermal springs, and sky-blue lagoon and waterfall will create lasting memories of untamed nature.
Monteverde – Costa Rica’s True “Green Mountain”
In English, “Monteverde” means “green mountain” and is an apt way to describe this rugged, beautiful area, which sits atop Costa Rica’s continental divide and boasts cloud forests, rain forests, and high-altitude coffee farms. Eco-tourism has grown exponentially here since the 1950s when local Quaker dairy farmers took note of the region’s abundant biodiversity and with the aid of ecologists established the Monteverde and Santa Elena cloud forest reserves.
Eco-tourism has grown exponentially here since the 1950s when local Quaker dairy farmers took note of the region’s abundant biodiversity and with the aid of ecologists established the Monteverde and Santa Elena cloud forest reserves.
Today, visitors to this region will find misty forests filled giant trees draped in bromeliads and ferns, rare and wonderful birds like the resplendent quetzal, five cat species, more than two dozen types of hummingbirds, and an endless array of other plant, animal, and insect species. Zip-lines (some of the longest in the country) and hanging bridges (originally created for research purposes) are an excellent way to experience the region from above. Visitors can also enjoy peaceful walks, night hikes, coffee tours, and frog and hummingbird exhibits. The main town in the region, Santa Elena, offers myriad dining options.
Rincon de la Vieja – Natural Wonders Borne of an Active Volcano
With its bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles, hot springs, and sky-blue waterfalls, the uncrowded Rincon de la Vieja National Park may be one of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets. Previously, visitors could hike to the crater of this 1,895 m/6,254 ft active volcano until a 2011 eruption closed the trails; as of 2016, volcanic activity remains ongoing. However, this 14,300-hectare/35,336-acre park still has plenty to offer, including excellent views of the volcano complex. Catarata la Cangreja (Crab Waterfalls), one of the most spectacular sights, spills 50 m/164ft into a brilliant blue lagoon. The 5 km/3 mi. hike to reach the falls reveals views that extend as far as the Pacific. The park has no food concession, so bring lunch for a picnic and a swim in the lagoon before heading back. In addition to boiling mud pots and geysers, other trails lead to spots where you can bathe in sulfur hot springs or take a soothing mud bath.