Santa Elena Cloud Forst Reserve

Its not every day that you get the opportunity to walk through a cloud forest, but for the second day in succession that was exactly what we were doing. After we’d seen our second snake we began to feel that it was a potentially dangerous activity, but spending 3 hours walking 6km of trails through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest was a beguiling experience.

There was less wildlife on display than we’d seen in Monteverde Cloud Forest, but imagine standing in a small clearing in the middle of a vast forest and being able to hear only the wind in the tree tops, the sound of bird song and absolutely nothing else. That’s why people come to this part of Costa Rica.

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena is on the other side of the Continental Divide from Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and while it is almost impossible to tell the difference unless you’re a trained naturalist it is home to numerous different species of flora and fauna. Not that we saw much of the latter.

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black-faced Solitaire, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black-faced Solitaire, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Trogon, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Trogon, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tawny-capped Euphonia, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tawny-capped Euphonia, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

The trail, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

The trail, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

The other thing missing from Reserva Santa Elena were the large number of people that you get in Monteverde Cloud Forest. Perhaps it is because Santa Elena is smaller and less well developed in terms of infrastructure, or perhaps it is because it is just that bit further away from the tourist facilities of the town, but Reserva Santa Elena receives only a tenth of the visitors that go to Monteverde Cloud Forest.

There are  many tall ferns in the forest, these are incredibly slow growing and are a good indicator of a thriving primary forest. Some are 1500 years old, at least that what a guide told us. The forest is also home to hundreds (probably thousands) of varieties of orchid. We saw some lovely examples, including a tiny one that was growing on another plant.

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orchid, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orchid, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Transparent butterfly, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Transparent butterfly, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Being deep inside the forest without any noise from the human world was fabulous, it is a place full of mystery. As we returned towards the visitor centre we left behind the mud trails we’d been walking for the previous three hours and found ourselves on gravel trails. Civilisation, or so we thought because at that moment a Black Guan, the biggest bird in the forest, decided to drop out of a tree and almost hit me on the head.

Black Guan, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

I’m not sure which one of us was most surprised or terrified, but my heart rate didn’t calm down for quite a while.

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Beetle, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Beetle, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

“My God it is…it’s a Sunbittern!” Monteverde, twitchers paradise and ecotourism central

Monteverde, pioneer of ecotourism in Costa Rica, is a small village at the end of a dirt road that has become iconic in green circles. It is home to some of the most pristine primary cloud forest imaginable, straddling the continental divide that runs down the centre of Costa Rica, protected in perpetuity by a series of privately owned reserves that are home to a mind-boggling number of birds, amphibians, insects and mammals.

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

For me the forest was the star, but it is the birdlife that draws many to Monteverde, and amongst the plethora of extraordinary and rare specimens on display there is one bird in particular that bird stalkers, or twitchers as they are known, seek out amongst the lofty trees of the cloud forest: the Resplendent Quetzal.

The name alone is enough to make you want to catch sight of it, and truly it is an extraordinary sight when you do finally see one. The Quetzal has luminous feathers that have been sought-after prizes for thousands of years. Mayan, Aztec and Incan royalty wore them as symbols of their status thanks to the birds reputation as a flying serpent; it is also the national animal, official symbol and name of the national currency of Guatemala.

Flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Bird of Paradise flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Bird of Paradise flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

The Bird of Paradise Flower is normally pollenated by Hummingbirds, but the example above is turned upwards rather than the traditional downwards. The reason? It is pollenated by bats who don’t fly upside-down and sideways, so the plant has evolved to aid pollination by bats.

The Quetzal is not alone in having an exotic name. We also saw the Orange-bellied Trogon, Black-thighed Grosbeak, Great Kiskadee, Emerald Toucanet and the Black Guan (the largest bird in the cloud forest and a relative of the humble chicken). We also saw the Sunbittern of the title, which moved a grown man to utter the words, “My God it is…its a Sunbittern.” At that moment, as I looked at a bird and he looked at a mystical creature, I realised I’d never be a twitcher.

Emerald toucanet, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Emerald toucanet, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogon, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogon, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunbittern, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunbittern, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Hummingbird, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Hummingbird, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Redstart Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Redstart Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Early morning at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve you can see a gathering of typical twitcher types: huge telephoto lenses mingle with telescopic tripods powerful enough to spot alien life on Mars; the conversation is expectant, excited but reserved, no one wants to seem too keen at the prospect of seeing a Quetzal just in case they don’t see one…or worse, others see one and they don’t.

I love to see animals in their natural habitat, but I fail completely to understand the obsession (there is no other word for it) of the twitcher. We went with a Reserve guide for a three hour naturalist walk through one part of the Reserve. In our group was a fanatical twitcher, who talked of nothing but the Quetzal. Yet when we spotted one and trained the telescope on it he didn’t even take a look. It was enough to tick it off in his book.

I was astonished, it was beautiful. My photos don’t do it justice, not by half.

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

After we finished the guided tour we took off down some of the more remote trails in the reserve. For nearly three hours we didn’t see a another human being, but we did see a lot of birds, some fleetingly, some hidden in foliage and some out in the open as if inviting us to photograph them. In addition we saw Howler Monkeys and White-faced Coati – who were feeding on the ground on fruits being thrown to them by another Coati high in a tree above.

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

As if that wasn’t enough, on the walk back to our hotel we saw more birds, a tarantula and a poisonous frog. This whole area is teeming with wildlife, even looking out of our bedroom window we can see two or three types of Hummingbird flitting between the many flowers.

Green Dart Poison Frog, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Green Dart Poison Frog, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tarantula, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tarantula, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

All-in-all a fabulous day of spotting wildlife…looking forward to tomorrow already.