Less touristed than Monteverde, the RESERVA SANTA ELENA, 7km northeast of Santa Elena, offers an equally memorable cloudforest experience. Poised at an elevation of 1650m, the three-square-kilometre reserve is higher than Monteverde and boasts steeper, more challenging trails and a slightly better chance of seeing quetzals (and three-wattled bellbirds) in season. Established in 1992, the self-funded reserve is supported by entrance fees and donations and depends largely on volunteers, particularly foreign university students. It’s run by the local high school board, whose students help maintain the trails year-round.
Santa Elena’s 12km network of trails are confined to an area just east of the entrance – cut wood and mesh cover some trails, while others are rough tracks. The easiest is the hour-long Youth Challenge Trail (1.4km) with an observation tower halfway along, from where it’s possible to see Volcán Arenal on clear days; for the best chance of viewing the volcano, arrive early before cloud, mist and fog roll in to obliterate vistas. The longest, the Caño Negro Trail (4.5km), named after the river that flows from here north to the border with Nicaragua, takes about four hours to complete and crosses two streams en route. There’s also a wheelchair-accessible trail that loops from the visitors’ centre, passing a couple of lookouts and a small orchid garden.
You’ll see plenty of hummingbirds – strung along the entrance path is a line of feeders that draw many of the multicoloured birds – but for a better chance of viewing all the wildlife that lives here, sign up for one of the highly recommended guided walks (daily 7.30am & 11.30am; $15; 3hr).