North of Puntarenas and northeast of Santa Elena, the 310 hectares Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is the quieter, less-visited neighbor to Monteverde. It gets less than 10% the number of visitors. The full name of the park is Reserva del Bosque Nuboso del Colegio Tecnico Professional de Santa Elena.
With over 8 miles (12 km) of trails, 3 overview points, and an observation tower, The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve makes for an exceptional hiking experience. Since wildlife is more active in the morning, its best to arrive early. There are plenty of monkeys and sloths. The trails are pretty rough and plan to get muddy. This is a challenging treking experience.
It is located about 6km northeast of the village of Santa Elena. There is a daily shuttle running 4 times a day between town and the reserve.
To reach the town of Santa Elena from San Jose, head west on RUTA 1 (aka InterAmerican highway) towards Puntarenas. Continue past the Puntarenas Exit for roughly 20km. Just past milepost 123 (obsured), turn right heading to Sardinal (2.8km). At 2.8km from RUTA 1 in Sardinal, turn left. This road was paved in early 2007 to a distance of 12.5km from RUTA 1. At the end of the pavement, the road is a very rough, rocky, winding, climbing 4WD route requiring a high clearance to avoid damage to the underside of the vehicle. At 17.0km from RUTA 1, pass through Guacunal, and continue climbing up this treacherous road. At 19km, turn right. At 26.6km, veer left. At 36.6km, enter Santa Elena. Check with the visitor information center in Santa Elena for the current best directions to the Reserva Santa Elena.
To reach Monteverde from the north, head south on RUTA 1 (InterAmerican highway) towards Canas. At about 25.5km south of Canas and about 1.8km past the large bridge over Rio Abangares, look for signs to Juanitas near milepost 163. Turn left heading east towards Juanitas (6km). The first 12km of road is paved. Continue through Juanitas crossing Rio Abangares and head east. After 12km from RUTA 1, the road becomes rough dirt and rock road. A 4WD is recommended but not necessary. Stay right at most intersections. Overall, the road is 35km from RUTA 1 to Santa Elena and takes about an hour.
Here are some basic notes on driving in Costa Rica for the tourist. There is a myth about the quality of the roads and of VW bus sized pot-holes. This may have been true years ago, but on the main routes, this is no longer true. With that said, there are still numerous challenges for first time drivers in Costa Rica. First, do not expect much out of so-call “highways”, like the InterAmerican Highway. The fancy name makes the uninitiated think this is a major 4 lane divided, restricted access road. Well, yes, about 1% is. The rest is two lane (marginally), undivided, rural roads with tons of traffic constantly stopping, turning, passing or driving slowly. Like every other road in the country, you can expect to see on the road numerous unexpected cows, cyclists, pedestrians, bus stops, school crossing zones, dogs, mud slides, police check points, unannounced one-lane bridges, missing manhole covers, and, of course, a never ending stream of semi-trucks driving erratically fast. What you do not find on any roads is much signage. There are infrequent signs indicating the distance to the next town, and even more infrequent are road names or numbers (if at all), including even within major towns. To make matters worse, signs that used to exist are disappearing due to deterioration or theft. Also, do not expect drivers to use their head lights, even in a heavy rain shower, unless it is really dark. This makes passing in rain a game of roulette since you can't see the oncoming traffic. Speaking of dark, do not drive at night since the roads in some areas can be ruled by those under the influence of alcohol.
If you have to drive through San Jose, make sure to do it at dawn to avoid the horrendous traffic all day long, including weekends. Keep in mind several maps show highways passing through San Jose. This is not true. They end abruptly on the outskirts of town and you have to slug it out in a crazy stop-and-go traffic and many unmarked turns to get to the other side all day long. There are unsigned so-called by-pass routes around San Jose, but finding them can be a challenging game of trial-and-error, and they are only marginally better.
If you have to drive on the Nicoya Peninsula, you can expect to find generally better roads with better signage. However, there are numerous unmarked eroded road sides, especially over stream culverts. Do not drive at night. Watch out for the iguanas sprinting across the road.
A GPS unit can be helpful when navigating roads, however, the maps in Costa Rica were created using a special map datum. This datum is not usually available on GPS units but the road base maps were created with it. Therefore if you use the default WGS84 datum with a base road map on the GPS unit, you will always show a position being about 0.5 miles to the north of the road base map.
When picking up a rental car, make sure to check all the tires for wear, check the spare tire pressure, check the tire jack, and make sure to test the lock on the spare tire. It would be wise to quickly purchase a can of Fix-A-Flat.
Overall, Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is the 16th most popular hiking trail of all 20 hikes in Costa Rica.