The 14,200-hectare Monteverde Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso (tel. 506/2645-5122, www.cct.or.cr , 7 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, $17 adults, $9 children and students), six kilometers east of Santa Elena , is owned and administered by the Tropical Science Center of Costa Rica.
It protects more than 100 species of mammals, more than 400 species of birds, and more than 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles. It is one of the few remaining habitats of all six species of the cat family: jaguar (on the lower slopes), ocelot, puma, margay, oncilla, and jaguarundi. Bird species embrace black guan, emerald toucanet, the critically endangered three-wattled bellbird (whose metallic “BONK!” call carries for almost two miles), and 30 local hummingbird species.
Hundreds of visitors arrive in hopes of seeing a resplendent quetzal (approximately 200 pairs nest in the reserve). Cognoscenti know that, ironically, the parking lot is perhaps the best place to see quetzals; go early in the morning.
The reserve has 13 kilometers of trails for day visitors concentrated in an area called The Triangle. Parts ooze with mud; other sections have been covered with raised wooden walkways. A maximum of 180 people are allowed on the trails at any one time. Access is first come, first served, except for those already booked on guided tours.
Longer trails requiring an overnight lead down the Pacific slopes. Sendero Valle leads to La Cascada, a triple waterfall, and continues via the valley of the Río Peñas Blancas to Pocosol, about 20 kilometers south of La Fortuna .
These are for experienced Indiana Jones–type hikers only. (Three basic backpacking shelters were closed until further notice.) Reservations are essential and a guide is obligatory for these longer trails.
If you want to hike alone, buy your ticket the day before and set out before the crowds. You increase your chances of seeing wildlife if you hike with a guide; reservations are advisable (book online, from $17).
Three-hour guided tours (caminatas) are offered at 7:30 a.m., noon, and 1:30 p.m. daily (minimum three people, maximum nine people; $34 pp including entrance); hourly tours are planned. A five-hour bird-watching tour is offered at 6 a.m. ($64 pp including entrance). A two-hour night hike is offered at 6:15 p.m. ($17, or $20 with hotel transfers).
Bring warm clothing and raingear. You can rent rubber boots in many hotels. The visitors center rents binoculars ($10 per day, plus deposit) and sells a self-guide pamphlet, trail map, and wildlife guides.
A café at the visitors center serves omelettes ($1.75), burgers, sandwiches, mochas ($1), and other fare.
A bus (tel. 506/2645-6296) departs Santa Elena  for the reserve at 6:15 a.m., 7:20 a.m., 9:20 a.m., 1:20 p.m., and 3 p.m. daily, returning at 6:45 a.m., 7:45 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. ($1 each way). Most hotels can arrange transportation. A taxi from Santa Elena should cost about $9 one-way, but there are reports of gouging. There’s parking.