Walking quietly in the forest to hear the chirps and melodies of various birds is a meditative experience. The mind becomes clear as your senses adapt to find colorful composers flying beneath the canopy.
Finding a species you haven't seen before is always a heart-pounding moment. You realize just how magnificent Earth is to design creatures with unbelievable feathers, purposeful beaks, and wonderful songs.
Brad and I didn't expect to become avid birdwatchers during our backpacking trip throughout Central America. We were hooked after seeing a pair of Collared Aracaris while exploring the Maya ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. Our visit to the Curi-Cancha Reserve in Monteverde, Costa Rica, catapulted our hobby to new heights!
Below I cover logistics, recommendations, and our sighted species to help you prepare for an unforgettable excursion to the Curi-Cancha Reserve.
In 2011, the Curi-Cancha Reserve opened a section of its protected 205 acres (83 hectares) to the public. Visitors can walk between areas of virgin forest, secondary growth, and open pasture to find different birds. Over 200 species have been identified!
Approximately 7 km (4.3 mi) of well-maintained trails are available to traverse each with unique flowers, trees, shrubs, and plants. In addition to birds, be on the lookout for animals including coatis, monkeys, sloths, ocelots, and armadillos.
The Curi-Cancha Reserve has an altitude ranging between 1,450 m and 1,615 m (4,757 ft and 5,413 ft). The elevation can be chilly even on a sunny day. The cloud forests of Monteverde can be unpredictable, so wear enough layers and bring a rain jacket. Brad and I were comfortable with our hiking shoes, pants, and sweatshirts.
Pack plenty of food and beverages for your hike. Brad and I enjoyed a picnic lunch as butterflies swirled around us at the rest area.
Although we didn't have any issues with pesky bugs, consider packing insect repellent just in case. Protect yourself from the sun with a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
The Curi-Cancha Reserve is located in Monteverde; a section of the Puntarenas Province. Most travelers stay in the town of Santa Elena to explore the area, especially the parks of Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
Unlike the aforementioned parks, the Curi-Cancha Reserve is walkable (45 minutes) from Santa Elena. The local bus is the most popular method of transportation if you don't have a car or want to pay for a taxi. Hop on the white Monteverde bus leaving from the center of town via the schedule below. Brad and I took the 7:30 AM bus on the way there and walked back to town afterwards.
From Santa Elena
From Monteverde Reserve
Tickets cost 600 CRC ($1 USD) per person each way. Remember to tell the driver you would like to be dropped off at the Curi-Cancha Reserve. The ride takes about 20 minutes. Walk uphill roughly 300 m (0.2 mi) to reach the main entrance.
What to Expect Upon Arrival
The reserve is open every day, 7:00 AM-3:00 PM. Brad and I arrived around 8:00 AM and stayed for 6 hours. An early start is ideal because we noticed the birds were less active in the afternoon.
Bring a copy of your passport, driver's license, or other valid picture ID. Binoculars are available to rent for $10 USD.
A paper trail map is provided, but also available to download from the website. Map placards are scattered throughout the reserve making it very easy to navigate. If you desire to find a certain species, like the famous Resplendent Quetzal, ask an employee for advice on the best place to start. There are 9 trails to discover!
Bathrooms are located at the main entrance and in the center of the reserve at the rest area. There are plenty of benches to rest your feet along the trails. Food and beverages are allowed. Please take out what you take in and leave no trace.
Self-Guided or Guided Tour
Crowds are not a problem at the Curi-Cancha Reserve even with the guided tours. Self-guided visits don't require a reservation. Tickets cost $20 USD (CRC 11,265) per person via cash or credit card.
Brad and I prefer to wander at our own slow pace so a guided tour didn't appeal to us. While we are far from professionals, we identified over 20 species at the Curi-Cancha Reserve!
Prepare beforehand by downloading the Merlin Bird ID app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which recognizes over 450 bird species by sound. Install the Costa Rica bird pack to help keep track of your encounters. The app is easy to use and takes birdwatching to another level!
If you would like to have a pair of trained eyes by your side, join a guided tour (maximum 6 people) for $100 USD per person. A private tour is $120 USD per person. Tours last 4.5 hours and begin at 6:30 AM. Don't forget to make a reservation.
Birds are masters of hide-and-seek, so it can be difficult to spot them in the forest. Guides are a worthwhile resource because they know migratory patterns, common species, food sources, and behavioral patterns. Every guide carries a spotting scope to help participants view the birds up close.
As Brad and I passed a group, a friendly guide pointed out a Squirrel Cuckoo resting in a tree. We wouldn't have found it without his help. You're guaranteed to learn or see something new with a guide!
Did you know Costa Rica has over 900 species of birds? Simply mind blowing! The Curi-Cancha Reserve provides a bird checklist on its website to help visitors get an idea of potential encounters.
Each trail has a particular topography and habitat ideal for specific birds. For example, the dense Puma trail was where we spotted a Crested Guan, Keel-billed Toucan, and Black Guan. We saw Charming Hummingbirds, Slate-throated Redstarts, and a Squirrel Cuckoo along the open Alondra trail.
The floral rest area with nearby banana trees had Lesser Violetears, White-eared Ground Sparrows, and a Yellow-faced Grassquit. Our favorite bird of the day was a gorgeous Lesson's Motmot perched next to the lush Guacharo trail!
Go in with zero expectations and appreciate the birds you find. The Curi-Cancha Reserve usually has sightings of the Resplendent Quetzal nearby its large aguacatillo tree close to the main entrance. Even though we didn't see any there, we fortunately found some at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve and Trogón Lodge in San Gerardo de Dota.
Wildlife is unpredictable, which makes birdwatching such a rewarding challenge. A successful day in the woods takes a bit of patience and luck. Keep your eyes peeled and your head on a swivel!
Brad and I had a blast capturing birds with our Canon EOS R5 camera. We pushed our 24-105 mm lens to the limit by shooting in manual focus with high magnification to ensure the distant birds were as sharp as possible. Since our lens is short, we couldn't effectively use the built-in autofocus or animal tracking systems.
Although having a telephoto lens is ideal, it isn't an absolute requirement at the Curi-Cancha Reserve. A telephoto lens would definitely make shooting easier. Consider bringing a tripod especially if you want to record video.
A high shutter speed came in handy for the hummingbirds and sparrows. We observed several species within 5 ft (1.5 m)! Overall we were happy with our photography results.
The Curi-Cancha Reserve is a paradise designed for both amateur and experienced birdwatchers. Fellow visitors were respectful of the environment, considerate of others, and soft spoken.
Brad and I were able to complete most of the trails and would have returned if we had another day available in Monteverde. The Curi-Cancha Reserve is a beautiful and peaceful place to admire nature. The spectacular encounters fueled our passion for birding in a way we didn't realize was possible!