Santa Elena is the service town for the major Costa Rican attraction of Monteverde Cloud Forest. But Monteverde is not the only natural attraction in the area. Here we will break down the highlights of the 3 major parks.
Hopefully if you make it to Santa Elena you can spare enough time to check out more than just Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Curi-cancha Reserve and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve offer similar yet very different experiences. Sadly we overheard some visitors complaining about not seeing enough wildlife. Remember that these reserves are not zoos. Go in with little expectation and be grateful for sightings.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (US$10 students, $20 adults) is easily accessible by bus. Catch the bus from opposite the pharmacy in the town centre. CRC$600 per person (30 mins, hourly departures). The forest is made up of 13 tracks easily navigable alone, however guides are available if you choose. It would be possible to see these all in one day for a fit walker. Forget about waiting for fine weather, cloud and the odd shower is what makes this place special. Once you step onto the first track you’ll be surrounded by enchanting and overgrown forests. We were lucky enough to see some beautiful birds, butterflies, a toucan and coatis. Instead of busing back consider walking back into town (6 km, 2+ hours with stops) and check out the Cheese Factory/ Ice cream shop and selection of small art galleries and craft stores along the way.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (US$7 students, $14 adults) is the least visited of the three major parks. It is only accessible by shuttle (booked through Hostel Pension, CRC$1000 per person one way, 20 mins). For keen walkers, Santa Elena Reserve offers more challenging terrain with Cano Negro being the best. The tracks span over 12 km and offer a much more secluded experience than Monteverde. Yet again we saw different species, including a strange array of caterpillars and a Tarantula!
Curi-cancha Reserve (US$10 students, $20 adults) was, perhaps, our least favourite of the three major forests but still an enjoyable day out. Much of the park is being replanted which is great to see and support. To get here catch the same bus as if you were going to Monteverde from opposite the pharmacy in the town centre. CRC$600 per person (30 mins, hourly departures). We saw more birds in this reserve than Monteverde and early morning bird spotting tours seemed particularly popular here. Less foot traffic means quieter surrounding and more chance to see birds. The major highlight of Curi-cancha Reserve is the Hummingbird Garden. You are almost guaranteed to see multiple hummingbirds surrounding bird feeders. Because they hover so long you will have the opportunity to get a good snap of them.
After exploring the three major reserves, we weren’t quite finished! Kinkajou Night Tours (US$18 per person, 2 hours) offer amazing night tours. You need to be up for a bit of running and excitement for this tour. Our guide was particularly knowledgeable about his surrounds, even offering animal names and details in other languages. It’s luck of the draw, some nights can be difficult to spot animals. Other nights are not, be prepared to see multiple snakes, two toed sloths, three toed sloths, porcupines, tarantulas, kinkajou, olingos, ginormous cockroaches and toucans amongst other things. One of us (Diane) was particularly scared about the night tour and possibility of snakes but I can honestly say this was one of the most exciting experiences of our whole 6 month trip. Unforgettable!
Many companies also offer Skywalks, trams and zip lines. Having already zip lined in El Salvador we somehow found a way to fund a bridge walk with SkyWalk (US$19 per person, unguided). Note: it is cheaper to buy your tickets at the SkyWalk Venue than booking them in town. We choose to walk to the venue, taking one hour. The 6 bridges (up to 50m in height) give a nice canopy top view of the surrounding bush. The trails are set on easy terrain which is nice after walking through all of the above reserves. We weren’t amazed by the SkyWalks and didn’t see overly different wildlife other than the 5 black monkeys huddled in a tree above one of the bridges. These fluffy guys made our day!
If you’ve got even more time the Children’s Eternal Forest, Hidden Valley, Butterfly Garden, art galleries and much more are waiting to show you more of what the region has to offer. As a destination, Santa Elena is a tourist mecca but proves it can offer some unique experiences regardless.
Hostel Pension – $20 per night, private room (low season). Breakfast included (tacos or toast both served with fruit). The kitchen is well kept with good facilities. The best thing about this hostel is the honest and unbiased advice the staff can provide (something quite rare in Central America).
Getting there from San Jose:
• In San Jose make your way to San Carlos Bus Terminal – Parada de Buses de San Carlos, Paso De La Vaca, San José, Costa Rica
• Buses for Santa Elena depart at 6.30am (CRC$2905, 4 hours). The bus we took filled quite quickly. We recommend arriving ½ hour early to buy tickets.
• The bus passes by the airport so it is possible to board here.
• The bus makes one toilet/ snack stop and arrives in Santa Elena at Plaza Monteverde which is a 5 minute walk from the main town centre.
Getting there from Nicaragua:
• This is possible however when we tried to do this the bus would not stop at the turn off so we were forced to go straight to San Jose, stay the night and then take the above option the next day.
• Cross the Penas Blancas border and catch the next bus bound for San Jose.
• Ask the driver to stop at the Sardinal/Rancho Grande turn off.
• Connect to a bus bound for Monteverde.
Getting away to La Fortuna:
• First catch a bus to Tiliran (CRC$1500, 2.5 hours) from opposite Hotel El Sueno at 7am.
• In Tiliran there is a few hours to wait. Tiliran doesn’t have much to see but it is a nice enough town with a square.
• Next catch the 12.30pm bus to La Fortuna (CRC$2795, 2 hours). This bus arrives right in the middle of La Fortuna.
• There is the option to take a taxi boat which you will see advertised a lot in Santa Elena but this is much more expensive.
• Pack a lunch, snacks and water for the forests.
• ATM: there is a Banco Nacional ATM next to Hostel Pension Santaelena and another ATM at Plaza Monteverde.
• Supermarket: There are 2 major supermarkets. Super Compro – Carretera a Monteverde or Megasuper at Plaza Monteverde.
• Information: Hostel Pension Santaelena has extremely helpful staff who provide honest information about the area.