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Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Santa Elena: the eye of the Monteverde Cloudforest

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Santa Elena, Costa Rica

The Monteverde Cloudforest

Kirsten Noelle Hubbard
Nearly all travelers who pass through Santa Elena in Costa Rica are there for one reason — it’s the closest village to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of Costa Rica's most popular attractions. But the village of Santa Elena itself is charming in its own right, and offers lots to do against a backdrop of expansive green.

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Overview:

Santa Elena, Costa Rica is located in the northern Punarenas province. Originally settled by a group of American Quakers in the fifties, the village tenders a charismatic sense of community not found in Monteverde’s resorts. That’s why the majority of backpackers choose Santa Elena as their base to explore the reserve.

What to do:

There’s an exciting variety of activities to do in and around the village of Santa Elena. All along the cobblestoned, crooked streets, you’ll find tiny cafes, coffee shops serving actual Costa Rican coffee (Nescafe is popular in Central America!), art galleries, fun little junk shops, and even a couple bars.

Four natural museums capitalize on the area’s glorious wildlife: the Butterfly Garden, the Orchid Garden, the Serpentarium, and the Frog Pond. The Serpentarium showcases some of Costa Rica’s nastiest snakes, including the deadly fer-de-lance. The best part of the Frog Pond is when the guides turn off the lights—and you’re surrounded by tiny red eyes and a cacophony of croaking. Each museum costs about $7 USD for admission.

A horseback riding tour is a great way to explore the Monteverde reserve. But you can’t leave the Cloudforest without venturing on a canopy tour, which usually includes a skywalk on platforms set high up in the trees, and a lengthy ziplining course. A superior tour is offered by Aventura Canopy Tours. Their longest ziplining cable is nearly 2000 feet long!

When to go:

Deciding between Costa Rica’s wet and dry seasons is a toughie. Dry season (December-April) is packed with travelers, and prices skyrocket. Wet season (May-November) is much cheaper and less crowded; yet the majority of your trip will be dampened by frequent rain showers.

The long-winded Monteverde Music Festival is held January through April, on Thursdays through Saturdays. Besides the expected Latin tunes, you’ll hear classical and jazz music as well, all for only $9.

Getting there and around:

Budget travelers mainly journey here from San Jose by bus, either public or minibus. In the dry season, make sure to book your ticket several days ahead of time. Those with a little more expendable income prefer to rent cars and make the trek on their own. The roads aren’t the best, but the scenery is breathtaking. Travel time from the capital is about four hours.

The next destination for many travelers is the town of La Fortuna, by the rumbling volcano Arenal. You’ll see travel agents all over Santa Elena peddling the “Jeep, Boat, Jeep” expedition, the best and fastest way to get there.

Tips and Practicalities

True to its name, the Cloudforest attracts a good deal of fog and cold. A jacket in this region is almost always necessary, no matter what season you arrive.

Most of the region’s budget hotels are in Santa Elena, called Pensions. They’re usually smallish, family-run places that offer beds and hot water for $5-$10 USD, and provide cheap “tipico” breakfasts on request.

Because Santa Elena in Costa Rica is so well-trod, it’s easy to find used books in English.

Fun Fact:

The nearby Monteverde Cheese Factory (La Lecheria) supplies cheese to much of Costa Rica. Varieties range from the celebrated monte rico, to the more familiar mozzarella and cheddar. Tours are available.

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