One of Costa Rica's most popular tourist regions is the highlands and forests around the towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde in North Central Costa Rica. It's a place to go to if you like the idea of walking through protected cloud forests, to go ziplining to your heart's content if that's your thing, or to enjoy nature, both flora and fauna, especially of the smaller, and more subtle varieties.
Santa Elena is a good base for exploring the area as many of the main attractions are in or near the town. It also has a host of good accommodation options, catering for all budgets, as well as a wide choice of restaurants.
We travelled there in a 4x4 car we'd hired, which was useful for getting up into the mountains on a pretty bad unpaved access road, as well as enabling us to easily get to different attractions once there. It's possible to get there by bus and also to use local transport (buses and taxis) once there but you may find that there are long waits in between buses.
We spent several days in Santa Elena and Monteverde. Here are six things we did while there. And no, we didn't do any ziplining. We'd done some a few months prior in Ecuador and didn't feel the need to do it again, especially as it's reasonably expensive in Costa Rica.
1. Ranario (Frogs with Bonus Butterflies)
Rana is Spanish for frog. So a ranario is a place full of frogs. There are around 25 species housed in the enclosures where you can spend some enjoyable time trying to spot them lurking in the undergrowth or on top of logs or hiding in little ponds. Some are active in the day and others at night. We visited late afternoon when the day shift was clocking off and the night bods starting up. You are provided with a flashlight to give you a sporting chance of finding them. We found most.
The same venue also has mariposas, aka butterflies. We actually visited the butterfly enclosures first while there was still good daylight and they were reasonably active. We saw a wide range of colours, sizes and types. The guide (included in the entry price) was very informative and spoke much better English than we did Spanish.
Cost: $US13 p.p per section (ie frogs and butterflies are separately charged in case you just want to see one).
Yes, serpents, i.e. snakes. The display showcases live specimens from around the region and other parts of Costa Rica.
Some are big and, disturbingly, also have a label on their enclosure stating that they are “common” and often adding “semi-arborial” - in other words you can find them in trees!! So don't forget to look up as you wander through the forests.
There are also some tortoises and other assorted reptiles thrown in for good measure.
The Serpentario provides 1 to 1.5 hours of slightly unnerving “entertainment”.
Cost: $US9 p.p
3. Bat Jungle
The 'Jungle' part of the name is a bit of a stretch. It's more a smallish bat cave, but it's nevertheless interesting. Well, we thought so.
We had another knowledgeable, English speaking guide (again the guiding is included in the price), who provided a lot of 'did you know' (and mostly we didn't) bat facts. This covered both local bats as well as bats around the world. A lot of the tour involved interpretation boards and other static exhibits, such as the giant artificial bat's ears that simulate bat hearing ability. After this you enter the jungle/cave/room.
To keep bats in captivity restricts the Bat Jungle to bats that they can easily feed, which are fruit and nectar eating bats, so these are what you see in the jungle. It was feeding time when we went in so there was lots of activity and clicking bat noises. All quite worthwhile if you have any interest in bats.
Cost: $US11 p.p Bat Jungle website
4. Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde (Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve)
The Reserve was established by Quaker settlers who came to the area in the 1950's from the US to escape the Korean War draft. It's now a very popular place for some easy walking in high altitude forest, so high that it is often engulfed in clouds, hence the name.
A number of trails weave through the park. A map is provided upon entry. But even without this it's easy to find your way around the well marked and maintained trails.
Because it is so popular rangers restrict the number of people in the park to 160 at any one time. So, it's best to come early, especially during high season (November to March).
It was a reasonably busy Sunday when we went and the forest lived up to it's cloudy name (apparently the views are very good on a clear day - we wouldn't know).
At around 1500m elevation it's not surprising that the clouds roll in regularly, especially during the rainy season (August to October).
Cost: $US20 p.pMonteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Website
5. Jardin de Orchideas (Orchid Garden)
We have only a passing interest in orchids, but what the heck, we thought we'd give the orchid garden a go (and besides, we'd stopped for a coffee at their cafe out front and this gives a $US2 discount on entry to the garden).
It turned out to be very interesting. Our guide, yet another fluent English speaker with a vast orchidy knowledge, was essential to get the most out of the attraction. And again the guiding was included in the entry. We were provided with magnifying glasses as many of the orchids are quite small, especially their flowers.
We were surprised at the vast array of species, many of which we would never have picked as orchids. We learned more about orchids in that one hour than in our previous 50 and the rest years. Go on, ask us something about orchids!
This is definitely an attraction in the “small is beautiful” category.
Cost: $US10 p.p (or $US8 if you call in and have something at the cafe first). Orchid Garden Website
6. Reserva Santa Elena
This is another cloud forest reserve in the region. And while much of it is regrowth forest most of us who aren't trained biologists would not pick this. The reserve gets around one tenth the number of visitors than Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde.
The tracks are a little longer in length. They're well maintained and you're provided with a map of the trails on entry. We went on a quiet Monday with few people around and we enjoyed it more than it's more fancied local rival.
An interesting feature is an observation tower where you can get to canopy level, and where maybe you can get a view, if you're lucky with the clouds (we weren't).
This locally renowned attraction, which is free, lies on the main Panamerican Highway between Jaco and San Mateo. If you don't have your own transport you will struggle to get to it – buses don't stop there. If you do have a car, as we did, you park on either side of the bridge and walk to the part that overlooks the river and it's banks. There were around 30 crocodiles there when we stopped for a sticky beak.
We'd like to recommend two accommodation options that we experienced on this part of the trip.
Selva Color Forest EcoLodge
Close to the Crocodile Bridge on the way to Monteverde, when coming from south to north, is the small town of Quebrada Ganado. This is the home of the very pleasant Selva Color EcoLodge. It has comfortable rooms with good wifi and a great pool surrounded by tropical gardens. It's run by the delightful Patricia and her husband. We particularly enjoyed the breakfast with fresh fruits and local artisan cheeses. Selva Color Website
Cabinas El Pueblo
In Santa Elena we stayed in Cabinas El Pueblo. It was a little tricky to find but once found we were very happy with it. A good budget option with friendly, helpful staff and clean, comfortable rooms. It also had a very good breakfast included in the room price. All this and only a couple of minutes walk to the centre of town. Cabinas El Pueblo Website
Ken and Cally
We were very pleased to catch up with our friend, Maria Gamboa from San Jose, Costa Rica at a lunch on our way to Monteverde. We met Maria and her friend Markus when travelling in Colombia some months earlier and it was great to see Maria again in her home country and also to meet her mum Olga.