Costa Rica is one of the best vacation spots in the world because of its natural allure. Tropical, exotic, and rich with culture, this Central American spot is filled with adventures just waiting to happen. If your like many travelers who try to keep their costs down, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that the tico village of Santa Elena has an abundance to offer compared to its more upscale sister-town Monteverde.

Simply becuase Santa Elena is not the top tourist destination for most travelers doesn’t mean that it is any less entertaining or fulfilling. In fact, because the inhabitants consist mainly of locals who either farm or own a small shop, the vibe is more authentic and laid back then it’s gringo counterpart. Best part about going to Santa Elena instead of Monteverde is you get to save your money for more travel adventures later down the road!

palm viper snake
The palm viper blends in perfectly with its green surroundings

Why I was interested in visiting Monteverde

Visiting the cloud forests of Costa Rica has always been a dream of mine. I was intrigued to read that Quakers settled in the Monteverde area to escape being drafted into the Korean War and set up the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. I was also eager to visit Volcán Arenal which is an active volcano that sits directly across from Monteverde 66 miles across a river in the district of La Fortuna in the province of Alajuela.

toucan
A beautiful toucan sitting in a tree is not a rare sight in Costa Rica

 

The plan to get to Monteverde

As I had been camping in the small mountain village of Orosi, I was prepared to camp some more in Monteverde to keep my costs down. Since camping had proven to be relatively easy to do and effectively cheap (only $3 dollars a night), I was confident that it would be able to figure something out once I arrived to Monteverde.

Getting to Monteverde

After staring at several entrancing photographs of brightly colored frogs and neon butterflies, I decided to hop on a bus from San Jose up to Santa Elena ($8 ticket). With a quick stop at Vishnu to pick up a vegetarian burger, I boarded my bus and sat back for a bumpy ride through the treacherous mountains landscapes and steep cliffs. Along the way there were occasional street side vendors who would jump onto the bus hawking sliced mangos, plantain chips, homemade ice cream, and other goodies for small amounts of change. This provided a budget friendly meal replacement and was a great way to get some nourishment since we weren’t stopping at any restaurants.

motto costa rica pura vida
The motto of Costa Rica is Pura Vida which translates into “Pure Life”

 

Arriving at Santa Elena Costa Rica

The first stop on our way to Monteverde was Santa Elena Costa Rica, a beautifully rustic mountain town that lies high up in the clouds. I arrived at night when it was already dark out and the street lamps were the only lighting except for a couple of flickering hotel signs. I opened up my handy travel guide book, and read about a reasonable hotel called El Tucan that only costs $20 for the night (for two people) which included free breakfast and laundry service. The rooms were cabin-like with dark cherry wood walls and wooden floors. The place itself was cozy and clean and offered free wi-fi so I decided to stay there for two nights while I figured out where I could set up camp in Monteverde.

Weather in Santa Elena

I walked out of my cabin and was surprised by the knee high fog that rolled in up the highways and into town. I felt like I was literally walking through a cloud. The weather was sunshine one minute, drizzle the next but that was because it was January which is the wet (low) season.

volcano
This famous volcano in Costa Rica is gorgeous, but it comes with a price

 

Price to get to Volcán Arenal

I did some further research and found that it costs $30 per person to take a boat ride to the volcano. With two of us traveling on a shoe string budget, $60 was a steep price to pay for three hours of transportation. We also realized that the it was sort of a tourist-trap type of place in which the only places available were expensive “eco-lodges” that were $200 plus a night. In the end, we resorted to make the best out of our trip to Santa Elena.

costa rica cloud forest
The lush greenery of the cloud forest in Costa Rica is breathtaking

 

Visiting the cloud forest in Santa Elena

I was bummed out when my plans to visit Monteverde fell threw, but was instantly uplifted once I found out there was a cloud forest in town called Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena. There entrance fee ($14) was much lower than Monteverde and the reserve was accessible via a cheap shuttle. If you opted to trek through the forest on your own with a group tour guide you saved an additional $15 per person (a total of $30 savings for us!). Along with your entrance fee, your given a pair of rubber boots and a poncho which are very helpful when navigating through the deep muddy puddles. Going here in the low season has its benefits because the forest is in its most lush state, and the crowds are non-existent. The cloud forest is magical with its monstrous size ferns, soundtrack of enchanting bird calls echoing through the crisp clean air, and the gurgling of small rivers. You can easily spend a couple hours hiking through the various trails that are marked with giant wooden signs along the way.

 

Eating in Santa Elena Costa Rica

After our hike, we were starving. I was on the hunt for a place to eat lunch where the locals eat, and found Donde Henrys, a little joint that sat behind the strip of restaurants on the main boulevard. The food was served buffet style in which they plated whatever you fancied based on weight for a reasonable price ($5). I ate the country’s national dish galo pinto which is rice, beans, vegetables, fried plantains, and potatoes. They also served eggs, meat, and fresh fruit. We sat there devouring our food, with mud splashed on our jeans with big smiles on our faces. The locals working there were happy to hear that we visited the local cloud forest and thought it was funny that our clothing were covered in mud.

costa rica sloth
A sloth hanging from a tree in the cloud forest in Costa Rica

How to experience Volcán Arenal in Santa Elena on the cheap

Since I decided to stay a couple more nights in Santa Elena, I was determined to see all there was to this little town. One day while taking a walk along the highway, I found a little hiking path that curved behind someone’s house that took me to the top of a hill. Once at the top, I found a good flat rock to sit on and sipped on some wine as I watched the sun descend. Its orange glow contrasted with the blue waters of Laguna Del Arenal as it dipped lower and lower beneath the horizon. It was a clear day and I could see into the distance, in all its glory, Volcán Arenal standing boldly.

 

Conclusion

Even though it was up close and personal, in the end, we were able to see the volcano. It was a grand experience and if I had to do it all over again, I would travel to Santa Elena Costa Rica in a heart beat to visit its gorgeous cloud forest and to glimpse the volcano over the lake during a red sky streaked sunset.

Author

Adriana discovered her passion for travel after a five-week camping trip through Central America. After graduating from the University of California of Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Modern Literature, she decided to buy a one-way ticket to Bangkok to explore the world. She's lived in Bali, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, and a few other places where durians are plentiful. In a former life, she worked at an investment firm in Los Angeles, California. She now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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