Costa Rica

Santa Elena, Costa Rica: everything you need to know

When backpacking in Costa Rica, I stayed a few days in Santa Elena and I totally loved it! The small town is a great place to explore the lush rainforest, spot wildlife and participate in fun activities. I collected all my tips and tricks in this Santa Elena Travel Guide. I hope it helps you to better plan your trip!

A short introduction to Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Santa Elena is a beautiful town located in the province of Puntarenas, Costa Rica. It is known for its nearby attractions, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, zip lining, canopying and horseback riding. For me it was a great spot to explore nature and spot wildlife.

Weather and Packing List

Santa Elena has a tropical climate, which means that it typically has warm temperatures throughout the year. The average temperature is around 20 degrees Celsius and the weather can be somewhat unpredictable, with occasional rain. The rainy season in Santa Elena runs from May to November, with particularly heavy rainfall during September and October.

If you’re planning a visit to Santa Elena, it’s a good idea to bring a head light, breathable clothing and a rain jacket, just in case. For the cooler nights, pack a light jacket or sweater. Additionally, don’t forget the sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat!

Main reasons to visit Santa Elena

Santa Elena is the perfect destination for anyone looking to experience the beauty of nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Located near the Arenal Volcano, the area is full of lush rainforests and stunning views. Hikers and wildlife enthusiasts will love the variety of activities available, including zip lining, hiking, and bird watching. The town itself is peaceful and welcoming, with friendly locals and plenty of restaurants and cafes to explore.

Best time to visit Santa Elena

The best time to visit Santa Elena in Costa Rica is during the dry season, which runs from December to April. During these months, the area is blessed with plenty of sunshine, making it ideal for outdoor activities such as hiking, bird watching and zip-lining. The lush green forests are alive with vibrant wildlife, making it a nature-lover’s paradise.

How to travel to Santa Elena, Costa Rica?

Below you can find some options for traveling:

Traveling to Santa Elena from La Fortuna

Traveling from La Fortuna to Santa Elena with a shuttle is easy and convenient. Most bus companies drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde Puntarenas, this basically is Santa Elena. The drive takes about 2-3 hours and it is a beautiful one with lush green forests, rolling hills, and views of Arenal Volcano.

Traveling to Santa Elena from San Jose

To get to Santa Elena, you can fly into the Juan Santamaria International Airport in the capital of San Jose, then take a bus from San Jose to Monteverde Puntarenas, this basically is Santa Elena. Make sure to double check the arrival station on Google Maps. The ride is quite easy, as it is only a 3-4-hours ride away.

Traveling to Santa Elena from Manuel Antonio

From Manuel Antonio you can also take a bus to Santa Elena. When searching for bus tickets, you need to search for transportation from Manuel Antonio to Monteverde Puntarenas, this basically is Santa Elena. The drive is just over two hours and the scenery is spectacular, with lush mountainous terrain and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

Find your own transportation

You can use the search box below to find the most convenient and cheapest transportion to Santa Elena. I always use 12Go when searching and booking transportation when traveling abroad. It’s convenient and quick and most of the time you can use the e-ticket for boarding:

Powered by 12Go system

The best things to do in Santa Elena, Costa Rica

I’ve compiled a list with the best things to do in Santa Elena:

1. Visit the Cloud Forest Reserves

There are two cloud forest reserves in Santa Elena; the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. I will try to explain the difference below:

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

The Monteverde Cloud Forest (official website) is the most popular one to visit. The park covers over 35,000 acres and is home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna. Inside the park you can find a wide range of habitats including lowland rainforest, montane forest, elfin forest, and cloud forest.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Revere has more points of interest and viewpoints along its trails than Santa Elena’s. One of the most popular things to do is hiking. The park features an extensive network of trails (11 different ones, ranging from 0.3km up to 1.3km in length) that allow you to explore the forest and experience the incredible biodiversity up close. The trails are much shorter than in Santa Elena. You can also find a waterfall and a hanging bridge.

The cost to enter the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is more expensive than Santa Elena’s admission fee. Remember that the entrance tickets to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve do not include a guide. If you’d like to hire one to maximize your chances to spot wildlife, then you’ll have to pay an additional fee for a guide or book a tour.

The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (official website) is lesser known and visited compared with Monteverde. If you can’t stand busy places, definitely visit this park. The park boasts an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, including over 600 species of birds and 500 species of butterflies. Although it has very similar flora and fauna as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Santa Elena is home to spider monkeys whereas Monteverde is not. The park is located at a slightly higher elevation than Monteverde which means it’s wetter and also cloudier.

There are less points of interest in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve compared with the Monteverde Reserve. However, the Santa Elena Reserve has an observation tower, from where you can get 360 degree views of the area and of Arenal Volcano. Personally, I think visiting this reserve is worth it just for this view. Furthermore, you can hike, birdwatch, participate in guided tours or join an educational program or workshops in the reserve. The last two are designed to help you learn more about the unique ecology of the cloud forest and the efforts being made to protect it.

There are 5 trails in Santa Elena covering about 12.5km. The trails are a lot longer and narrower than in Monteverde and this really gives you the feeling that you are hiking in a Cloud Forest.

The entry fee to the Santa Elena Forest Reserve is cheaper than the Monteverde’s admission. Remember that the entrance tickets to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve do not include a guide. If you’d like to hire one to maximize your chances to spot wildlife, then you’ll have to pay an additional fee for a guide or book a tour.

2. Go zip lining in Monteverde

Zip lining in Monteverde was high on my Costa Rica bucket list and I was so excited to try it for the first time. Looking back on the experience, it was great and I gained many useful facts and tips.

There are some fabulous zip lines in Monteverde and Santa Elena, Costa Rica. Decide what type of experience you want, whether it’s flying through the canopy over the rainforest or riding high above the water. I loved trying the Superman where you wear your harness reversed and move forward with your head first instead of feet first. Not all companies offer this option, so I did some research first. I booked my zip lining experience with 100% Adventura Park (not sponsored!) and enjoyed 10 zip lines (including the longest one in Costa Rica), a hammock bridge, the Superman and the Tarzan Swing.

Another great place to go zip lining is in the lush Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. As you soar through the treetops, you will have the chance to marvel at the stunning landscapes and perhaps spot some wildlife. The area is known for its booming population of birds, monkeys, and other wildlife.

You can always visit the tourist information centre in Santa Elena for some helpful tips on the different locations.

3. Learn about butterflies and insects at the Monteverde Butterfly Garden

At the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens (official website), located in the cloud forest of Costa Rica’s Santa Elena, you can explore the amazing world of butterflies and insects. The gardens have 3 different greenhouses and over 30 species of native butterflies, from the smallest to the largest. There is also an Insectarium with over 30 species of bugs and beetles, a beautiful garden of native plants and a medicinal plant garden.

You can learn all about the fascinating life cycle of butterflies and the importance of insects in the environment. My guide was really passionate about all the insects and he explained the behavior and habits of these colorful creatures. The ticket was around $16 and I could use it all week. It also gave me 10% discount on meals at Taco Taco.

There is a cute café in the Monteverde Butterfly Garden where you can relax and enjoy a snack or a meal in a beautiful natural setting.

4. Go birdwatching

Santa Elena is one of the country’s prime birdwatching destinations. It is a top spot for birders of all levels of experience, from beginners to experts. With over 350 species of birds in the area, you can expect to see a wide variety of colorful species, from brightly colored toucans to majestic eagles. I recommend to go birdwatching in one of the nature reserves. Don’t forget your binoculairs and photo camera!

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

5. Go horseback riding

Horseback riding is a great way to give your feet a break and to explore Santa Elena and Monteverde! A horseback riding tour lets you cover a lot of ground as you trek through the farmland and surrounding landscape in Monteverde. Tours usually depart at three different times, with each being best for a different type of activity: bird watching, clear landscape views, or sunset skies. Look out for toucans, parrots, monkeys, and other wildlife as you peacefully trek through the forest.

6. Experience a night tour in Santa Elena

A nature night tour in Costa Rica is an absolute must do. I’ve done two night tours, one in Santa Elena (Monteverde) and one in La Fortuna. Both were different and wonderful in their own way.

7. Visit Selvatura Park 

Selvatura Park (official website) is a nature and adventure park located inside a protected rainforest. This park is known for its lush cloud forest, diverse wildlife and network of hanging bridges that give you incredible aerial views of the rainforest. It’s a very peaceful and quiet park. The restaurant on the premises is great to have a drink and snack.

Remember that the entrance tickets to the Selvatura Adventure Park do not include a guide. If you’d like to hire one to maximize your chances to spot wildlife, then you’ll have to pay an additional fee for a guide or book a Selvatura Park Tour.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

8. Free things to do in Santa Elena

Although Santa Elena (and Monteverde) is famous for its amazing zip lines and breathtaking cloud forests, it’s also a great destination in Costa Rica to explore on a budget. During my trip in Costa Rica I explored 5 free things to do in Santa Elena that I really enjoyed:

  • Watch the sunset from Mirador Valle Escondido Preserve
  • Cross the Ficus La Raiz – Ficus tree bridge
  • Visit the Hummingbird gallery
  • Explore Santa Elena street art 
  • Hike up to Cerro Amigos

Where to eat in Santa Elena?

Santa Elena boasts a variety of restaurants and cafes. My favorites are:

For a more casual experience, you can try out one of the many street vendors around town. Here you’ll find a variety of snacks, including empanadas, tamales, and plantains. And if you’re looking for a romantic experience, I can recommend San Lucas Treetop Dining Experience.

Where to stay in Santa Elena, Costa Rica?

When it comes to accommodations, there are a variety of options in Santa Elena, ranging from budget-friendly hostels to luxurious resorts. You can choose to stay in the town itself or in one of the many nearby lodges and hotels. Below you can find the most recommended accommodations:

Budget friendly accommodation:

Casa Tranquilo Hostel or Monteverde Backpackers are two great hostels in Santa Elena.

Casa Tranquilo Hostel has spacious private rooms and dormitories. The place offers great breakfast, has big lockers and the staff is incredibly attentive and knowledgeable about the area.

Monteverde Backpackers also has private rooms and dormitories. Furthermore, the hostel has a really cozy vibe, comfortable facilities, hot water, large common areas, comfortable beds and strong wifi.

Mid-range accommodation:

Cabinas Vista Al Golffo is a perfect place to stay in Santa Elena. It’s 3 minute walk into the town, with plenty of restaurants and shops close by. The rooms in the main building tend to be smaller than the rooms in the next building (the one I stayed). My room had an amazing view over the valley and town, the same view from the terrace which is the perfect spot to have breakfast or to chill.

Another great mid-range accommodation in Santa Elena is Cabinas Eddy B&B. This place is also very centrally located. The host is super friendly and he can help with booking tours or transportation. The place was clean and had a wonderful view from the terrace. Breakfast was perfect.

Luxurious accommodation:

Chira Glamping Monteverde is definitely a unique place to stay at. Here, you can stay in a Honeymoon Tent with a private hot tub and outside shower. The glamping tent is very tastefully designed and has some nice technical features like speakers to stream music. The view from the terrace is absolutely stunning and if you’re lucky you can spot beautiful birds and coatis.

The Koora Hotel-a Cloud Forest Resort is one of the most luxurious places to stay in Santa Elana. You get free welcome drinks and small gifts on arrival, there’s a free mini bar, convenient location, and spacious rooms. The views are absolutely stunning and the staff is really friendly and pay attention to details.

I hope you found this Santa Elena Travel Guide helpful. Santa Elena truly is a small, but beautiful town and a great place to explore the lush rainforest, spot wildlife and see nature. The town boasts a variety of restaurants and some wonderful places to stay. If you have any questions regarding the above mentioned information, feel free to leave a comment in the comment section below! Pura Vida! And if you make it to Santa Elena, enjoy!

Author: Daphne

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