Due to the high cost of living in Costa Rica we decided to head straight to Santa Elena before going to Nicaragua. We caught a bus to San Jose in the morning and were slightly concerned as the guidebook warned that tickets for our onwards journey to Santa Elena sold out rapidly and that we should book in advance. We arrived forty minutes before departure and didn’t have a problem. I think if we had been travelling over the weekend things might have been different but it had made us worry unnecessarily. Just beware that buses to different destinations have different terminals in San Jose. For Santa Elena you should head to the Terminal San Carlos (Corner of Avenue 9 & Calle 12) and the bus leaves either 08:30 or 14:30 each day.
We arrived in Santa Elena after lights out so headed straight to our accommodation. The road to Santa Elena is mostly paved, but the last 30-40km is on a dirt track and it can get a little tiring after the first hour. I’m just grateful that the rest of the road was paved.
The next day we decided to get up early and head off to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We got ourselves a wonderful guide who was incredibly knowledgeable and spoke a mile a minute, I was exhausted by the end just from listening. He started our tour by taking us to the Hummingbird Gallery which is free to enter and a fascinating spectacle of brightly coloured jewels whizzing around. You get to stand close enough to the feeders to hear the thrumming of tiny wings and the puff of wind as they fly by your head.
I would have been happy to spend all day in that one spot, but we were there to see the forest so we headed in. At the entrance we saw a white-nosed coati. Compared to those I’d seen in Bolivia, it looked like it was wearing little woolly trousers, very cute and fluffy (if you like that kind of thing). We wandered around one of the shorter trails with our guide pointing out different birds, bugs, fungus, trees and hummingbird nests as well as hearing and identifying a bewildering array of birdsong. We saw a guan and the very reclusive, and ever sought after, quetzal. I didn’t manage to get a good shot but the view I had of the bird through our guide’s telescope was spectacular and I’m informed that it is what birdwatchers flock to Monteverde to witness; go team!
After our tour had finished we decided to stop for lunch before heading back out. Due to the prohibitively expensive prices of sandwiches (US$6 for a sandwich with one ingredient) we decided to economise and get a large slice of chocolate cake instead as it was cheaper and larger. Sometimes being economical is such a chore!
We headed out on the trails on our own, and although we didn’t see as much, we walked as far as the viewing point that sits on top of the continental divide, giving us breathtaking views down to the Nicoya Gulf on the Atlantic and down to the Pacific on the other side. On our return journey we saw a beautiful blue-crowned motmot. Very colourful and, I’m informed, a lucky sighting, as it is not a typical resident of the cloud forest.
We saw a whole group of agoutis which was wonderful as they are normally only seen in pairs. We had a very close encounter with a white-nosed racoon who was busy hunting in the leaves and didn’t mind us putting him in the spotlight and watching.
The best (and possibly worst) sighting was of an orange-kneed tarantula. It was a female and as such resides in a hollow at the base of a tree for her whole life, explaining why the guide could find her so easily. It sent a little chill down my spine when he tickled a stick in the leaves outside her layer and she pounced.
I may have let out a girly squeal but I feel this is justified as her body and legs would easily have covered my face. Definitely a terrifying beauty.
Food costs hadn’t got any better in Santa Elena town but one cheap and cheerful place we found was the local fast food restaurant. I had a beef burrito and although it was still expensive it was truly tasty and by far the best cheap option to be had in town. A close second is the local pizzeria which does a very tasty Bolognese pizza.
There is so much more to do than we were able to do in Santa Elena, with insectariums, snake exhibits and frog ponds to visit as well as zip-lining for those seeking some adrenalin, but we simply didn’t have time. Santa Elena is a great place to visit and you could happily spend two days or a week and still be kept busy. It is just unfortunate that everything comes with an automatic US$10 price tag, so be warned: the more you do the more expensive it gets.