In Santa Elena you will find a selection of budget accommodations, restaurants, shops, galleries and a few bars at the lively town center. Many travelers use this cozy pueblo as their base for exploring the Monteverde region and its endless attractions. Most tours and packages, such as ziplining or guided hikes through the area’s two majestic cloud forest reserves, are available here.
Visitors to hotels in the hills that surround Santa Elena should be prepared to pay a little more than most other destinations in Costa Rica. In fact, everything costs a little more here due to the cost of transportation to bring in goods. Visitors to the area should also be prepared for an eco-experience. Most accommodations here are eco-friendly, few have amenities such as televisions and the highest rated hotel in the Santa Elena-Monteverde area is only 3 stars.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is often overlooked by visitors to the area, who stick to the more popular Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The Santa Elena School Board maintains this reserve, which encompasses 765 acres of protected land, and entrance fees and donations are split between the reserve and the local school. The reserve offers stunning views and on a clear day, you can expect to see the distant Arenal Volcano from one of its observation platforms.
The town of Monteverde is located further uphill on the way to the world-renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This majestic reserve is only a short drive from Santa Elena, and only 3 percent of its territory is open to visitors, while the other 97 percent is monitored and protected. The Monteverde Reserve is famous for its old growth forest covered in epiphytes and its exuberant wildlife and birds, most notably, the Resplendent Quetzal.
Aside from bird watching or hiking through the Santa Elena and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserves, Monteverde is the canopy zipline capital of Costa Rica, with an array of options to choose from. However, if hanging from a cable in a harness over the forest and zipping from platform to platform is not your thing, try the hanging bridges, a slower, more meditative option that also allows you to observe life in the forest treetops. A kiddy favorite is the mini-train ride through the cloud forest.
The road from Santa Elena to Monteverde is also home to a butterfly garden, a serpentarium, a bat cave located on the road to the Monteverde Reserve, several art galleries and lovely crafts shops that make this town a haven for artists.
The Monteverde Cheese Factory, known as the Lechería in Spanish, produces some of the country’s most popular cheeses and dairy products since the area’s Quaker settlers opened it in 1953. This Monteverde landmark offers an informative two-hour guided tour in English and Spanish that delivers an excellent peek into the rich local history. At the end of the tour you can purchase some fresh cheese or a delicious ice cream shake.
Planning a vacation to Santa Elena
We recommend limiting your stay in Santa Elena to two nights. It is often cool and rainy in this area. There is also the factor that hotels and lodges are not quite as nice for the money spent (with a couple of exceptions) versus other popular tourist destinations.
For mid-range hotels in Santa Elena we recommend Hotel Ficus, Hotel El Establo and Hotel Poco a Poco. We could not recommend the Hidden Canopy Treehouses Boutique Hotel more highly for luxury lodging. Hotel Belmar and El Establo are also good higher end options. We recommend the Monteverde Country Lodge or Hotel Heliconia for budget lodging.
There are many tours offered from the Santa Elena area, but one cannot miss out on the Santa Elena Reserve. This cloud forest reserve is a must see for anybody that visits the area.
Reasons to visit
- To visit the Monteverde or Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves
- Great highland birdwatching
- Some of the best canopy zipline and canopy hanging bridges tours
- To experience the cloud forest
- There are many endemic and endangered species in this area
- Great eco-tourist destination
Reasons NOT to visit
- It is a cloud forest destination, meaning it rains A LOT
- It is usually cool in the cloud forest. Combined with rain, it can be uncomfortable to some
- Due to the climate no hotels offer air conditioning
- The roads to access Santa Elena are not paved (though one is currently being paved) for the last 20 km or so
- If you are not interested in the cloud forest, birdwatching or canopy tours, you should not visit this area
- There are no all inclusive hotels or resorts
- Everything costs a little more due to the high cost of transportation of goods (this includes hotels, tours, transportation and food)
Weather and packing list
Santa Elena weather is characterized by consistent showers between the months of May and November. The heaviest rainfall hits the area from September through November. Temperatures here are comfortable, ranging between the low 70s during the day and dropping to the upper 50s at night.
When packing for your trip to Santa Elena, don’t forget to include rain gear and a sweater or two, light showers and cool temperatures are common in the cloud forest. Hiking boots, pants, long sleeve shirts, light jackets and sunblock are also recommended.
Fun Fact: In 1983, a writer from National Geographic Magazine stated that Monteverde was THE place to observe the Resplendent Quetzal. Subsequently, tourists from all over the world started swarming the area, armed with cameras, tripods and binoculars. It is said that the Quaker settlers have kept all access roads to Monteverde unpaved to keep tourism numbers in check.