Tips for visiting Santa Elena Nature Reserve in Costa Rica

June 26, 2017


"It's the same forest but it's cheaper and there are less tourists"

That's pretty much what our hostel manager told us when we were asking what the difference between the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest and Santa Elena Nature Reserve was. The manager forgot to mention that his relatives were operating the transport to Santa Elena which was probably the actual reason he wanted to send us there, but if I had to choose between quiet community maintained nature reserve where I might be able to spot some animals and a crammed tourist path where someones selfie stick was likely to give me a black eye, I knew which nature reserve I'd go for.

We hit the road right after sunrise. We didn't get very far as our van broke down few hills later but when we eventually got into the park we found ourselves standing on the line with just one person in front of us. You should definitely aim to get to the nature reserves as early as possible not only because there will be less tourists but because animals are likely to be more active before the heat kicks in - and let me tell you it's pretty damn hot in Costa Rica during the summer!

Our first stop was the lookout tower. In a clear day you can spot the Arenal Volcano in the horizon and it's genuinely the best lookout spot of the whole cloud forest. It's a completely different world above the canopy levels and that alone should be a reason to go and check out the views. We were lucky to get a clear view of Arenal in the early morning but when we stopped by later during the day on our way back to the parking lot you couldn't see a thing from the top because of the clouds.

There are multiple paths and routes in Santa Elena that you can choose from depending on how much time you want to spend in the cloud forest. They're easy to navigate and don't require much physical fitness although you should keep in mind that some of the paths take you pretty deep into the forest and nobody is going to pick you up from there if you get tired. We ended up walking all the routes during our visit and I'd warmly recommend that to everyone if you got the time and energy.

We were visiting the Santa Elena nature reserve in June. June marks the beginning of the rainy season which surely gives some challenges for your travels but when it comes to nature destinations in Costa Rica I can't imagine better time of the year visiting them. The cloud forest was insanely lush. The diversity of flora inside the nature reserve was huge and you could spot the craziest plants in there. There were leaves the size of umbrellas, trees with holes so you big one could easily fit in and the lianas and vines hanging from the trees just made you wanna go Tarzan. It was an absolutely gorgeous place to visit for someone who hasn't spent too much of her life in a tropical forest.

There are no sky bridges in Santa Elena which I gotta admit, was a bit of a disappointment. There were quite few bridges marked on a map but they ended up being just tiny plank walks along which you could cross little streams. Being afraid of heights I wasn't that much looking for walking on the bridge but getting views across the forest. There were two viewpoints in Santa Elena nature reserve but the flora was completely blocking the view in one of them and we arrived too late for the other one to be able to see anything but clouds. Santa Elena is a place to explore the cloud forests below the canopy not above it.

We also didn't run into a single animal during the whole day. Having visited Manuel Antonio National Park just few days earlier and having been able to spot dozens of species from frogs to large mammals it was pretty disappointing that we couldn't even spot a monkey. Manuel Antonio is, however, a quite small national park having lots of animals crammed in a small space, whereas Monteverde is absolutely huge forest area where animals can choose more freely to avoid human contact and this was sadly the case that day. Most of the few tourists we met on out way across the nature reserve were there to spot birds but we didn't end up chatting with anyone long enough to find out whether they had actually been able to spot anything.

Whereas it's great to visit Santa Elena nature reserve in the morning when the sky is still clear, one should definitely stay in the forest long enough to see it getting covered in clouds. In early afternoon the clouds started to drop lower and we soon found ourselves wandering around misty rain forest. It was absolutely magical until the moment it started raining. We were wet and cold when we got back to the visitors center and had to wait for our pick up a long while but being able to experience the misty forest was absolutely worth it.

I do however, have to say that if I were to do this trip again, I would not put my time and money into travelling all the way to Santa Elena just to visit the cloud forest. If you'd be keen on doing some other activities in the area, such as zipline, sky bridges or bungee jump then yeah, maybe, but in my opinion it's really not worth it spending hours and hours in the bus just to be able to visit a rainforest when you can do it pretty much everywhere in Costa Rica.


Tips for visiting Santa Elena Cloud Forest:

  • Get to the park early in the morning. You are more likely to spot animals, be able to see Arenal Volcano before it gets covered in clouds and there will be less tourists around
  • Avoid the rainy and the hottest hours of the day. You do not wanna hike your way around the cloud forest in pouring rain or when it's +35°C outside 
  • Provide enough water with you! There are no shops inside the nature reserve and you're gonna sweat out hella lot thanks to the climate 
  • Students get -50% of the entrace fee so don't leave your student ID behind
  • The cloud forest is at its lushest and thus at its best during the rainy season (June-September)
   


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14 kommenttia

  1. I was just in Monteverde and luckily saw quite a few animals. It's harder without a guide, I think. I hired one for my first hike and saw lots and then decided to do a second trail and only saw some monkeys on my own.

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    1. I feel like we should have probably hired a guide as well to spot some animals. Just didn't think it was necessary after seeing so many animals in Manuel Antonio without one :/ at least you saw some monkeys on your own though - we saw absolutely nothing!

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  2. I've always been such a nature girl, and this looks so stunning! I love the photos. Costa Rica looks magical.

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    1. The nature in Costa Rica is beautiful! Thanks x

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  3. I loved costa rica so much it's the perfect place for rainforests and beach. I'd love to visit here though.

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    1. I only wish it wouldn't be so expensive! Had to skip most of the country cause it was just way over our budget!

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  4. It's a shame you didn't see many animals but it certainly looks a beautiful place to good and visit - and I love the fact that students get 50% off - bonus :)

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    1. The cloud forest itself was beautiful but really wish I had seen more animals! I love student discounts as well haha :D

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  5. Oh wow. What a magical place! I def need to visit Costa Rica

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    1. I warmly recommend you do :)

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  6. Great pics! It's been a long time since I have been to Costa Rica. Such a beautiful place.

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  7. I also experienced in awe hanging clouds when I went for mountain climbing. It was all fun and games until it started raining and getting windy!This is a nice post, got me really nostalgic!

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    1. Ahhh I've also experienced that on the mountains! It's the worst when it rains in there cause it gets so so cold! Happy that you enjoyed!

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