Our final stop in Costa Rica was two days in the Santa Elena and Monteverde area of the country. Known for its rolling hills leading up to cloud forests, the beautiful Central American country continued to impress me with every bend in the road.
As I hinted in my post last week, the road to Santa Elena can be a bit rough. Coming from La Fortuna, around the north shore of Lago Arenal, the road is paved for only about two thirds of the journey. The other third? A bumpy, rough ride that takes about the same amount of time as the first two thirds of the drive combine. I couldn’t go above 20 kilometers/hour, because we were getting nervous that the wheels would shake right off the rental car!
Once we pulled into town, the rest of the day was smooth sailing.
Equal parts backpacker, laid-back tico, and environmentalist, Santa Elena is a small town worth the stop, even if it’s only for the ice cream.
Upon recommendation from a friend, we had reserved two nights at La Pension in Santa Elena. We opted for a room with its own bathroom – since we had the kiddo with us, we thought it might be best to have our own space. Man, I forgot how much I loved hostels. They get a bad rap from all these horror movies in the US, but I’ve really enjoyed my stays at different hostels in Peru, and La Pension didn’t disappoint. A kitchen you can use, a courtyard to hang in, some pretty cool people… What’s not to love? I was also pleasantly surprised to see some other little kids running around the yard out back – it’s comforting knowing other parents bring their kids on hostel trips. (Read: The Financial Hippie isn’t totally crazy!)
We had a night hike planned for the first evening, and our combi was scheduled to pick us up at 5:45 out in front of the hostel. We arrived at La Pension a little after 5 o’clock, so we unpacked the car and settled into the room that we’d call home for the next two nights. We wandered the courtyard a bit, enjoying the cool night air, and then waited out front for the van.
Kinkajou Night Walk
We booked the tour through Desafio Adventure Company, but the actual tour was handled by the folks at Kinkajou Night Walk northwest of town on Ruta 606. I can’t confirm if you can park there on your own, but I assume you can. As long as you had a spot to park, it’d be very easy to get to the hike on your own from Santa Elena.
We lucked out with a great guide, and plenty of animals along the hike! Admittedly, most of them were sleeping, but it was definitely a unique experience to see the animals at night, in their natural habitat. Here’s the list that we were able to spot: keel-billed toucan, armadillo, brown jays, orange-bellied trogon, tarantula, agouti, leaf-cutter ants, green viper, and quite a few bats whizzing overhead, trying to catch all the bugs in the night.
We got a great view of the orange-bellied trogon (though for some reason, I didn’t take a picture), the viper, and the sleeping toucan. Our guide was able to rustle a tarantula out of its tunnel, and we nearly stepped on an armadillo! The poor guy woke up a bit confused, and scurried off into the undergrowth before we could bug him.
I have to say, the leaf-cutter ants were by far the coolest animal we saw. It sounds strange at first, but hear me out! These little guys build super-highways to get the leaves they need for food. They cut through brush, tear apart anything in their path, and literally work themselves to death. But they don’t just eat those leaves they find. The ants bring them back to the colony, and use them as fertilizer. Crazy right? The ant colony is actually farming a certain kind of fungus that they eat, and they need leaves from very specific plant species to help grow the fungus. I asked our guide about a thousand questions on the leaf-cutter ants, and I’m glad I did. I’d argue that leaf-cutter ants are some of the most interesting organisms on the planet.
The night hike was the kiddo’s favorite thing in Costa Rica, closely followed by swimming at both the waterfall and some hot springs (termales) we found earlier in the roadtrip. We had really wanted to see a sloth or kinkajou, but weren’t quite lucky enough. The hike was kind of a last minute decision, recommended to us by a friend. I booked the night hike only a few days in advance, and I was happy I did. Especially for the price, it’s definitely worth adding to your itinerary.
The tour took about 2 hours, so it was around 8PM by the time we got back to Santa Elena, and we were starving. Something quick, delicious, and filling seemed to be in order. Cue Pollo Asado, just around the corner from La Pension. A simple foodstand, serving various chicken recipes, including empanadas and whole roast chicken. We stopped at Supermercado Vargas and snagged some drinks first, and then returned to Pollo Asado. Enjoying the stars as they started to come out, we sat at the counter, ordered some rotisserie chicken and french fries “para llevar” (to go), and I sipped my cerveza Imperial.
A great way to end the night – full bellies and tired feet!
The next morning, we got up early – we had plans. Most people come to the Santa Elena/Monteverde for the cloud forests, and we were no exception. The activities vary widely, and we opted for the hanging bridges hike. If the kiddo was a bit older, or we had more time, I would have loved to try out some of the ziplines and other attractions. I definitely have a bit of adrenaline junky in me, and watching the other people fly through the trees was pretty cool!
If not heart-pounding, the hike was still amazing in its own right, and offered fantastic views of the cloud forest. Besides, flying through the tree tops wouldn’t have given us much chance to bird watch. We lucked out – the previous renters of the car left some binoculars in the backseat, and we were able to use them during our trip! Costa Rica has a few species that draw serious birdwatchers to the country from all over the world. We saw one of them right at Selvatura – the three-wattled bellbird. Click on that link, you’ll see how the bird got the first portion of its name. The second portion of the name has to be heard to understand. Sure enough, a three-wattled bellbird tipped off its presence with the distinctive call of its species. Arguably the most iconic sound in the cloud forest, the bellbird gives off a strange, metallic note. Almost a cross between microphone feedback and a cowbell, you’ll definitely know the bird by its sound. We were extremely lucky to find one sitting on a branch in the canopy, about 100 yards from the bridge we were walking across.
After admiring the three-wattled bellbird and it’s unique song for a few minutes, we continued on and saw plenty of other creatures. We spotted a coati near the beginning of the trail, a number of unidentifiable birds throughout the walk, a brightly-colored hummingbird, a black guan, a millipede, and plenty of smaller bugs crawling throughout the brush.
Monteverde Cheese Factory
If you’ve read anything about Monteverde, I’m sure the Cheese Factory has come up. The whole region has a lot of history, and some of the recent story starts with a group of Quakers moving down to Costa Rica. Traveling all the way from Alabama on foot, the Quakers were avoiding the military draft the United States enacted between World War II and the Korean War, about 70 years ago. The Quakers have since been an important part of the landscape and the conservation efforts in the area.
Their claim to fame though, are the delicious offerings at the Monteverde Cheese Factory, as well as its enclave in Santa Elena – serving up their best ice cream a little closer to town. After hiking Selvatura, we drove out to the factory, and sampled some ice cream cones. It was the perfect reward for the hike! I made sure to pick up some Monte Rico cheese (created and homemade on site) before we left too. We also stopped by the shop in Santa Elena later that night after dinner. Any day with extra ice cream is a good day in my book.
Monteverde Art House
The Monteverde Art House is located a little closer to Santa Elena, along Ruta 602 to Monteverde. It’s just north of the road, the right side of the road if you’re driving back from the Monteverde Cheese Factory into town. Even if you don’t plan on picking up some souvenirs, it’s an awesome shop to check out. They have tons of local handicrafts, a good selection of the famous Boruca masks from farther south, and plenty of paintings by local artists. Unfortunately, they don’t allow pictures, but we did pick up some small bird carvings – sitting on the bookshelf right now!
Upon recommendation from the folks at Pension, we walked up the street to Sabor Tico for a light lunch. The deck overlooks town from the southeast, and offers a nice view of the rest of Santa Elena. The food there is great – a good selection of Costa Rican fare and a few good beer options too. Prices are average, somewhere between a soda and a decent sit down restaurant. While I’m writing this, I feel like all we did in Santa Elena was eat…
Right in the center of town, Tree House in Santa Elena offers a range of upper scale Costa Rican food. We decided to go big on our last dinner in Costa Rica! It’s all delicious, but just be warned: it’s definitely more expensive then good ol’ Pollo Asado a few doors down. Dinner and drinks for the three of us was a little under $80 USD. Not bad for a nice dinner by American prices, but a whole lot more than your typical Costa Rican joint.
Eating on the upper floor was a fun experience – mostly for the people watching. The windows overlook the main square, and the restaurant is directly across from the Cheese Factory’s Santa Elena outfit.
Riding back to San Jose
After dinner, we spent some time strolling the town, soaking in every lat bit of Costa Rica that we could. The next morning, we got up early and hit the road for the airport!
Santa Elena to Juan Santamaria International Airport was a 2 and a half hour ride. First we turned south down Ruta 606, which brought us to the Pan-American highway. Near the Pacific Ocean, you transition to Ruta 23, then 27 the rest of the way east into the Central Valley and SJO International. We kept looking for some place to hop out and dip our toes in the water as we drove by the blue waters of the Pacific, but we didn’t have any luck. The portion of the road near the ocean doesn’t have any real beach. If you want to touch the Pacific on your way, leave some time to drive out to the Punta Arenas peninsula.
Costa Rica was a whirlwind of a trip. With the kiddo, we’re tied down to school vacations though, and I was determined to go somewhere over April break. And while it was fast, it definitely wasn’t a waste of time. We got some great family travel time, and this takes the cake as far as roadtrips go. Plus, I’ve already seen my country for the year! (Though that won’t stop me from trying to see more before the end of 2017….)
Costa Rica is a beautiful country, and I’ll just have to make my next stay there is a much longer one!