The scary ride from Manuel Antonio to Santa Elena
We decided to travel to Monteverde on our own by public buses. We couldn’t even imagine how demanding and time-assuming it can be. We stopped the bus to Quepos (1$) in front of our Selina hostel in Manuel Antonio around 9 a.m. In Quepos, we had to change buses to go to Puntarenas (about 8$), the largest Costa Rican port on the Pacific.
Puntarenas is a city with an interesting form. It looks like a large peninsula connected with the mainland only by one narrow road. When you’re entering the city by bus following this narrow road, you found yourself surrounded by sea on both sides.
The city is not interesting for neither the tourists nor the locals. It’s a bit dangerous walking through the streets of Puntarenas during night time. In the port, you’ll find many dark bars with suspicious guests. Puntarenas is also one of the cities with the biggest prostitution problem in Costa Rica (alongside Jacó). Being the largest port on the Costa Rican Pacific Coast, it’s a departing point for ferries that go to the Nicoya peninsula or popular Costa Rican islands, Islas Tortuga, Isla de Chira, and Isla del Coco.
The bus journey from Quepos to Puntarenas was supposed to last two and a half hours, but instead, it lasted almost double the time. This is a common problem with Costa Rican public transport. The bus was stopping literally every 5 meters inside the bigger cities. On our way, we passed Jacó, the popular tourist and surfing destination on the Pacific coast.
As I already mentioned, the last intercity buses depart around 1 or 2 p.m., and it wasn’t any different in Puntarenas. The last bus to our village Santa Elena in Monteverde was going at 1:30 p.m., and we arrived in Puntarenas at 1:10 p.m. with no idea where our bus stop should be. I already started panicking about having to spend the night in the “dangerous and dark” Puntarenas.
The bus left us in the middle of the street in Puntarenas. The last stop. The bus station was nowhere. When we got off the bus, a guy with the “ferry” accreditation around his neck, came to pick us up. “Where are you going?” he asked. There were about 10 of us backpackers heading to Monteverde or Santa Elena. He told us to follow him; he’ll lead us to the bus stop for Monteverde just around the corner.
Although the guy looked suspicious, we didn’t have any choice since the bus was departing in 15min. We followed him. He told us not to buy tickets at the ticket office. Instead, he’ll arrange a discount for us with the bus driver. Of course, he wanted a good tip for “his services”. He literally demanded at least a 1000₡ tip.
The “ferry guy” took us to the bus station where the signs for Monteverde and Santa Elena, as well as the schedule, were written on the wall with chalk. The old and dirty, barely functioning bus arrived and we got on it. The bus ticket was 5$. The bus driver put half of our stuff in the luggage department, and the other half we had to take with us inside the bus because of the balance.
Not only that we managed to catch our bus, but there was also time for the street vendors to enter the bus offering us cold water and Coca-Cola. I even saw a local woman buying the water through the bus window. xD
We were happy that we caught the bus and relaxed for about an hour. After that, we started climbing up the hill. Imagine an old, barely functioning bus (a few times it went back to get a running start!) - the kind of a bus that travels between the poor Balkan villages. That bus was climbing up the hill on a narrow road towards the truck coming from the opposite direction. The view from both sides was amazing – deep precipices. We had ahead of us 60km of the bumpy and dangerous ride up the hill, which lasted 2h!
About Santa Elena
After the ride that lasted almost the whole day, we finally arrived in Santa Elena, a small village (with only three streets that form a triangular) in the region around the Monteverde forest. This region is the only place in Costa Rica where you can find primary vegetation of a rainforest. There are two large biological reservations in the area, Monteverde Cloud Forest and Santa Elena Cloud Forest.
We were surprised again by the drastic change of climate. Here, in the mountains, the temperature was about 20°C and it was extremely windy. We find the accommodation in the Camino Verde B&B, a beautifully decorated mountain retreat on one of the side streets (a dirt road actually). A nice receptionist helped us choose tours for tomorrow and we went out for dinner.
We invested the dollars that we saved during our trip to Monteverde (we didn’t take the shuttle for 60$/person!) to a nice dinner in a touristic restaurant Tree House. The Tree House is a beautiful and cozy restaurant built around the giant ficus tree. The food was a bit expensive in comparison to Costa Rican standard, but the portions were quite big.
We had ceviche (7$), tilapia filet in shrimp, mushroom, and cheese sauce (17$), and a mix of meat with Costa Rican vegetables called “Tablica Típica” (18$). I treated myself with a glass of guaro, a typical Costa Rican liqueur from sugar cane.
We had an instant crush on Santa Elena, the first night that we came. It was something magical in the atmosphere of this small, but sweet town. In the Tree House, we enjoyed the view of treetops and branches under the dimmed lights and we enjoyed a performance of Bésame mucho from a live band. Later on, we wandered around the town already dressed in Christmas colors. On our way to the hotel, we took a photo with the statue of an armadillo. Few meters from the statue, we actually saw a real armadillo hiding in the bushes. 🙂
Rainforests of Monteverde and our hanging bridges adventure
The forests of Monteverde are primary rainforests at the altitude between 1200 and 1750m above sea level. They are home to 2500 species of plants, over 100 species of mammals, over 400 bird species, 120 reptiles and amphibians, and thousands of insects. Because of its biodiversity, this is the ideal region for forest activities such as zip lining, hanging bridges, cable car rides, tree climbing, and other ways of observing nature and its inhabitants.
We also decided to do one of those activities. After yesterday’s crazy ride to the mountains and with my fear of heights, the only thing that I had the courage to try was hanging bridges. We chose the Sky Adventures agency, the first agency in Costa Rica that started offering those kinds of activities. Sky Adventures was founded in 1997 by a biologist who searched for a way to get closer to the forest animals, above all birds.
The Sky Walk trail lasts about 3h and it’ll lead you through the forest footpath crisscrossed by 5 hanging bridges. The bridges are named after tree species (for example, Cecropia bridge) and they are different altitude and longitude. The longest bridge is 236m long and the highest is 70m above sea level. Do the bridges swing? A bit, but they are firm and safe enough for you to walk on them and take photos of your surroundings. It’s inevitable to feel a bit dizzy while walking on the bridges, at least in my case.
On our Sky Walk, we got to know better the Costa Rican nature. Right next to the Sky Adventures office, we saw a coati, a cute small mammal similar to a raccoon, which was kind of a pet to the employees of the agency. In the forest, we heard hummingbirds (there are 50 species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica!) cheerfully chirping, we saw little birds with a yellow belly and “red hat” flying around. Those birds are called Amigo del hombre (Man’s Friend) in Spanish since they are rather curious and come to greet the visitors.
We saw giant tarantulas with “orange knees” hiding inside the holes in the trees and we heard howler monkeys from the treetops. We took a photo under the leaves of the giant rhubarb, which because of that got the name “Poor Man’s Umbrella”.
We learned about the parasite tree called “Strangler Fig”. Birds, bats or monkeys take the fig tree seed and leave it on the treetops of other trees. Eventually, a fig starts to grow and it completely strangles the primary tree. The primary tree dies and the only thing that’s left is the hollow “Strangler Fig”. Tourist agencies use those trees to make a climbing tour inside the tree.
After our walk through the forest, it was coffee time and we wanted to try the original Café Monteverde, which is the second best Costa Rican producer of coffee (after Café Britt in the Central Valley). This region also offers a large number of coffee plantation tours. We had our Monteverde coffee in the small wooden café in Santa Elena, where we sat on colorfully painted wooden benches on the terrace and enjoyed the sun and pleasant 24°C.
Later on, we went to the tourist office of Santa Elena, where we found out more about the process of coffee production and different types of coffee. We bought a bag of ground coffee labeled as “honey process” – a sweeter type of coffee with tasting notes of honey, pear, and cinnamon.
Museums and gardens of Santa Elena
Although Santa Elena is a small town, it’s full of interesting places and things to do: original jewelry shops, hand-made souvenir shops, nice restaurants and sodas, as well as many museums of nature. In the center, next to the bus station, there is Jardín de Orquídeas (Orchid Garden) with more than 460 species of orchid from Monteverde region. The Orchid Garden is open daily 8-17h and the entrance fee is 12$.
Right next to the Orchid Garden, there is Serpentario (Snake House) with 23 species of snakes, among them a large number of venomous snakes. Serpentatio is open daily from 9-20h and the entrance fee is 15$. About 500m outside the town, the Ranario (Frog Pond) is located. It’s home to 28 diurnal and nocturnal frog species placed in terrariums. The Ranario is open daily from 9-20:30h and the entrance fee is 13,50$ (includes 2 entrances – during the day and during the night).
If you take a taxi from Santa Elena and ride for about 10min towards Monteverde (5$), you’ll found yourself in front of Jardín de Mariposas (Butterfly Garden). The Butterfly Garden contains a collection of 30 species of butterflies in 4 different habitats and about 20 insect species. You can visit it daily from 8:30-16h for 15$. We decided for the two last museums: the Frog Pond and the Butterfly Garden.
Before our visit to the Frog Pond, we had to grab something to eat. In the restaurant Sabor Tico above the bus station, we had the cheapest (casado for 7$!) and the most abundant meal during our entire trip. As I already mentioned, you have two entrances to the Frog Pond to see both diurnal and nocturnal frogs. Tourists usually first visit the museum on their own, trying to find the camouflaged frogs in terrariums. They want their second visit to be guided (free) so that the guide can show them the frogs that they missed.
We did the same thing and, as we entered the Frog Pond, we started to play a little game called “Find a frog”. We had the name and a photo of a frog next to a terrarium, as well as some hints – if the frog is diurnal or nocturnal, does it live on the ground, in the water or on the leaves. We saw the most famous Costa Rican frog, Red-Eyed Leaf Tree Frog, a star of every postcard, magnet or flyer about Costa Rica.
We also found two colorful poison frogs, Green-and-Black Poison Dart Frog and Blue-Jeans Poison Dart Frog, and completely transparent Fleischmann’s Glass Frog. The most interesting of all was a giant toad (it can grow to 24cm!), Cane Toad, with poison glands that once were used for killing insect pests on sugarcane. Today the toad’s non-toxic parts are eatable in Peru and its toxins are believed to be an aphrodisiac in Japan.
Night tour through the jungle
Next to the daily tours through the jungle, agencies also offer guided night tours. We also went to one night tour. Your guide will take you on the safe trail, which looks more like doing circles around the agency than entering more deeply in the jungle. He’ll show you animals that are active at night – snakes, frogs, mammal kinkajou, spiders, etc.
Far between the treetops, for a moment we saw a sweet orange-brownish mammal from the raccoon family, a kinkajou, which can be spotted only in tropical rainforests. Poisonous snakes, such as Eyelash Viper and Green bamboo viper, and tarantulas with orange stripes were hiding inside the tree trunks, while Devil Mask Spiders were netting their webs in the agency’s backyard.
The Butterfly Garden in Monteverde
The next day, before we went for our new adventures in La Fortuna, we sat in a taxi and visited the Butterfly Garden. A nice Austrian girl, who was volunteering in the Butterfly Garden, welcomed us and showed us butterflies with fascinating names and characteristics:
1) Blue Morph – one of the largest butterflies in the world (20cm!) and the most famous Costa Rican butterfly, whose blue color is nothing but an optical illusion
2) Owl Butterfly – almost the same size as the Blue Morph, with two dots on his wings that resemble owls’ eyes. He eats fermented fruit (mango, pineapple, bananas), gets drunk from it, and flies around a bit dazed.
3) Glass Wing Butterfly with transparent wings – there is about 64 sub-species of this butterfly in the world!
4) Postman Butterfly – a black butterfly with red (or yellow) stripes on his upper wings, who got its name because of the same route that he takes every day. There is also a False Postman, a black butterfly with red stripes on his lower wings
5) Cracker Butterfly – they make a “cracking” sound with their wings when defending their territory or courting
6) Cappuccino Butterfly – a beautiful butterfly whose wings have the color of a cappuccino
We fell in love with the mountains and forests of Monteverde, with the cute Santa Elena village, where everybody was nice and kind. We got to know wonderful people – the lady in the tourist office, guys at the reception of Camino Verde B&B, our guides, bartenders and waiters in restaurants, hippies who sell hand-made products on stands, and especially our guide from the Frog Pond. We ran into the young guide from the Frog Pond one evening in one of the sodas and he offered us a glass of homemade schnapps. 🙂
Most of all, we fall in love with the jungle and its cute animals. I would definitely return to Monteverde!