Santa Elena (Costa Rica)
Santa Elena is located a little over 100 miles from San Jose, Costa Rica. You can get there by bus, nominally in 4.5 hours, but often in actuality 5 or 6 hours. The cost for bus transport is very little, around $4US. Easier and faster transport is by Interbus which takes 3 hours and costs about $29US. Interbus will take you door to door from hotels in San Jose and Santa Elena.
If you come from the La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano area, you have 2 options:
You can also drive, in which case a 4x4 is recommended. If you are coming south along Highway 1 from Liberia, take the turn off to Sardinal (near a gas station), which will give you a paved road until about Guacimal, at which point the road becomes dirt and is quite rough. The views along these roads are stunning. The drive to Santa Elena once you leave Highway 1 will take anywhere from 1 to almost 2 hours depending on your vehicle type and how often you stop to take pictures. Santa Elena has a gas station and a supermarket. Currently the roads in the centre have been paved.
Santa Elena is a very small mountain town located in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. The main part of town is where three roads come together forming a single block triangular center to the town. Everything in Santa Elena can be seen on foot. Busses and taxis queue up along one street for transport to nearby Monteverde and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. In the center there is also a discotheque, which offers music, a bar, and karaoke. Although it can be a fun time, it is often occupied by drunk locals looking for a good time with female tourists.
Note that all of these cost money, from about $8 to enter the Ranario and Butterfly gardens to $35-$50 to do the zip line tours.
A tour operator in Santa Elena described as a "giant amusement park" which is not far from the mark. There are many touristy things to do, like zip line canopy tours, ATV or horseback riding, and many flora and fauna exhibits. As far as touristy towns go, however, Santa Elena feels different, as the activities are all centered around enjoying the natural beauty and diversity of the region, and there generally seems to be a good deal of respect for the environment, due in part to the presence of nearby eco-tourism and sustainability universities.
The main attraction in Santa Elena is of course the cloud forest. You have two basic options here: the Monteverde cloud forest (the classic) and the Santa Elena cloud forest. There are very similar in terms of what you will see and experience, but Santa Elena is cheaper. Monteverde is about $17 to enter per person (about $9 for students; be prepared to show a student ID), and $17 per person for a guided tour. The guided tours are strongly promoted by the parks, to the extent that they seem to have removed signs describing trees and wildlife to make a guide all the more necessary. That said, the guides really do know what they are doing and talking about. They are adept at spotting wildlife and identifying plants and trees, and discussing the ecosystem, and they will get you close-up views with their telescopes (and even snap pictures for you through the telescope).
In the cloud forests, you will have a decent chance of seeing any of the following, in addition to a wide variety of trees (including the spectacular parasitic fig trees), plants, and fungi.
Admission to the parks is good for a full day. Tours generally start early (around 7:30AM) and run for about 3 hours, so you'll be able to do some walking around by yourself after the tour. At Monteverde, you will also be able to enjoy a coffee or espresso (made with locally-produced beans) and sandwich next to the Hummingbird garden.
Buses run to the Monteverde reserve several times a day. Lodgings should be able to provide the current schedule. The bus costs 600 colones per person. The bus to Santa Elena reserve must be arranged in advance and costs $2 per person.
There really isn't too much in the way of tourist junk to buy. There is a local super market and many hostels, several places to eat and a bakery.
Chimera - located across the road from El Establo hotel. Excellent latin inspired dishes and fancy reasonably priced drinks. I recommend the coconut rice, roasted eggplant, yucca fries, and fried plantain (all about 3 USD each).
The bus station for the TransMonteverde company is located five to 10 minutes' walk outside central Santa Elena on the road towards Monteverde, in a shopping center across from Restaurante Sabor Tico. The station's normal office hours start at 5:00 am (although there are earlier departures). Buses go to Puntarenas via Las Juntas and via Lagartos, and to San Jose. Note that the ticket counter accepts only cash.
To go to Liberia, take the bus for Puntarenas via Lagartos and get off at Lagartos, which is the junction of route 605 and the Panamerican Highway. There, you can hail a bus going to Liberia. Be prepared to wait as much as an hour. Lagartos itself is just a roadside concrete pad, but a supermarket is located one block up the road towards Puntarenas.
Also recommended is the Jeep/Boat/Jeep trip to La Fortuna. This trip takes about half a day. Also consider horseback/boat/jeep to La Fortuna. Ask at the desk at Pension Santa Elena, they know everything about the area.