At forty eight, the one thing I have never done is travel outside of the country. I have always wanted to but there have always been reasons or excuses as to why I didn’t. From thinking that I would never be able to afford it, to the fear of traveling alone, and so many more, were reasons why I never attempted it.
When I met Karl, he would enthrall me with his stories of traveling and, I must admit, I was jealous. I was also extremely shocked when he asked me about getting my passport and planning trips together.
Then Covid happened and I felt my chances were gone…
All of that changed last April when I was diagnosed as having cirrhosis. After acclimating to the idea of having it and starting to make changes to my lifestyle, I decided that now is the time and if any other options for travel came up, you can bet your bottom dollar that I would get my ass out to the country. Someone must have been listening because Karl came up with the idea of going to Costa Rica. I replied that you dont have to ask me twice and we decided to make the trip soon.
On February 11th, 2022 we boarded our escape from the United States and headed to Santa Elena, Costa Rica.
From a novice world traveler, here are my suggestions on how to visit Santa Elena, Costa Rica.
What and where in Santa Elena
First, let me explain that Santa Elena is a town inside the region of Monteverde (properly called Monte Verde) Costa Rica. Monteverde is talked about quite a bit in travel forums but they are typically referring to the town of Santa Elena. This is where the majority of hotels, restaurants, banks, and tourist shops are located. It is situated about two and a half hours northwest of San Jose, Costa Rica. If you fly into Costa Rica, San Jose is most likely where you will land.
The trip to Santa Elena is stunning. You get to see many of the micro-climates of the area. Going from the bustling city life of San Jose, the beach-side area of Punta Arenas, and up the winding switch back roads to Santa Elena. The views are breath-taking.
Where to stay
While hotel stays offer nice amenities, my preferred style of travel is to be immersive. That means staying, eating, and interacting with the locals. That being said, if you are going to the cloud forest area of Costa Rica, do yourself a favor and look for an AirBNB to stay in. You get the luxury of staying with someone who knows the area and can offer suggestions of what is good to eat, see, or do.
We stayed in an amazing treehouse style AirBNB, called simply Romantic #3. Check out this amazing treehouse luxury stay. It is absolutely beautiful and a perfect getaway for couples. Amenities include a queen size four poster bed, complete with mosquito netting, a small seating area in front of one of the large windows facing the cloud forest. A cozy breakfast nook just off a perfect sized kitchen for a treehouse, a walk in shower that would easily allow a couple to enjoy the rain shower head, and WiFi so you can send pics of your amazing stay to friends back home. Oh the jealous stares you will get.
We had the amazing luck of having hosts who prepared breakfast for us each day we were there. It consisted of the national dish of Costa Rica, Gallo Pinto, native fruits, and coffee.
What and where to eat
Food is where I think many people don’t experiment enough. Whether you are visiting a state you have never been to or a country around the world, you simply must eat the way its citizens do. Costa Rica is no different. Gallo Pinto (translation: Speckled Rooster) is an absolute must and can be made vegetarian as easily as it includes meat. It is traditionally served for breakfast. It is typically rice and beans with bell peppers, onions, and garlic. It is often cooked one of two ways. First, Valle Central – a more moist dish prepared with black beans and seasoned with chili, cilantro, and onions. It is less greasy than the other. Second, Guanacaste is more fatty. It is roasted and comes with red beans. We had the Valle Central version.
Be sure, when visiting places, to check out places where locals eat and buy food, you will find things that do not show up in tourist areas. This was how we found Costa Rican Tamales. Before you say you have had them, let me explain. In Costa Rica, these tamales are traditional for a Tico Christmas, so if you find them and its not Christmas buy one and try it. It is rare to seem them the rest of the year. It is made with masa, potatoes, garlic, peppers (of varying kinds), onions, and almost anything you would like to add. Once the tamales are formed, they are wrapped in banana leaves. They can be eaten both hot or cold.
This is another typical traditional dish of Costa Rica and translates into married man and is the main meal of the day. The dish will have many combinations but includes protein of some type, rice,beans, and vegetables. It is the dish prepared by wives for their husbands to take to work. It tends to be on the larger side as it is meant to give you enough energy for your hard day at work. Dinner is usually a lighter fair. Sodas often do a Casado of the day, which will vary in what it includes.
Sodas are restaurants where locals eat, short and simple. They serve traditions foods that everyone eats and affordable prices. There are not huge places to eat, usually a small shop on the side of the road or strip mall. Want to experience Costa Rica in all it has to offer than look no further.
La Cuchara de slow Abuels (Grandma’s Spoon) stands out for me because it is a part of the Casem Coop. This coop is ran by local women and the proceeds go back to the community, in support of women. This is where we also found an amazing convenience store that catered to locals.
The best soda we visited was on the last night of our stay in Santa Elena. It sits on the road, snug between a small grocery store and a touristy shop. It was ran by a mother and her two children and we watched as she prepared our order from scratch. It was the second best food we had, after the amazing breakfasts our hosts made us.
**Research if there are issues with water supplies for the area where you are traveling. This will help with any intestinal discomfort you may experience.**
What to do
I have already touched on how beautiful the country of Costa Rica is and Santa Elena is no slouch in that department. Where we stayed in the mountains was about a mile up, so looking out you were constantly met with sweeping vistas of the valleys below or the cloud forest surrounding you. You may wonder the difference between a rain and cloud forest.
Cloud forests are at higher elevations where it tends to be cooler. This allows for the cloud cover to dip into the surrounding forests, shrouding it in a veil that makes you feel you are in some ancient landscape set apart from our reality.
Rain forests are in lower levels where the air is warmer and causes precipitation to fall. Both have lots of animals but vary depending on which it is. Costa Rica has both and either way, each will leave you damp from your treks.
Reserva Bosque Nuboso, Santa Elena
The first day of our stay, we opted to go hiking in one of the cloud forest reserves. This reserve has 5 trails for you to explore, in total there is over four miles of trails that wander around the mountain side. At the peak is a tower that will give you a view of the Arenal Volcano, Lake Arenal, and (if the sky is clear enough) the Gulf of Nicoya. The trails advance from easy to slightly harder to give you the experience you want.
If you would like to have someone point out things you may miss, they do offer guided tours. They consist of a guide walking you through a small part of the reserve and point out all the flora and fauna you may see.
We prefered to take the hike at our own pace and wandered the trails on our own. This gave us the option of not having to follow a group, take any trail we wanted and see the things that we knew we wanted to experience.
The Bat Jungle
I have to say that this was an amazing stop in our trip. I have loved bats since I was a child. Seeing and hearing them flying around at dusk looking for food was the one way you always knew that spring was in full bloom and summer was on its heels. This is a one stop shop for all of your bat knowledge. Dr Richard Laval designed and operates this rescue with the intention of rehabilitating injured bats so that they don’t die in the wild. He also tries to dispel the myths surrounding bats and show you just how amazing these little mammals can be.
When we arrived, we were greeted by Dr. Laval and he let us know that he had not fully opened the sanctuary yet, due to being in quarantine for two weeks. They typically work on donations for tours and told us we could go in and check things out. We gave a donation anyway, since we were allowed to go in and check it out without a guide. Check the pictures and video for some of the things we saw.
While you are in Santa Elena, be sure to check out the Catarata Los Murcielagos waterfall. It requires a little hike that takes you right up to this gorgeous waterfall. As the water gracefully falls over the rocks, it pools into a serene spot just perfect for a dip. The only sounds you hear are the soft cascading water over the rocks. An absolute must to visit. Watch for the leaf cutter ants along the pathway.
Santa Elena also hosts the Monteverdi Ficus Root Bridge. It is a steep trail down to the river, but the descent shows you this awesome natural bridge in all of its splendid glory. You can’t miss it as you see a truck of the ficus tree with root structures snaking their way down to the ground. Need a good Instagram photo, this place is IT!!!
You cannot go to the Monteverde area without experiencing a night tour. These tours are designed to show you the cloud forest at night and all of the amazing animals that inhabit it. We opted to do a tour with Kinkajou Night Walk. The guides are great at what they do and make sure to give you the best experience in what animals may be running around the forest at night.
Putting it all together
While there are many places on my travel bucket list, Central America has been at the top since I was young. Meso-American history has always fascinated me, love for the Incan, Aztec, and Mayan cultures were always so amazing to me. That being said, this country is beautiful beyond description. There are so few places in the world where you can see more than three climates in one small place. If you love nature, hiking, and experiencing a culture that is warm and welcoming then you have to visit Costa Rica.
Pura Vida is the motto of Costa Rica and has been a part of their vocabulary for over 50 years. You may be asking what Pura Vida means, in short it means “pure life” or “simple life” and that is exactly what you get when you visit this country. Life in all of its glory and how it should be enjoyed, simply. Pura Vida is a way of not letting the negative circumstances drag you down, instead it focuses on being optimistic, happy, and full of life. Who does not want a little of that in their lives. With all I have gone through in the last year, experiencing Pura Vida, even for five days, was a much needed escape.
If you are looking for a destination to add to your passport, then start looking at flights and places to stay in this amazing country.