We had a wonderful peaceful walk through Santa Elena. Our hostel suggested we arrive early, so we took the first bus we could get on (before 7am!). We opted to do the guided tour, and were so glad we did! First off, it can be nearly impossible to spot wildlife in these forests because they are so big and dense. The guides are experts, and our guide could even recognize various birds and animals by their calls. We were there the day after a big rain. We didn't see a huge amount of wildlife (the guide was surprised, normally the day after rain, animals are very active), but the walk through alone was worth the price. We learned a lot about the local flora and fauna, and even got to see a plant that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. The trails are actually gravel and are very well maintained... at one point you have to climb up quite a few stairs, so be ready for that... But I'm not in the best shape (unless you consider round a shape) and I made it fine, so don't worry. We chose Santa Elena over Monteverde because it was less expensive, and it was definitely worth what we spent.
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