Located in the country’s northwestern mountains and straddling the Continental Divide is one of Costa Rica’s top ecotourism destinations, Monteverde. Translating to Green Mountain, this small town, originally founded by Quakers, really lives up to its name. Here, trees are covered in layers of thick moss and plants grow on top of one another due to a constant haze of clouds and filtered sun. This unique habitat, called the cloud forest, is home to an abundance of birds and other wildlife. We recently took our fourth trip to Monteverde, and in this post, share all the info you need to plan your visit.
Monteverde lies inland from Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, high in the Tilaran Mountain Range (Cordillera de Tilaran). While remote, it is only about three hours from each of Costa Rica’s international airports in San Jose and Liberia. Monteverde is also a popular pass-through destination for people going from La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano to points along the Pacific coast and vice versa.
The Monteverde area is actually made up of two separate towns. One, of course, is Monteverde and the other is Santa Elena. Santa Elena is the first town you come to when arriving and has a busy, but small, downtown with shops, restaurants, a few attractions, and some hotels. Many people visiting without a car choose to stay here for the convenience. From Santa Elena, one road connects to Monteverde and eventually dead-ends at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Monteverde itself doesn’t have a defined downtown. Instead, things are spread out along the road or nestled into the forest on smaller side roads.
Tip: There is a lot packed into the main roads and side streets, but finding everything can be a challenge. We recommend keeping a map of the local area handy. Here is a link to an awesome one that we found online.
Getting to Monteverde is often a topic of concern for first-time travelers. Indeed, the roads leading to this remote destination can be treacherous at times, but with the right vehicle, they are fine most of the year. In our opinion, driving yourself is worth the effort since attractions are spread out. We recently wrote a post about the two main driving routes to Monteverde and included some video footage of the road conditions. This should help you decide if you are comfortable driving.
Tip: No matter what time of year you visit, we recommend an SUV with higher clearance and 4×4 if possible. Check out our Rental Car Discount page to get the best rates.
If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, shared or private shuttle vans are a popular choice. Many people are also intrigued by the Jeep-Boat-Jeep option that goes between the La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano area and Monteverde. This is a shared shuttle van service with a nice boat ride across Lake Arenal in the middle. Lastly, public buses can take you to and from Monteverde, though they tend to be slower and may require connections.
How Much Time to Spend
Many people look at the map and figure that they can do Monteverde on a day trip from La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano and even parts of Guanacaste. Although Monteverde may seem close, as we mentioned, the roads and mountainous conditions make for at least a three hour drive no matter where you’re coming from. While possible, driving to Monteverde as a day trip makes for a long, exhausting day.
We recommend staying for at least a couple of nights to make the trip worthwhile. Two nights is the minimum amount of time to see the major attractions. If you prefer to travel at a slower pace or have more must-sees on your list, staying three or four nights is best. You still won’t run out of things to do and great places to eat.
You would never guess that Monteverde is a small town based on the long list of activities available. Nature lovers can enjoy hiking, bird-watching, gardens, and wildlife exhibits, while adventurous types can do heart-pumping activities like zip lining and four-wheeling. With all to choose from, here is a narrowed-down list of some things you won’t want to miss.
Hiking through the cloud forest is the most popular activity in Monteverde. There are several protected areas to choose from, but the most visited is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This reserve gives an excellent cloud forest experience and has trails for all levels, but can get busy during peak tourist months. Less crowded options include the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, which is higher altitude, and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the largest private reserve in Costa Rica. There are also many smaller reserves. Curi-Cancha is one, and we found it to have some of the best bird-watching because of its varied habitat.
Night Tours: Most of the reserves also offer guided night tours. These tours allow you to see different types of wildlife that might not be active during the day and are fun because, well, it’s dark. Night tours are very popular in Monteverde, so try to find one that offers a small group setting.
Zip Lining and Hanging Bridges
Monteverde has numerous zip-line operators and several hanging bridge facilities. Not many people know this, but Monteverde is where zip lining was first developed for tourism back in the 1990s. While zip lines are now found throughout Costa Rica, cruising through the clouds is a unique experience to just Monteverde. Hanging bridges offer another way to enjoy the cloud forest canopy (see cover photo, above). Strolling through the treetops, you can see lots of birds and occasionally other wildlife like sloths or monkeys. We’ve done lots of hanging bridges around Costa Rica, but Monteverde’s are some of the best. There are also several operators in town that offer combo tours where you can do both.
Gardens and Wildlife Exhibits
Monteverde is known as being one of the most biodiverse places in Costa Rica, with hundreds of different plants, animals, and birds. Seeing wildlife or specific plants in the cloud forest, though, can be difficult since the foliage is so thick and cloud cover so dense.
To supplement what you will see on the trail, it’s fun to check out the many nature exhibits around town. These really showcase how much life can be found in the area. Some are attached to other attractions (a hanging bridge company might have a hummingbird garden), but many are stand-alone like the Monteverde Orchid Garden, Monteverde Butterfly Garden, Serpentario, Bat Jungle, and Hummingbird Gallery. These places are great to visit if you have extra time between tours or need to duck away during a passing rain shower.
Coffee and Agricultural Tours
Before Monteverde became a popular tourist spot, farming was how most locals made a living. Today, many families still work the fertile land. Coffee, along with sugar cane, is the most prominent crop in the area. You will see the shiny green leaves of this important plant lining the steep hills on your drive into town.
Several different coffee tours are available in Monteverde. Some are larger, more commercial operations, while others feature small, organic farms. Tours may include a ride in a traditional ox-cart, sugar-cane demonstration, or chocolate-making component.
One of the coolest things we did in Monteverde was climbing a giant ficus tree. Certain ficus species compete for light in the cloud forest by wrapping around larger trees and winding their way to the top. Eventually, the host tree gets strangled out and rots away. What’s left is a one-of-a-kind lattice that is hollow in the middle—basically a ladder into the canopy. You can climb several of these trees around Monteverde, usually as part of a tour. One you can visit on your own is located directly across from the entrance to the Original Canopy Tour (see the map we link to, above, which pinpoints the location). Look for a small trailhead and follow it down and to the left for about 5-10 minutes. Of course, climb this at your own risk as it goes up at least 50 feet!
The Monteverde area has an abundance of eateries to please all pallets, many using locally grown ingredients from small farms and dairies. A lot of international restaurants are popular for dinner, including Italian and fusion offerings, while cafes, bakeries, and sodas (traditional Costa Rican restaurants) are available for lunch. Here’s a list of some that we have enjoyed.
For an elegant dinner in Santa Elena, head to the Green Restaurant. This farm-to-table restaurant features chicken, steak, fish, and pasta entrees paired with interesting sauces. Many of the ingredients come from the owner’s own family farm. Located in Plaza Monteverde (near the Mega Super grocery store) on the second floor.
One of the most popular options in town, this charming Italian eatery has delicious homemade pasta, brick-oven pizza, and tasty desserts like Tiramisu. The atmosphere at Tramonti is romantic for dinner and warm and welcoming for lunch, especially after hiking in the cool cloud forest. Located just before the CASEM art cooperative on the road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Offering a large menu that ranges from sandwiches and wraps to chicken, fish, beef, or pasta, Cafe Cabure cooks up eclectic food with an Argentinian flare. Be sure to save room for dessert as they make their own chocolates (including truffles). Located next to the Bat Jungle on the road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Note: We loved the food here but were given a terrible exchange rate on our bill. Be sure to ask for the check in local Colones so this doesn’t happen to you.
A staple in town, Sabor Tico serves up typical Costa Rican cuisine and is the best spot to catch a soccer game on TV or have a beer. This place can get crowded with locals and visitors alike because the food is really good, so be sure to bring your patience. Has two locations in Santa Elena: one in Plaza Monteverde (near the Mega Super grocery store) on the second floor, and another across the street from the soccer field.
Orchid Garden Cafe
This well-loved hangout right in downtown Santa Elena offers a wide selection of coffees and drinks, both hot and cold. They also have a huge food menu with everything from waffles and crepes to wraps, salads, and dinner entrees. Free Wifi and a nice outdoor deck keep patrons here for hours so make sure to grab a table when you can. Open for all three meals, with breakfast served all day.
Soda Abuela at the CASEM Gift Shop
Hidden in the back corner of the CASEM art collaborative building is Soda Abuela. If you are looking for an authentic dining experience in Costa Rica, this is your place. Dishes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), casados (lunch plates), and traditional soups are carefully prepared on a woodstove by local woman who know what they are doing. As a bonus, while eating here you can explore the CASEM gift shop, which has a decent selection of artwork and crafts made by locals.
We first discovered this cafe after giving the owner’s elderly father a lift into town from the countryside. He recommended we stop by and we are happy we did. Stella’s is a comfortable lunch spot that offers many soups and sandwiches. They also have homemade baked goods like giant cinnamon buns, empanadas, and carrot cake, if you only need a snack. Located across the street from CASEM on the road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
The hippest place around to grab a coffee, espresso, or latte is Beso Espresso. This tiny coffee shop in downtown Santa Elena will give you just the jolt you need to get your day started or keep you going for the afternoon. While there are quite a few coffee shops to choose from in Monteverde, Beso Espresso is one of the best. Located around the corner from the church in Santa Elena.
Monteverde Cheese Factory
Founded by Quaker settlers in the 1950s, the Monteverde Cheese Factory still makes cheese and other dairy products to this day. Although the factory recently stopped offering tours, it is still worth a visit to sample the delicious ice cream and cheeses. The Monteverde Cheese Factory shop and cafe is located on the road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Below are a few of our favorite hotels and lodges in the Monteverde area. For a full list in all price ranges, read our separate post, Monteverde Hotel Guide. This guide gives our complete recommendations for everything from family-friendly cabins and affordable inns to romantic lodges with cloud-forest views. It also gives essential tips on what to look for in lodging.
With gorgeous architecture that compliments the breathtaking views, Hotel Belmar is best described as a luxury lodge. Nestled in the cloud forest, this boutique hotel has well-appointed rooms and brilliant wood finishes throughout. Its restaurant embodies the hotel’s focus on sustainability by offering farm-to-table cuisine, homemade mixers, and craft beer that is brewed onsite. Located right outside downtown Santa Elena off the main road to Monteverde. $150-350, includes breakfast. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Los Pinos Cabanas
A good mid-range option, especially for those who like privacy, is Los Pinos Cabanas. Stand-alone cabins are spaced out on the wooded property with forest and trails in between. The various-sized cottages accommodate everyone from couples to larger families and offer fully equipped kitchens that allow you to dine in if you want. There’s even a free-use veggie garden. Located between Santa Elena and Monteverde. $80-150, includes breakfast. Check Rates and Availability Here.
While many budget options are located in downtown Santa Elena, the Monteverde Inn sits within secluded cloud forest. Various room setups accommodate solo travelers, couples, and families. Trails through their private reserve are free for guests, and the property is known for having a wide variety of birds and animals. Located next to the Monteverde Butterfly Garden on a side road between Santa Elena and Monteverde. $40-75 double occupancy, breakfast included. Check Rates and Availability Here.
For one of Costa Rica’s more remote destinations, Monteverde certainly has a lot to offer. Whether you’re looking for a quiet escape, thrilling adventure, or something in between, you can find the perfect mix here in the green, misty cloud forests. We’ve enjoyed each trip we’ve taken to Monteverde and can’t wait to return again to discover more.
Last Updated September 21, 2016
Have a question about your upcoming trip to Monteverde? Post your comment below.
Looking for more information to help you plan? Check out these posts:
- Best Hotels Near SJO Airport – If you’re flying in or out of San Jose, don’t settle for a bland airport hotel. See our picks that will make your first or last days of travel memorable.
- Rental Car Discount – We mentioned it above, but having a rental car in Monteverde is the best way to explore the spread out attractions. Check out the great rates on a reliable SUV here.
- Destinations Summary Guide – Where to after Monteverde? This summary guide gives a brief overview of Costa Rica’s many unique destinations. It also links to our detailed articles about them so you can learn more.