Monteverde, Costa Rica: A Forest in the Clouds

Last Updated: April 5, 2021

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. In this post, we’ll share all the information you need to plan your visit to Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds - Destination Guide

Orientation

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.

Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds - View of Downtown Santa Elena
View of downtown Santa Elena from above

Getting There

Getting to Monteverde, Costa Rica is often a topic of concern for first-time travelers. Indeed, some of the roads leading to this remote destination can be treacherous at times, but with the right vehicle, they are fine most of the year. We have a post about the two main driving routes to Monteverde and included some video footage of the road conditions to give you an idea.

Keep in mind that you don’t absolutely need a car in Monteverde. While attractions are spread out, most tours include transportation for free or a small fee. If you do decide to have a rental car, we recommend an SUV with higher clearance and 4×4 if possible. Check out our Rental Car Discount page to save 10% and get free extras.

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.  

If you would like help arranging a shared or private shuttle or the Jeep-Boat-Jeep option, please contact us through our Shuttle Booking page. 

How Much Time to Spend in Monteverde – Can You Visit as a Day Trip?

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.

Activities in Monteverde

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. Adventurous types can do heart-pumping activities like zip lining and whitewater rafting. With all to choose from, here is a narrowed-down list of some things you won’t want to miss. 

Hiking

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 like December and January.

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.

We highly recommend getting a naturalist guide for your hike through the cloud forest. Birds and animals are often hiding in the thick canopy, making many visitors leave disappointed that they didn’t see much. Guided hikes are around $75-85 per person, which includes admission.

Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds - Hiking Curi Cancha Reserve
Enjoying the trails (almost) all to ourselves at Curi-Cancha Reserve

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. Usually the terrain is fairly flat so these kinds of tours are good for just about everyone, seniors and kids included.

Prices are around $30 per person. 

Zip Lining and Hanging Bridges

Monteverde has numerous zip-line operators and 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 monkeys. We’ve done lots of hanging bridges around Costa Rica, but Monteverde’s are some of the best. 

There are several operators in town that offer combo tours where you can do both zip lining and hanging bridges. Prices are around $105 per person.

Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds - Zip Lining through the Cloud Forest
View of a zip liner from one of Monteverde’s hanging bridge parks

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 Chocolate 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 and chocolate, 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.

Ficus Tree

One of the coolest things we have done in Monteverde was climb 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 map with approximate location here). 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!  

Climbing the ficus tree in Monteverde
Climbing the giant ficus tree!

Restaurant Recommendations in Monteverde

The Monteverde area has an abundance of eateries to please all palates, 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.

Green Restaurant

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.

Restaurant Guide Monteverde, Costa Rica - Green Restaurant
Tagliatelle Alfredo with shrimp at Green Restaurant

Tramonti

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.

Cafe Cabure

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 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.

Restaurant Guide to Monteverde, Costa Rica - Cafe Cabure
Sea Bass with almonds at Cafe Cabure

Sabor Tico

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.

Where to Eat in Monteverde, Costa Rica - Orchid Garden Cafe
Delicious crepe at the Orchid Cafe

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.

Eating local in Monteverde, Costa Rica at Soda Abuela
Wood stove at Soda Abuela where all the magic happens

Stella’s Bakery

We first discovered this cafe after giving the owner’s elderly father a ride 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. Located across the street from CASEM on the road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Hotels in Monteverde

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.

Hotel Belmar

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. We have had several clients stay here in the past, all with rave reviews. Located right outside downtown Santa Elena off the main road to Monteverde. $160-600/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.

Monteverde Destination Guide - Where to Stay - Hotel Belmar
A view of the cloud forest at Hotel Belmar

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 on the main road between Santa Elena and Monteverde. $100-200/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.

Monteverde Destination Guide - Where to Stay - Los Pinos Cabinas
One of the standalone cabins at Los Pinos Cabanas

Monteverde Inn

While many budget options are 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. $50-85/night (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.

Monteverde Destination Guide - Where to Stay - Monteverde Inn
Rooms are close to the trailhead of the private reserve at Monteverde Inn

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: April 5, 2021

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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:

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – Learn about the Reserve’s Quaker history and what to expect for trail conditions and wildlife. 

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 travel days memorable.

Destinations Summary Guide – Where to after Monteverde? This summary guide gives an overview of Costa Rica’s many unique destinations and links to our detailed articles so you can learn more. 

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