Costa Rica represents less than one half of one percent of all the land mass in the world, yet it's home to five percent of the world's biodiversity. To help preserve this delicate eco-system, much of the land is protected—including the reserves found in and around Monteverde, an area which has become a model of sustainable tourism in the nation.
Monteverde is about three hours northwest of the capital of San José, in the province of Puntarenas. It's positioned amid the Sierra de Tilarán mountain range between Guanacaste Province, to the west, and Arenal to the northeast. (If that famous volcano is also on your itinerary, see our Ultimate Guide to Arenal.)
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
Monteverde has unquestionably become one of Costa Rica's most popular draws, making it a must-do for 70,000 tourists each year. Its popularity is largely due to its many protected reserves, including the star of the show: the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Listed in National Geographic and Newsweek as one of the top cloud forest reserves in the world, the government even deemed it one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Costa Rica.
The Monteverde reserve contains an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, miles of rewarding hiking trails, and proximity to more of Costa Rica's popular stops. Interestingly, its origins can be traced to Quakers who settled the area in the 1950s. After fleeing the U.S. to avoid the Korean War draft, the cool climate of Monteverde allowed them to set up dairy farms in the region. They had the wisdom to set aside a tract of land for conservation, which eventually became the mammoth 26,000-acre biological reserve we know today.
Crafting Your Itinerary
If you're planning on a quick visit to the biological reserve, two days will do the trick. Your trip can be done in a weekend away from San José—but you can easily fill more time with adventure activities, guided hikes, visits to neighboring reserves, and more. This week-long Costa Rica trip features three days in the area, sandwiched between visits to the aforementioned Arenal and the wildlife-rich Damas Island Estuary.
If you're on a two-week holiday, you can make a tour of the nation's most beloved protected areas—this example includes three days of exploration in Monteverde, along with Tortuguero, Arenal, and Manuel Antonio national parks. Or mix it up with 14 days of Pacific Coast highlights including the Gulf of Papagayo and Tenorio Volcano National Park.
The main hub from which to embark on nature excursions within Monteverde is the town of Santa Elena. It is easily accessible by taking the Pan-American Highway (Ruta 1) northwest out of San José towards Puntarenas, eventually making your way to Route 606. Note that you'll encounter (well-maintained) dirt roads along this route. If you're traveling in dry season, you can get away with a standard vehicle; travelers visiting in the green season should opt for 4WD.
From Arenal, head south toward Tilaran before connecting to aforementioned Route 606. Consider a pit stop at Viento Fresco: a series of waterfalls accessed by a moderate hike roughly halfway between La Fortuna and Monteverde. Coming from Tilaran, you'll see signs; when you hit a dirt road, you have about 1.5 miles to go.
The biological reserve is just four miles southeast of Santa Elena. To arrive, you'll travel over a road that is unpaved part of the way. This road ends at the entrance to the reserve, at which point there's a visitor center that provides maps. The park is open daily from 7 am to 4 pm.
There are many options for private tours and shuttle transports from San José to Monteverde. There are also bus services. To arrive at Monteverde by bus you can purchase tickets through Transmonteverde S.A. The company offers two services per day (one at 6:30 am and another at 2:30 pm) and leaves from Terminal 7-10 in the city center or at the Villa Bonita station in the Alajuela area of San José, by the international airport (SJO). The bus trip takes between five and six hours.
There are no flights to Monteverde. The nearest air route is San José to La Fortuna/Arenal, served by Sansa Airlines.
What to See and Do
One of the attributes of this reserve is that you can hike almost all of it in four hours or fewer, which includes stops to rest and take photos. Many of the trails ascend in altitude and offer views of the cloud forest canopy. You'll find the best vantage points from the many suspension bridges that connect the trails. All told, there is an eight-mile network of well-maintained trails in the reserve, featuring clear signs in both English and Spanish.
Sendero Bosque Nuboso (1.2 miles) is one of the most popular trails in the reserve. Over its course, it gains an elevation of about 213 feet and at one point features a viewpoint of the Continental Divide. You're treated to some stunning flora along the way, including the tendril-like branches of strangler figs. You should be able to finish the trail in an hour and a half.
Sendero Pantanoso (1 mile) is another trail that runs along the Continental Divide. This one, however, passes through a swamp forest and includes conifer trees. Most people complete the trail in just over an hour.
Sendero El Río (1.2 miles) is a trail that runs along the Quebrada Cuecha ravine. It features bridges over streams and there's a side trail that runs to a small, inviting waterfall that looks like something out of Tolkien. Most finish this trail in about an hour and a half.
There's no better way to enjoy the high-altitude forests of Monteverde than to zip over the treeline like you're flying. It's such an ideal spot, in fact, that Costa Rica's popular canopy tours were invented right here. Many of the providers in the reserve offer tours comprised of multiple cable systems that send you racing high above the trees, often for thousands of feet at a time. There are countless canopy companies, and tours usually last between two and three hours.
Santa Elena & Curi-Cancha Reserves
To get away from the crowds, head to Reserva Santa Elena. Located four miles northeast of Santa Elena's town center, it sits at a higher altitude than Monteverde Cloud Forest (5,249 feet above sea level) and is much smaller (about 765 acres total). It hardly matters, because in Reserva Santa Elena you're treated to the same cloud forest environment, along with the requisite wildlife—sloths, howler monkeys, coatis, agoutis, and more.
The reserve has about 7.5 miles of trails and many scenic lookouts. From certain vantage points, you can see all the way to Arenal Volcano in the northeast. Monteverde manages Reserva Santa Elena, with all proceeds going back towards improvements in the community. Like Monteverde Cloud Forest, this reserve is open from 7 am to 4 pm.
Another nearby option is the privately operated Curi-Cancha Reserve, a smaller swath of forest located between the Monteverde and Santa Elena reserves that makes up for its size by limiting the number of visitors to 50 at a time. Opt for a guided tour of the reserve's petite trail system (private and group tours are available)—birdwatching here is superb and you'll benefit from the knowledge of a local expert when ID'ing different species.
Inveterate birders won't be disappointed with the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the El Camino trail is your best bet. It's a mellow mile-long route, and you're almost guaranteed to see exotic butterflies, hummingbirds, grey-throated leaftossers, and the Chiriquí quail-dove, among many others. If you're really lucky you might even spot the brightly colored Resplendent Quetzal—the David Bowie of birds.
The network of trails at the Santa Elena Reserve also offers good birding. The white head of the male three-wattled bellbird is unmistakable in this area. You might also catch glimpses of the spotted barbtail, streak-breasted treehunter, or three-striped warbler. At Curi-Cancha, you can expect to see various types of hummingbirds (including green-crowned brilliants), black-breasted wood quails, and prong-billed barbets. Go early—the reserve opens at 7 am.
When to Go
Monteverde enjoys a microclimate that makes it unique. The area sits at an altitude of 4,600 feet above sea level, which means the region is misty, humid, and receives its fair share of wind—and is actually home to various hydroelectric and wind energy projects. It's also much cooler here than in neighboring Guanacaste Province, enjoying an average annual temperature of 64°F. Humidity varies between 74% and 94%.
Temperatures don't fluctuate much throughout the year—the thermometer continuously hovers in the mid-80's—but for the best chances of dry weather, go in winter. January through March is pleasant but crowded, and June-July also sees a spike in tourists. Summer and fall bring heavy rains, but crowds are smaller and you'll do just fine with a rain jacket and waterproof footwear (and rainstorms typically wait to disrupt the day until the afternoon).
This climate creates the conditions necessary to produce the biggest natural draw of the area: cloud cover perpetually hangs over the treetops, forming the famed Monteverde Cloud Forest. Be sure to pack water-resistant layers and accessories—think hats, jackets, and parkas. If you're planning on hiking in the nature reserves, bring breathable clothing, daypacks, and boots.
Where to Stay & Eat
Most visitors to Monteverde choose to lodge in Santa Elena, as it's central and features the most accommodations. It's also ideal if you don't have a car, as the downtown area is walkable. Know that most lodging options anywhere in and around Santa Elena are going to be more rustic than the luxury resorts found on the coast, and few places offer air-conditioned rooms.
If you plan on staying in Santa Elena, consider one of the many B&Bs in town. Mar Inn and Eddy's Place are two solid options that will make you feel right at home. If you want to stay closer to the reserve, and don't mind splurging on a bit of luxury, try the Hotel Belmar. With its wood design, you'll feel like you're staying in a Viennese chalet. It promotes sustainability and features a farm-to-table restaurant. The killer mountain views and on-site brewery are nothing to scoff at either.
As for restaurants in town, for organic dining on a budget head to The Green Restaurant. The menu ranges from burgers and steaks to sea bass and tempura. You won't find a more welcoming staff anywhere. For a wide-ranging menu of Italian fare and pizzas, try Don Luis. They serve vegetarian plates as well. And, of course, the best coffee in the country can be found in Santa Elena—be sure to sample a cup before you leave at beloved café Beso Coffee.
Monteverde Travel Tips
To ensure your entry to any of the reserves, arrive at or before opening times. Or, have your local specialist make a reservation for you in advance. Arriving early will also work to your advantage for wildlife viewing and birdwatching.
Ask your specialist about booking a night walk tour of Monteverde to see nocturnal animals, like spiders and viper snakes. Night hikes are also offered at nearby Wildlife Refuge Monteverde—capped at 8 people, your group might encounter kinkajous, tarantulas, and the elusive grey fox.
For birders, the best time to spot the famed and elusive resplendent quetzal is during their breeding season from February through July.
Consider hiring a guide when entering Monteverde Cloud Forest. Experiencing the reserve with a multilingual guide allows for greater insight on the flora and fauna. Guided group tours typically last 2.5 hours and the park entrance fee is included in the price.