Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves are in the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica.
The cheapest way to get to Monteverde is by bus, but you may also choose to use the "Jeep-boat-jeep" option (which in reality is more of a "bus-boat-bus" trip) if you are coming from La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano area.
Travellers going to Monteverde by public bus have limited options. From the west (Tamarindo, Liberia, Nicoya), you take any bus going to San Jose, and ask to get off at La Irma for Monteverde. You will be dropped off at a gas station at a crossroads. Cross the street to the road going up the hill and there will be a small bus stop for buses going up to Las Juntas and Monteverde. Only 2 public buses per day go to Monteverde from La Irma, at 10:00 and 15:00. The afternoon buses can often be up to 30 minutes late. Taxis are available from here and cost US$60 for up to 4 people; speaking a bit of Spanish helps as the drivers will tell you about the region and stop at viewpoints.
You may also choose to get a rental car. The roads within Santa Elena are now paved, but only as far as the gas station. The road to the reserve is not paved. Renting a car is thus not such a bad idea. In the dry season there is no need for a 4WD. While the road up to Montverde is unsealed it is graded, with much non 4WD traffic daily. In the wet season a 4WD would be the safer route, or at the very least a vehicle with ample ground clearance and where the spare tyre is in good condition - you may have to use it.
There are also private transportation companies that offer private transfers in a private vehicle. There are also shuttle services that charge around US$29 per person from anywhere in the country. These are not private, however, and sometimes use window vans that are packed like sardines. Instead of paying your hostel to book the shuttle you can book yourself for some companies like RocaVerde.
Beware of pickpockets on the public bus. Don't put your backpack in the overhead rack.
There are several taxi companies, and local bus services are going up and down the hill every 2 hours every day. Many of the activities in the area are in walking distance. The ones further away have free transportation included in their price.
The most scenic parts of Monteverde are at the Trocha in San Luis, at the Ventana in the Monteverde Reserve or at the Mirador in the Santa Elena Reserve. Mist and clouds often obscure these views.
Monteverde's appeal centers on its scenery and nature. Many ecosystems exist in the numerous reserves, such as Bajo del Tigre, the Santa Elena Reserve, the Bosque Eterno de los Niños and the world-famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Organized activities in Monteverde are not cheap. Simple guided tours can cost US$35-40, and more intense activities such as ziplining cost $45 and up. Commissions are a driving force in Monteverde and your hotel receptionist will not always sell the best tour, but the one that gives the largest commission. For example when you book a night tour and pay US$25 for the 2-hour hike, the hotel will be paid $10 for making the booking. You paid the hotel $10 per person for calling and making a booking for you. The ziplines offer a minimum $25 commission to book them. You will be pressured to book those things that offer the largest commissions at many places, especially if the room is cheap! So make sure to book directly through the attraction.
A major industry is the zipline business, and there are several choices, including the Original Canopy Tour, Sky Trek and Selvatura Park. These "canopy tours" offer a good albeit fast look at the canopy from dizzying heights. Often there are hanging bridges and cloud forest hikes at these locations as well and they provide better views of wildlife but less adrenalin.
Other attractions include:
- the Bat Jungle, with live bats, museum & an Argentinean restaurant
- the Frog Pond
- 1 The Original Monteverde Butterfly Garden, ☏ . 4 gardens, hundreds of butterflies and live insects all included in the price! Half the price of other similar attractions in town. In the center of Santa Elena and Monteverde in Cerro Plano. $15/person for tour.
- the Victorian-style Butterfly Garden at Selvatura Park
- the astounding Insect Museum in the same complex
- the San Luis waterfall
- the very interesting Bajo del Tigre night walk
- Caburé Chocolate tour, Center of Monteverde, ☏ . 14:00-16:00. A bean-to-bar chocolate tour at an Oompa-Loopa-sized chocolate factory.
- horseback riding. All-day cowboy ride and San Luis Waterfall ride.
- 2 San Luis Botanical Garden, San Luis de Monteverde (UGA Costa Rica Campus), ☏ . This botanical garden has arboretum trails and 75 species of medicinal plants. Resident naturalists offer day and night-time natural history walks through forest trails. Visitors can also participate in UGA Costa Rica's Carbon Offset Program and help reforest with native species, and enjoy a cup of coffee or fresh, cold juice and a meal after hiking to the San Luis waterfall.
- 3 Catarata Los Murcielagos - Monteverde Waterfall, ☏ . A fun 10 minute hike down to the waterfall. Has some steep steps but nothing crazy. You can swim there for a nice place to cool off mid-day. $6 per person.
- Marvin Anchia (Horse Trek Monteverde), Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica (Santa Elena Center with Desafio Adventure Company), ☏ . Horse-back riding in Monteverde Costa Rica. From 2.5 hours to the all-day cowboy ride and San Luis horseback ride. Good horses, fantastic scenery.
All throughout the main drag of Santa Elena, T-shirts, shot glasses and other standard tourist fares are sold. Coffee products are sold throughout town as well, though the Coffee Roaster in Monteverde is particularly noteworthy. A women's art commune, CASEM, is a good place to look for wooden wares and a variety of rainforest themed stuffed animals, but is not cheap. Cerro Plano also boasts a South American clothing store, which is relatively cheap but certainly not Costa Rican. Overall, Monteverde souvenirs are tourist-geared kitsch, however.
If you're looking for something to read there aren't too many options. Librería Chunches, the local "book store" wasn't open when I was around and based on the photos it seems like they only have tourist books. However, the Monteverde Coffee Center has a book exchange (give a book take a book). Also, The Pension Santa Elena Hotel has a small collection of used books in the lobby that you may be able to read or exchange for.
Food options at the Santa Elena Reserve are limited. There is a small cafe that mostly serves dead animals. If you came to the reserve because you wanted to see live animals, you may want to bring your own snacks.
Go to downtown Santa Elena to get the best food. There is a variety of cuisines to choose from Sushi to tapas to Tipico and burger joints. Sophias Restaurant has really exotic food. Tramonti is great for Italian food. Fried chicken next to the bank in Santa Elena. Great chocolates at Café Caburé. Orchid Cafe do great panini and smoothies.
- Panaderia Jimenez, San Elena and Canitas. The Panaderia Jiménez on Santa Elena's main street has delicious bread, pastries, coffee, and more at budget prices. Stop by for breakfast or a snack for the trail or bus ride. Their products are served at restaurants and on the store shelf throughout the region.
- Café Caburé, Center of Monteverde, ☏ . 09:00-21:00. Café Caburé is an Argentine restaurant, chocolate, and coffee shop, located at the Paseo de Stella Tourist Center in Old Monteverde. Products include handmade truffles and assorted chocolates, as well as a variety of Argentine and other international dishes. Fine food at a moderate price.
- Pension Santa Elena Hotel (Gelato). This hotel doesn't have a restaurant but the owners make their own Gelato. Based on a few days spent at the hotel it seems very popular with people coming to the hotel just to pickup the ice cream.
- 1 CASEMCOOP Shop and Restarrant. 8AM-4PM. Restaurant at the back of an all-women artist collective shop. Take a break from the touristy variety of Santa Elena restaurant fare and enjoy delicious, home-cooked quality Costa Rican food. Order and pay at the counter. Main dishes cost around ₡ 4,000.
Despite being packed with tourists, Santa Elena is not a party destination, and much of the town shuts down after 21:00. However, the bars do stay open for any people who do want to have a night out.
The Guarida del Sapo is a more upscale and much more expensive locale, with beers going at a criminal ₡1200. However, the service is amazing and the music is never as loud as Bar Amigos.
The Unicornio is a locals only spot for the most part, with beers at ₡700 and (hilariously bad) karaoke most every night. Proceed to Unicornio with prudence and trepidation; you're likely to stick out here as a tourist of any kind.
The Bromelias souvenir shop sometimes converts into a bar with great live music, but this is rare. Beers here are also ₡700, but Bromelias is by and large the best place to drink when it's functional.
- 1 Bar Amigos. ?-Midnight. The premier place for Ticos and tourists to mingle. Beers are ₡700, but expect an occasional ₡1000 cover charge. Service is mediocre but the food is great.
- 2 Tree House. 11AM-10PM. A unique bar and restaurant which incorporates a large tree within the premises, which remains open til late. Predominantly frequented by tourists as the prices here are very expensive by comparison.
- Arco Iris Lodge, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. The Arco Iris Lodge is a mid-range hotel at US$65 per room. Breakfast is extra but worth the price. A family-run hotel in a beautiful parklike setting. Walking distance to everything in Santa Elena.
- Backpackers Montelena Hostel, ☏ . An excellent and economic option for backpackers. Singles for US$12 per night. The place operates as a hostel and an information center (English spoken). The hostel offers free internet, kitchen, and breakfast.
- Cabinas El Pueblo, ☏ , email@example.com. Cheap hotel with friendly management. Rooms available with private or shared bathroom, breakfast included. From US$20 for a double.
- 1 Camino Verde Bed & Breakfast (from the central bus station walk southwest, at the supermarket follow the sign straight down the dirt road for 300 m, next to Tina's Casitas), ☏ , toll-free: , firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. Bed and breakfast style lodging opened in 2009 on the edge of Santa Elena. Although part of chain of three accommodations in Monteverde it remains very much a family-run business. Even the owner's daughter can often be found mucking in. The B&B is laid out in the style of a family house and guests are encouraged to treat it as their home. The building was in fact once the owner's family home which gave inspiration to this Tica House designed hotel. Breakfast is included. US$17.50 per person.
- Casa Tranquilo Hostel, ☏ . Free internet, free breakfast, large rooms for US$8 per person. The owner, David, speaks perfect English and is willing to help you organize your trip.
- La Casona Lodge (On the grounds of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve), ☏ , email@example.com. La Casona is the only lodging establishment inside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve - built in harmony with nature. US$60-70.
- Ecolodge San Luis (At UGA Costa Rica), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. The University of Georgia operates a 155 acres (63 hectares) campus in San Luis, including the 12-room Ecolodge San Luis. Offers an educational, nature-based experience. Internet and wi-fi, but no television or phones in rooms. Hot water and private bathrooms. Meals and a variety of on-site activities included in nightly rate. Neighboring the San Luis waterfall and adjacent to the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve. $64-102.
- El Establo Mountain Hotel, ☏ , email@example.com. In the heart of the touristic zone of Monteverde 7 km from the Santa Elena Rain Forest and 4 km from the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Set in a private 150 acres (61 hectares) farm (50% protected primary forest) adjacent to the Monteverde Reserve.
- Hotel Fonda Vela, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. The Fonda Vela hotel's proximity to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve makes this luxurious eco-lodge a favorite with bird watchers.
- [dead link] Hotel Sapo Dorado, ☏ , toll-free: , email@example.com. Hotel Sapo Dorado offers private entrance and porch, private bath with hot water shower, 2 queen-sized beds with orthopedic mattresses, versatile lighting, and a table and chairs for writing, playing games, or enjoying room service. The menu always includes a choice of whole grains, vegetarian and vegan dishes, pastas, seafood, chicken, beef, pork, and decadent desserts. Organic produce is used whenever possible. US$100.
- Pensión Santa Elena, ☏ . One of the cheapest options in town, in the middle of Santa Elena. Prices fluctuate but are never high. Both private rooms and dorm rooms. Fast, reliable internet, and a large and well maintained communal kitchen, and a communal hang out area. Free breakfast. Owners are fluent English-speakers from Austin, Texas.
- [dead link] Sleepers Sleep Cheaper Hostel, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. 200 m south of bus stop, in front of World of Insects. Another cheap option US$5-10 includes breakfast and internet access.
- 2 Trapp Family Lodge, ☏ , email@example.com. The closest lodge to the Monteverde Reserve Costa Rica, a 15-minute walk, great for bird watching. This cozy 20-room inn pays tribute to its setting with beautiful tropical wood appointments, private balcony in each guest room, and a family-style restaurant fronted by huge picture windows and a balcony overlooking gardens and verdant rain forest. Set in a small private reserve.
Go to the beach or to the nearest destination - Arenal Volcano & Fortuna.
Jeep-boat-jeep options from Monteverde to La Fortuna are US$20-25 and take about 3-4 hours and can be booked from any hotel. The public bus is far cheaper, but can take 7-8 hours, and requires changes via Tilaran.
It is possible to go directly from Monteverde all the way to Panama or Nicaragua (Pena Blanca crossing) in one day, you should take the morning bus leaving Monteverde.