If you dream of soaring above the canopy, treading through enchanted rainforests and experiencing life with your head in the clouds, literally, you’ll have to visit the tranquil mountain region of Monteverde.
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Cloaked mysteriously in cool mist amid giant vines, ancient trees, and leaves of green, Monteverde (meaning Green Mountain in Spanish) invites you to explore one of Costa Rica's most unique biological corridors. Located at the top of the Continental Divide at an elevation over 4,500, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, and the Children's Eternal Rainforest all offer excellent guided natural history and night hikes, as well as self-guided walks. Privately owned protected parks, such as Selvatura, Extremo, and Aventuras, provide opportunities to soar over the canopy on high powered ziplines, traverse the tree tops on hanging bridges, or leisurely explore the jungle by horseback or ATVs. There is even bungee jumping! Finca Modelo Ecologica will take you on an exhilarating waterfall rappel and Sky Adventures offers a slow, easy, informative Tram ride to the top of the mountains where you can stop for hot chocolate and if lucky, catch a view of Arenal Volcano and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. This stunning event only happens on occasion when the cloud cover breaks but is an awesome experience. Birders come from all over the world hoping to glimpse the elusive Resplendent Quetzal while nature enthusiasts will check out the many butterfly, insect, snake, and hummingbird habitats. Oh, and don’t forget there are almost 500 orchid species in this cloud forest!
It is without a doubt that Monteverde was rightly counted as one of Costa Rica's seven wonders. The combination of tropical forest and the cool, high Continental Divide altitude results in a blanket of low lying clouds giving life to an incredibly rich biodiversity, evident in the old growth trees covered with vines and air plants known as epiphytes that send out tiny to giant colorful blooms. The cloud forest climate in Costa Rica and surrounding countries provides the only ecosystem in the world where the rare Resplendent Quetzel can be found, a gorgeous bird with long, emerald green tail feathers, sporting a turquoise and blazing red back and breast. In addition, more than 400 other species of birds have been sighted here as well as monkeys, sloths, coatis, kinkajous and jungle cats. Add in some of the most interesting insects, reptiles, and snakes to the mix and you may find yourself transported into a prehistoric fantasy.
The picturesque town of Santa Elena, with a population of about 6,000 residents, provides an ideal centralized location to the greater area known as Monteverde. Within 5 miles you’ll find both Cloud Forest Reserves and the Children's Eternal Rainforest. In the middle of town and all along the road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are lots of quality, locally sourced souvenir shops, museums, art galleries and interesting exhibits including a serpentarium and a Butterfly Garden.
A visit to the Butterfly Garden invites visitors to witness approximately 1,250 colorful species of butterflies in all sizes representing 10% of the world's population. Stroll through 29,000 square feet of gardens and allow yourself to be mesmerized by these fascinating insects. Be sure to bring your camera!.
In and around Santa Elena, you'll find a fusion of tempting cuisine representing many different countries. Cafe Cabure, owned by an Argentinian family, prepares internationally inspired dishes presented with a flare. Sit on their large, open-air balcony and enjoy the view as you sink your teeth into freshly caught seabass, mango salad, tasty empanadas and their signature homemade chocolates or fresh baked pastries. In the middle of town, The Tree House Restaurant, literally built around a giant Ficus tree, has ramps taking you up through the branches to different dining areas. Here you can enjoy a fresh shrimp stuffed avocado as well as delicious hamburgers and pizzas. A local hang out called Taco Taco Taqueria, serves up Mexican style tacos filled with fresh fish and vegetables. For classic Italian, try Tramonti's Restaurant offering authentic Italian cuisine and brick oven baked pizzas. Or enjoy a Costa Rican casada at Sabor Tico's, the traditional combination of many tasty treats all served on one plate.
Cheese lovers will drool over the offerings at "La Lachera" cheese factory located along the road leading to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Thirteen types of cheeses are locally produced including American favorites and of course, the popular Costa Rican style Monte Rico cheese. Because they are freshly made cheeses, you won't find any that are sharp or aged, but it's worth a stop to sample a few of the local varieties.
A big supporter of the arts, Santa Elena attracts artists and art lovers alike. As you explore the town, you'll likely run across Alas y Raices, a studio and gallery dedicated to supporting the artwork of Costa Rica's indigenous peoples. The Cooperativa de Artesanas de Santa Elena is a non-profit art gallery that promotes local female artists. It's a great place to meet some of the artisans at work in their studios. You might also like to drop into Luna Azul, a cute little blue house selling handmade gifts and souvenirs.
When traveling and enjoying the outdoor adventures in Costa Rica, you'll likely need to get your clothes cleaned, especially if staying at hotels and ecolodges that do not provide laundry services. In Santa Elena, there is laundry service available at Santa Elena Hostel Resort for $5.00 per kilo (dry weight). It is located in town next to Banco Nacional. You do not need to be a guest at the hostel to drop off your clothes there.
Monteverde's unique history goes back over 3,000 years as small indigenous tribes became larger and more organized. At the peak of their advancement, the population dropped dramatically believed to coincide with the increased activity of nearby Arenal Volcano. Later, during the 1950s, a religious group called Quakers migrated from the United States to the Monteverde area looking for a place to escape the military draft and lead peaceful lives. The Quakers chose the country of Costa Rica that had just abolished its army and promised an ideal climate for year-round food production. As they excelled at farming, the Quakers collectively agreed to protect the watershed area of the highlands located above their community and as a result, the cloud forest reserves were established.
It may interest you to know the other six listed wonders of Costa Rica include: the Poas Volcano, Rio Celeste, Arenal Volcano, Isla del Coco, Tortuguero, and Cerro Cirripo.
Planning a vacation to Monteverde
Dotted through the Monteverde region as well as in the town of Santa Elena are several beautiful mid-range hotels and ecolodges to choose from. All-inclusive luxury resorts and hotels are not found in this small rural area. Some of the mid-range hotels we recommend include Hotel Ficus, El Establo, and Hotel Poco a Poco located inside Santa Elena. Somewhat upscale hotels include the Hidden Canopy Treehouses Boutique Hotel and Hotel Belmar. For budget travelers, we recommend Monteverde Country Lodge, Hotel Heliconia, and Claro de Luna. Look in our Hotels section under Monteverde and you will find all the details about these hotels and other lodgings we recommend in the area. Swimming pools are not typically found here as you are more likely to be needing a blanket at night.
Reasons to visit:
To discover the beauty of the cloud forest
Best zipline experiences
Unique hanging bridges in old growth forests
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
The diversity of wildlife at this unique elevation
Stand at the top of the Continental Divide
Experience a real ecolodge
Reasons NOT to visit:
Because it's a cloud forest, it rains a lot
The high elevation can be quite cool
Hotels aren't typically air conditioned
Hard to find a swimming pool
Some roads are small, bumpy and unpaved
Not into hiking or outdoor adventures
No all-inclusive resorts or 4-star luxury hotels
Long drive to reach the top
No nearby beaches
How to get to there:
Traveling to this fascinating area after turning off the main highway, you'll be driving steadily up on small back roads that are sometimes unpaved until you reach the top of the mountain. There are several approaches from different areas but due to poor road conditions we recommend you use the following directions.
From San Jose or from Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO): Drive west toward Puntarenas on the Inter-American Highway. As you reach Puntarenas, follow the signs that say to Liberia. You will still be on the Inter-American Highway. At Kilometer 133, you will turn off to the right onto Route 606 going toward Sardinal. Follow Route 606 and the last 18 kilometers before Santa Elena will be gravel. When you reach the top of the mountain you will be in the town of Santa Elena. This trip will take you approximately 3.5 hours from San Jose or 2.5 hours from the airport.
From Liberia and the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR): Drive south on the Inter-American Highway until you reach Route 606 at Kilometer 133. Turn left going towards Sardinal and continue to follow the signs for Route 606. About 18 kilometers before you reach the mountain top town of Santa Elena, the road will change to gravel for the rest of the way up to the town. This trip will take you approximately 2.5 hours.
Monteverde weather and packing list
Monteverde weather is generally predictable, with the most rainfall experienced between the months of May through November, although the heaviest rains typically occur between September and November. The weather can be cool and often permeated with a mist due to the Gulf winds meeting the Pacific winds on top of the Continental Divide creating a heavy cloud cover. You may expect average daytime temperatures to be in the low 70s with nighttime lows in the 50s (Fahrenheit).
You will need to bring rain gear and wear hiking boots with pants. Depending on the time of year, you can layer your clothing although long sleeve shirts and light jackets are needed during the chilliest, wettest periods. Sunscreen is recommended.
Fun Fact: In 1983 a writer from National Geographic Magazine stated that Monteverde was THE place to observe the Resplendent Quetzal. Subsequently, tourists from all over the world began arriving armed with cameras, tripods and binoculars.