Monteverde (5,000ft/1,500m) is an excellent place to spend at least 2 nights, and if possible 3 nights, for anybody who likes nature and visiting a range of nature-related attractions. Here you can visit several cloud forests, canopy tours and sky walks, visit attractions such as the serpentarium and butterfly farm, drive to the nearby Arenal volcano or view Lake Arenal, go horse riding, and have a choice of hotels and restaurants.
Monteverde means "green mountain", a suitable name for this beautiful pastoral setting. Although the drive there from the Panamerican highway is along a rutted bumpy dirt road, the spectacular mountain scenery more than compensates. Monteverde is internationally-known both for the cloud forests and the Quaker community which settled there in the 1950s and developed the area. The village meanders over a few kilometers on a ridge, with points of interest spaced out, but the cool climate at 1,400m makes walking a pleasure. The Quakers’ agricultural community provides cheese and is relatively dispersed within the forest.
The Quakers who founded Monteverde in 1951 were conscientious objectors to US military draft and so left Alabama. With assistance from locals they started cattle breeding, dairy farming and developing the community. Today Monteverde cheese is a well-known specialty of Costa Rica - production can be watched through windows of the Cheese Factory (Mon-Sat 7.30am-4pm, Sunday until 12.30pm), located midway between Santa Elena and the reserve. There is also a female artists' cooperative (Mon-Sat 8am-noon and 1-5pm) run by a selling craftwork, textiles, and coffee.
Although the area was relatively deforested, the community set aside a small area for conservation. When the small golden toad (sapo dorado) was found, international scientists and conservationists started taking an interest in the area as the only place in the world where this bright orange toad, about an inch long, existed. This, and much local pressure, formed the core of what is the 10,500ha Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve (daily 7.30am-4.30pm; guided tours available, also at night) is now a popular destination in Costa Rica. The reserve has hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Maps are available at the entrance. Different elevations provide different habitats for all kinds of wildlife. Most visitors come to see the quetzal. The best time to spot quetzals is during nesting (February - May).
There are over 400 bird species in the reserve, and more than 100 mammal species. Even if not many animals can be spotted during bad weather,the luxuriant vegetation is itself attractive, with mosses, ferns, climbing plants, blooming orchids and enormous jungle trees. The cloud hanging everywhere also adds to the reserve`s beauty.
The Reserva Santa Elena/Centro Ecológico (daily 7am-4pm; low admission fee) has similar wildlife to Monteverde but fewer visitors. It is 3 miles (5km) to the northeast of Santa Elena. If weather conditions are right, take one of the tracks to reach an observation point with a view across to the smoking Arenal Volcano in the distance. There is a Canopy Tour here also.
The best times to see animals and birds in the reserves are early morning and late afternoon. A good time of the year is February-April, when weather and birdwatching is at the best. The wet season, June-November, has the advantage of being much less visited. Remember to bring along a pullover, whatever the season, and also good rain protection.
There are plenty of hotels of all categories stretched along and not far off the gravel road running between the village of Santa Helena and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, as well as more lodges a few kilometres outside. There is also a reasonable choice of restaurants and cafes scattered around, and shops where you can buy books and so on. At the entrance to the larger parks such as Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the shop sells a good range of guide books.
Although you can manage without a car once there, whether by walking, catching buses and shuttles or ordering taxis, we recommend you have your own rented car for greatest flexibility and mobility.
During the peak periods of the high season, you may find that there are long queues into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, particularly given that the park limits the number of visitors. Remember that there are many other reserves to visit, and that these can be as attractive, and almost certainly less visited.
The drive to Monteverde from San Jose takes 3-4 hours. Some of the hotels can organise shuttles. You can go by Gray Line bus, by taxi, or of course by rented car. 4x4 is recommended, as the road has plenty of potholes, but in the dry season (Dec-April) a normal car driven carefully can manage the road.
I have returned home from the wonderful vacation that we booked. We wanted to let you know that we had an excellent time, all of the arrangements were top notch.
The transfers were promptly on time, which led to a stress free and enjoyable vacation.
Mark and Alesa Tagtmeyer