April 8, 2020
“¿Hablas español?” the van driver inquired on our way to the Monteverde area of Costa Rica: Do you speak Spanish?
“No. Lo siento. Muy poco”, I replied: No. I’m sorry. Very little.
“Ah, I am the one that is sorry”, he grinned. “You will have to listen to my English.”
Deciding to put our communication skills through the wringer, I described a bird I had spotted earlier and asked if he knows what it was.
His face lit up and my shuttle turned into a birding adventure. Since I was the only passenger, we had spare time to get to the boat. My driver, a birding enthusiast, pounced on the opportunity to share his birding knowledge with a wannabe birder.
The non-stop shuttle now made frequent, sometimes sudden stops. Half-parked in the road with the flashers on, we’d scramble out of the van to get a closer look at a bird.
Like so many Costa Ricans, he knew which trees were favored by certain birds and at what time of day.
The flying bird there – that is an Oropendola.
Here – here is the tree where we can find the toucans. Sometimes we see Curassow here.
Look – there – that black bird with the red – that is a Sargant. And there – those things hanging down from the trees – those are bird nests.
I lucked out. A shuttle and a bird tour on the way to the town of Santa Elena.
- About Monteverde Costa Rica
- Getting There
- What to do in Monteverde
- Where to eat in Monteverde
- Where to stay in Santa Elena
About Monteverde Costa Rica
Monteverde, an area of Costa Rica, sits at an elevation just under a mile-high in the Puntarenas Province.
Santa Elena is the bustling town (local population of about 6500) that caters to tourists in the Monteverde area. The town, patterned in the shape of a small triangle, offers an ATM, two supermarkets and a plethora of lodging and restaurant options.
The top 3 reasons to visit Monteverde are:
- Explore the cloud forests
- Escape the heat of the coastal areas of Costa Rica
- Birds. And more birds. Even non-birders will be astounded at the number of birds
Located about 2.5 hours from both the San Jose and Liberia airports, a rental car is a viable option for confident drivers.
Be sure to have a paper map. Some tourists reported that their GPS told them to turn onto roads that either did not exist or that were clearly just farm roads.
If you are coming from either the La Fortuna or Arenal National Park area and do not have a rental car, ask your hotel about the jeep-boat-jeep shuttle. It is the quickest way to get to the Monteverde area.
The shuttle service used to use jeeps due to the unimproved roads but now the “jeeps” are actually mini-vans or small tourist buses (tourisimos).
The 20-passenger boat is a 30-minute boat tour along Lake Arenal. You will share it with both tourists and locals.
Know that the “jeep” portions are not quick or smooth – the ride is an adventure of unpaved, twisty roads with puddles and potholes and the possibility of cows, horses, or pedestrians around every bend. I gasped as we rounded a curve at full speed to find a man walking two large bulls in the middle of the road. The shuttle driver simply beeped, shrugged, and swerved.
What to do in Monteverde
Hotels can arrange all the tours for you in the area. In my experience, the hotel staff did an excellent job finding tours and there was no discount for arranging my own tours.
Visit a Cloud Forest
The cloud forests are the main draw of the Monteverde area.
In addition to wildlife spotting, these are incredible spots to view the symbiotic relationships of local flora and fauna.
The cloud forest region was settled by a group of Quakers in the 1950s for cattle farms. Fortunately, they had the foresight to preserve the area at the top of the mountains thus saving the cloud forests.
The cloud forest region puts you in or above the clouds. The result? A sometimes misty, often drippy experience at temperatures that are generally cooler and windier than found in the other rain-forests of Costa Rica.
Choose from any of the three cloud forests:
- Children’s Eternal Rain Forest (Bosque Eterno de los Ninos) – the largest cloud forest at nearly 54,000 acres
- Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – the 2nd to the largest of the three cloud forests at nearly 26,000 acres and the most frequently visited
- Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve – the smallest of the three, it is 765 acres (about five times the size of Disneyland park)
If you want some solitude, visit the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve as it is reported to have the least amount of visitors. Talking with other travelers over coffee, they said they visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve since it was the most popular but felt like their experience was impacted by the crowds.
Tour the Curi-Cancha Reserve
The Curi-Cancha Reserve (Reserva Curi-Cancha) is a 205-acre private forest reserve adjacent to Monteverde Cloud Forest.
And yes, even if you already visited a cloud forest, be sure to take a guided tour of Curi-Cancha. With some luck, you might spot a Quetzal or a Three-Wattled Bellbird.
The Bat Jungle
Be sure to visit the Bat Jungle, a 60-foot bat exhibit located near the Curi-Cancha Preserve.
Spend an hour at the Bat Jungle and you will learn all about Monteverde bats. For example, did you know that mother bats often have a nanny to help care for their young? That nanny might be a male or even another type of bat.
Monteverde Frog Pond
Want to see and hear a variety of Costa Rican frogs and toads without traipsing through the jungle? Then visit the Monteverde Frog Pond (Frog Pond Ranario) located on the south end of Santa Elena.
You can learn tons of fun facts including why you shouldn’t touch the frogs in Costa Rica during a guided night tour at Monteverde Frog Pond.
Take a night walk
Take at least one night walk during your stay in Costa Rica. Seeing the forest come alive at night will make you aware of every step you take in the jungle. An added bonus – away from the city lights, the night sky shows off tons of stars.
We had an excellent night tour with Kinkajou Tours.
“I’m not sure I needed to know snakes are ABOVE my head” – exclaimed during a Kinkajou night tour as we peered up at a pit viper
Where to eat in Monteverde
Stella’s Bakery. Located near Curi-Cancha Preserve. Try the ayote squash and carrot soup. Sit outside so you can watch the birds feasting on fruit-covered perches.
Cafe Monteverde. Located across from Stella’s Bakery. Good coffee, nice area to sit outside. You might spot a Blue Motmot bird.
Ice cream shop at Monteverde Cheese Factory (Quesos Monteverde). Located just outside the Curi-Cancha Preserve. They offer sorbet and ice cream – get the ice cream!
Sabo Tico. Located on the 2nd floor of the red building at the top of the hill in Santa Elena. Great place to watch the sunset.
Sunset from Sabo Tico
The food is traditional. My chicken and vegetable soup was a bowl of broth with chicken-wings (skin-on, bone-in) with whole baby potatoes and mostly whole carrots with a side of rice. It was very tasty just unexpected.
Soda La Amistad. Located off the main street in Santa Elena, it is by all appearances an unassuming eatery. Skip the tourist traps and grab this authentic food. You get a two-course traditional meal (soda) that is more food than one person can eat.
Course 1 of dinner Soda La Amistad
Where to stay in Santa Elena
You can’t go wrong with either of these B&Bs in Santa Elena.
Hotel Sloth Backpackers Bed & Breakfast
Hotel Sloth Backpackers Bed & Breakfast is the hard-to-miss pink building. It is referred to by shuttle drivers as “Sloth Backpackers”.
They offer both typical hostel-style shared rooms and private rooms. I paid extra to have my own room with an en-suite bathroom. They offer laundry service. The helpful front desk staff can help book all your tours and tell you what bus to take to get there.
You can use the shared kitchen to cook your own meals. Breakfast is included with the price of your room. If you don’t speak Spanish, expect to play charades with the cook to figure out the breakfast options are each day.
I had no trouble getting to the Hotel Sloth Backpackers but they do say on their website to be specific with your shuttle driver as there is another location with a similar name in town.
Cabinas El Pueblo B&B
Cabinas El Pueblo B&B is a family-run B&B located off the main road in Santa Elena.
Tip – be sure to sign the board for your breakfast time before the end of the day. Breakfast is two-courses…a fruit plate followed by typical breakfast.
The owners also run a coffee plantation – inquire about a tour.
The service-oriented staff arranged shared shuttles for me as needed. When the shuttle was delayed due to construction, they made phone calls to track down the driver and get a time estimate for pick-up.
Monteverde area is a must-stop on your Costa Rica trip. In addition to escaping some of the coastal heat, Monteverde provides an opportunity to visit the unique cloud forests of the Puntarenas Province.
To add to your Costa Rica fun, consider traveling to Manuel Antonio National Park to view wildlife and swim in the Pacific Ocean.