Monteverde features on the itinerary of just about every visitor to Costa Rica, but there is one thing most travel brochures and guidebooks will not tell you: It is a rough journey to get there.
Coming from San José, it is at least a five hour bus ride, leaving at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m. or, more palatably, 2:30 p.m. Being a popular route, however, it is worth getting to the bus terminal even earlier to avoid the risk of being left without a seat.
This is a particularly important point on this journey, as a good part of it is on bumpy, unpaved roads. Even those with their own transport should be wary: When choosing the rental car, decent suspension is a must.
Added to this, the road can become a veritable dustbowl in the dry season, meaning that no matter how hot the sun, you will want to keep those windows firmly shut, whereas in the rainy season conditions can really get treacherous.
So why do people come? The answer is that the cloud forest preserve and town in northcentral Costa Rica has a vast and varied range of attractions, with something for everybody.
Nature and wildlife, adventure, culture and entertainment – Monteverde has it all.
Nature and Wildlife
The crown jewel of the area’s attractions is, of course, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve (www.cct.or.cr, 2645- 5122, 2645-5564). Stretching up and over the Continental Divide, the preserve measures more than 4,000 hectares, and, with 13 kilometers of hiking trails, it is possible to find yourself alone in the forest even on the busiest of days.
To catch a glimpse of the wildlife (see separate story on bird-watching, Page S7), it’s worth paying extra to join a guided tour.
However, rumor has it that the best place to spot the bird everyone hopes to see, the elusive resplendent quetzal, is actually in the preserve’s parking lot, early in the morning.
The preserve is open daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission costs $15 for foreign visitors, with a guided tour costing an additional $15. Discounts are available for Costa Ricans and residents, students and children.
Accommodation is available at the park entrance and shelters within the reserve for those who wish to stay overnight. Guided night tours are also available to see the forest’s nocturnal inhabitants.
However, the Monteverde preserve is not the only protected area in the region. There are many other private and state-owned reserves, of which the two best known are the Santa Elena Reserve (www.reservasantaelena.org, 2645-5390) and the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest (www.acmcr.org, 2645-5003, 2645-5200). Both these receive far fewer visitors than the Monteverde preserve, but also lack some of its infrastructure.
Naturally, when visiting these forests, the birds and animals are wild and the misty cloud cover often thick, so you may not see all you hoped to see. If you want to be sure of spotting some wildlife, several other attractions in the area guarantee just that.
Starting outside the main entrance to the Monteverde preserve, the Hummingbird Gallery (2645-5030) has several feeding stations, all but guaranteeing a view of several different varieties of fast-flitting colibrí. Moving along the road toward the town of Monteverde, the new Paseo de Stella building, open since June 2006, houses The Bat Jungle (2645-6566). This well-presented attraction is highly informative, with the chance to see live bats close up alongside interactive activities and displays that demonstrate just how important and unique these much-maligned creatures are. A 45-minute guided tour costs $10 for adults.
A more long-standing attraction in the area is the Monteverde Butterfly Garden (www.monteverdebutterflygarden.com, 2645-5512). A good number of other mariposarios have been added to the area, but, having opened more than 18 years ago, the MonteverdeButterflyGarden is still one of the area’s best-known attractions. Admission costs from $10 for foreign adults, including a one hour, 15 minute guided tour.
Another butterfly garden can be found closer to the town of Santa Elena at the Ranario (www.ranario.com, 2645-6320). However, as the name suggests (rana is Spanish for “frog”), the attraction is best known as the Frog Pond. The center has more than 28 species of amphibians, and a guided tour is included in the ticket. Entrance to the both the Ranario and Mariposario costs $10 each for foreigners, or $16 if you choose to visit both attractions. The ticket is valid for two entries to allow visitors to see both diurnal and nocturnal species.
Back on the main road, the Serpentario (2645-6002) is a collection of 26 species of snakes, of which 10 are poisonous, alongside a few other reptiles. Admission costs $8 for foreigners; a guided tour is included in the price.
A further treat for those who love creepy-crawlies is the World of Insects (2645-6859). The center, in the middle of renovation at the time of The Tico Times’ visit, houses a collection of 250 preserved species along with approximately 25 live varieties, including tarantulas and praying mantises. Admission costs $9 for adults and includes an informative tour. There is also a fantastic viewing platform above the center.
The main draw for adventurous travelers in Monteverde is the myriad opportunities for hiking and nature-watching. Aside from the Monteverde and Santa Elena reserves and the Children’s EternalRain Forest, there are many other private trails and reserves, such as at the Ecological Sanctuary (www.ecologicalsanctuary.com, 2645-5869, from $10 during the day, or $15 for a guided tour by night for foreign adults, 2645-5869), Bajo del Tigre (www.acmcr.org, 2645-5003) and up Cerro Amigos.
Heading a little way out of town, a highly recommended hike is to the San Luis Waterfall ($8), particularly as it is quite possible to have the trail to yourself. The waterfall is the second highest in Costa Rica and tumbles dramatically between sheer walls of rock into an enclosed and atmospheric pool at the foot of a ravine. The hike is a bit strenuous and seems somewhat longer than the signposted one kilometer, but it’s well worth it.
It seems everyone, adventurous or not, comes away from Monteverde having done a canopy tour. The basic idea is to zip through and above the forest canopy harnessed to a steel wire, and it is hard to deny that it is great fun. Several operators offer broadly similar packages in and around the area.
The Original Canopy Tour (www.canopytour.com, 2645-5243, $45 for adults) is, as the name suggests, the oldest company in town, whereas Aventura (2645-6959 or 2645-6388, $40 for adults) is the newest company in town, and also offers suspension bridges, ATV tours and horseback riding.
The two biggest players on the scene, however, are Selvatura, which also features a “Tarzan swing” as part of its canopy tour, and SkyTrek, known for being the fastest of all the canopy tours, reaching speeds of up to 60 kph.
Both also offer several other activities. Selvatura (www.selvatura.com, 2645-5929, $40 for foreign adults) has suspension bridges through the canopy, a reptile and amphibian exhibition, butterfly and hummingbird gardens and the “Jewels of the Rainforest” display of insects. All these activities cost extra, though various package discounts are available.
SkyTrek (www.skytrek.com, 2645-5238, $60 for foreign adults) includes a ride on the newly opened SkyTram cable car along with the canopy tour, and also has suspension bridges, known as SkyWalk, for a close-up look at the treetops.Again, extra activities cost more, but package discounts are available.
Those looking for a more natural adventure can pop into the Monteverde branch of adventure company Desafío (www.desafiocostarica.com, 2645-5874) to check out the many activities, such as horseback riding, on offer there.
For equestrian enthusiasts who prefer to go to the stables directly, Meg’s Riding Stables (2645-5560, $30 per person for two hours), Caballeriza El Rodeo (2645-5764 or 2645-6306, $30 for foreign adults for two hours) and Sabine’s Smiling Horses (www.horseback-riding-tour.com, 2645-6894) are all reputable local operators.
Culture, Food, Entertainment
If you are not yet tired out, there is still much left to do in Monteverde.
Back at the Paseo de Stella, a small but developing exhibit (¢1,000/$2) outlines the history of the area, including the founding of Monteverde by a group of Quakers who left the United States in protest of the draft for the Korean War. Alternatively, if it is a Wednesday night, head down to the center’s auditorium at 6 p.m. to catch a film screening.
If shopping is your thing, there is also an impressive and diverse range of craft stores and art galleries around town, as well as the Santa Elena and Monteverde Artisans’ Cooperative, known as CASEM (www.casemcoop.org, 2645-5190).
Finally, after an action-filled day, it is time for food. But where to go? The area is certainly not short of welcoming eateries, but two recently opened restaurants will excite foodie travelers.
Back at the Paseo de Stella, hungry hikers could certainly do a lot worse than one of the savory wraps at Caburé Argentine Café and Chocolate Shop (2645-5020), just up the stairs from The Bat Jungle. Amiable Argentine restaurateur Susana Salas has traveled the world gathering seasonings and recipes, and her eclectic menu shows it, ranging from Mexican mole to Argentine canelones. Sala’s chocolate truffles – straight dark or flavored with rum, cognac, orange or ginger – are also a knockout. Wraps, sandwiches and salad and soup combos are all about ¢4,000 ($8); main course dishes run about ¢6,000 ($12).
Regular visitors to the area will know Sofia (2645-7017), a Latin fusion restaurant renowned as one of the area’s top spots for dining out. In December, owner Karen Nielsen opened a second restaurant, Chimera (2645-6081), which will doubtless go on to gain a similar reputation.
Though right on the main road, Chimera is nevertheless a relaxing and fun place to eat. The ambience is warm and welcoming, with bright walls, plenty of flowers and the beautiful aroma of food coming from the open-plan kitchen. The tapas-only menu is varied and enticing, ranging from lomito with a parsley, sweet pepper and caramelized onion sauce to a cold stack of roasted aubergine and smoked provolone with a sun-dried tomato sauce. For dessert, the chocolate mousse is a real treat. There is also an original and tempting cocktail menu. Prices range from $8 for the lomito down to $2.50 for coconut rice, with cocktails coming in about $4.50 to $5.
With so much going on, it is easy to see why Monteverde is worth the bumpy journey.