The loud squawk of a macaw rings out, piercing the otherwise staccato hum of the lush Costa Rica rainforest. Spunky white-faced monkeys, elusive wild cats and lazy sloths are tucked out of sight in the leafy palms, seeking shelter from the sweltering heat. The vibration of your footsteps draws a faint creaking noise from the hanging bridge as you as you make your way across, and you stop halfway to soak in the sweeping views of the dense forest canopy hundreds of feet below which stretches out as far as the eye can see.
Somewhere overhead there’s a muffled whirring sound, and through the leaves of the towering trees you catch a glimpse of adventure-seekers whizzing by on one of the zip lines suspended nearby.
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This is what it’s like to explore the mystical Monteverde cloud forest reserve, just one of the many magical experiences found here in the province of Puntarenas near the colourful town of Santa Elena.
Monteverde was founded in the 1950s by a group of Quaker families from Alabama, who immigrated to Costa Rica as a way to avoid the possibility of being drafted to fight in the Korean War. They purchased 1500 hectares to continue their farming operations (including a dairy farm now known as the Monteverde Cheese Factory), making sure to protect 300 hectares of the pristine cloud forest. Thanks to their foresight, the area remained untouched and officially became the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in the ‘70s.
Literally translating as ‘Green Mountain,’ Monteverde is one of the country’s most popular destinations despite its remoteness. Here, visitors can fill their day with fun activities like horseback riding or canyoning, return to their eco-lodge in time to indulge in a happy hour of fresh ceviche or sampling the local coffee and chocolate, then finish the evening by watching a breathtaking sunset.
From wildlife spotting (jaguars! Howler monkeys!) to heart-stopping thrills (bungee jumps! Tarantulas!), here 10 incredibly cool things to do in Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Drive the crazy road towards Monteverde, Costa Rica
Adventure starts before you even get near the Monteverde canopy, with what’s sure to be an unforgettable road trip. The only way in is Route 606, which has earned an infamous reputation as being extremely challenging to drive on due to its miles of narrow, unpaved roads and hairpin turns that hug steep cliff sides.
(Note: a construction project to pave Route 606 was started, but has since been delayed for years with no firm date for completion).
In the dry season Route 606 can be extremely dusty, especially if there’s a vehicle ahead kicking up gravel. The wet season is even worse, when it can get so muddy the road is nearly inaccessible.
Tips for driving Route 606
- Travel during daylight hours, as you won’t want to try navigating in the dark
- Make sure you rent a 4×4 vehicle with plenty of clearance
- Get full insurance coverage…seriously
Now for the good news: taking this crazy road to Monteverde is totally worth the effort. As you wind past a backdrop of the Tilarán Mountain Range, the views of the lush green hills and pristine valley below are phenomenal, and there are plenty of opportunities along the way to pull over and soak it all in.
Globe Guide tip: Book your Monteverde tour with Green Spot Travel, an excellent, highly-rated company that specializes in luxury eco-travel for groups of all sizes.
Their responsive, knowledgeable staff create customized itineraries that take care of every detail including lodging at fabulous boutique accommodations, dining recommendations to get a ‘taste’ of the local experience, and arranging the best Monteverde activities. Best of all, their personable, English-speaking guides can do all the driving so you don’t have to brave Route 606 yourself and can enjoy the view!
Hike through the Monteverde cloud forest reserve
A series of hanging bridges, serene nature walks and hiking trails wind through the magnificent Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, which spreads over 14-thousand hectares just a 15 minute drive from Santa Elena.
Worth noting: The Monteverde cloud forest reserve is different from the Santa Elena cloud forest reserve, with the latter being higher in elevation, privately run by the Santa Elena Technical Professional High School, and typically less crowded than the better-known Monteverde reserve.
Hundreds of bird and mammal species live in the canopy cover, including monkeys, deer, tapirs, bats and wild cats which are often spotted during Monteverde cloud forest tours. In fact, this is one of the few remaining habitats in the world that supports all six species of the cat family. Oh, and over a thousand different types of creepy-crawlies, including snakes and tarantulas the size of a human hand. So there’s that.
Plenty of operators can organize a guided Monteverde canopy tour (or day trips from San Jose), which typically lasts a few hours allowing plenty of time to amble across the suspension bridges, explore nature trails sheltered by thick ferns, learn about Monteverde’s biodiversity, flora and fauna, stop for countless photo-ops, and even hop on a zip line (more on that later). Some of the bridges stretch as long as 150 metres and more than 60 metres high, granting spectacular views of the tranquil rainforest below which is often shrouded in an ethereal mist.
Globe Guide tip: The best time to see cloud forest animals is early in the morning between 6 and 9 AM, or late at night when the nocturnal animals emerge. While the forest is more alive during the cloudier months of July through October when there’s more moisture in the air, the mist that creates can make creatures harder to spot from a distance. Click here to book
See the birds of Costa Rica
Consider yourself a bird nerd? Then you’ll definitely want to go birding in Costa Rica. About 400 different species are found in these parts, which are best spotted during one of the early morning canopy tours in the Curi Cancha Reserve. The Monteverde cloud forest reserve is a birder’s paradise, where rare species like the resplendent quetzal, scarlet macaw and even the endangered curassow can be spotted by eagle-eyed bird watchers (sorry, couldn’t resist!), as well as more common avians including the black-breasted wood quail, bright billed toucans, and the magenta-throated woodstar.
Globe Guide tip: Booking a tour with a local guide is one of the best ways to spot birds in Costa Rica–they know the forest better than anyone, and usually bring along a scope so you can get a close look at their feathered friends. Click here to book
Indulge during a coffee, sugar cane and chocolate tour
Get a java jolt by signing up for a Monteverde coffee tour to learn how this caffeinated crop gets into your cup, and why it’s such an important economic driver in the area. You’ll head into the San Luis Valley to see how ripe coffee berries are picked and harvested (some visits include the opportunity to pick the Arabica beans yourself), then transformed into everyone’s favourite morning brew using traditional methods.
Guests who visit Café Monteverde operated by the Santa Elena Cooperative also get to enjoy a oxen-pulled cart ride over to the tasting area to sip on their famous Costa Rica coffee.
Then, satisfy your sweet tooth with a chocolate tour which starts with a hands-on demo of how cacao beans are roasted, separated and ground, before getting to sample the rich, tasty treats. Some excursions also include a chance to stop at a sugar cane operation. Click here to book
Relax at a Monteverde cloud forest lodge
The walls at Senda Monteverde proudly display artwork sourced from a local, non-profit women’s cooperative–the first sign that this eco lodge nestled in the heart of the cloud forest is all about sustainability.
The next clue is found at the bar next to the reception area where guests can enjoy a refreshing drink while checking in: the property’s no-plastic policy means there are locally-made bamboo stalks instead of single-use straws, and the counter overflows with fresh herbs sourced from local farmers or picked from the in-house garden which is fertilized with compost made from the restaurant’s organic kitchen waste.
With eco tourism being a huge focus in Costa Rica, revamping a former hotel to bring it in line with that philosophy was a natural fit for the new owners, John and Lisa Aspinall, who live in the area. In fact, look around and you’ll notice that every single staff member is Costa Rican, with most born and raised within walking distance of the hotel (patience is gratefully requested, as their English skills continue to improve). The lodge is now one of the preferred picks for Monteverde accommodation, and part of the acclaimed Cayuga Collection which is known for its luxurious, sustainable properties.
Senda Monteverde reopened in 2018, unveiling 24 beautifully-appointed guest rooms and suites tucked into the hillside, boasting views of the Gulf of Nicoya or lush gardens from the large, open-air porches. Inside each bungalow, guests can relax in the spacious living room equipped with a kitchenette, dining area and board games, lounge around in a comfortable robe after rinsing off in the rainfall shower, and sink their head into the plush bedding at night as cicadas chirp just outside the large windows.
Senda Monteverde is just a 15 minute walk from town which makes it easy to explore the area, and there’s also an on-site restaurant with a menu inspired by fresh, local ingredients. Click here to book
Go horseback riding
Explore the trails surrounding Santa Elena on horseback to get a new perspective of the lush area. While riding isn’t allowed in the reserves, there’s plenty of private land nearby that winds through thick brush into coffee, sugar cane and banana plantations, with an opportunity to see wildlife like sloths and monkeys.
Horseback riding tours in Monteverde run throughout the day, with morning guests experiencing great animal sightings, clear views out to the pacific islands in mid-day, and gorgeous sunsets in the late afternoon. No experience is necessary, and private or group rides are available. Click here to book
Click below to book a horseback ride in Monteverde
Wander through a hummingbird garden
Imagine peering through your camera poised to take a shot, when you suddenly hear a whoosh and feel a blast of air whip right beside your head. That’s what it’s like to visit the hummingbird garden in Selvatura Park near Santa Elena, where this speedy species flies around freely from feeder to tree top, much to the delight and amazement of visitors.
14 different species of these busy birds live in Selvatura, including a few rarely seen on the Pacific side of the country. There are plenty of benches and lush gardens that make it a perfect place to relax while marvelling at the aerial acrobatics, and guests can even hold their hands out near the feeders to see if one of the tiny birds will land on them!
Globe Guide tip: The small, quick-moving hummingbirds can be tough to photograph, so one trick worth trying is setting up a scope to focus on a branch or feeder, and lining up your camera lens behind the eyepiece. This will help magnify the birds when they land, and you’ll get a clear shot through the scope.
Stay up late for a night tour
When night falls, the cloud forest comes alive. With more than half of the jungle critters being nocturnal in these parts, a night tour is the perfect time to watch them in their element when they’re active. Monteverde tours typically depart Santa Elena just before 6 PM, and will take guests into the Curi Cancha or Monteverde reserves to wander the trails in search of spiders, snakes, armadillos, coatis, ocelets, sloths and monkeys. Click here to book
Zoom across a Costa Rica zip line
Enjoy a different perspective of the cloud forest the same way the birds do- from high, high above. A zip line tour is one of the most popular things to do in Monteverde, which sees travellers criss-cross a series of cables stretching up to one-thousand feet across the canopy of leafy green trees, sometimes catching speeds of more than 60 km/h.
Sky Adventures Costa Rica operates their Monteverde zip line tours just a short drive from Santa Elena, where thrill-seekers navigate winding pathways and scamper up staircases to get to each set of wires. There, a crew member harnesses them onto a new cable, then releases them to glide more than 100 metres above the treetops, making for captivating views of the hanging bridges, cloud forest and out to the Gulf of Nicoya. Click here to book
READ MORE: Sky-high thrills at Sky Trek Costa Rica
Do an unexpected bungee jump
As if whizzing high above the forest canopy suspended solely by a metal lever isn’t daring enough, thrill-seekers can up the ante at Sky Trek by finishing their ride with a bungee jump. Yup, you read that right…a freakin’ bungee jump.
The Vertigo Drop is the last stop on this Monteverde zip line tour, where guests stand on the edge of a 25 metre high platform fastened to a bungee cord. Those brave souls then leap off–backwards–and free fall for 12 metres before the cord tightens and they’re lowered the rest of the way down onto a huge mat.
Since I am definitely NOT a brave soul, here’s a rather embarrassing video of me doing the Vertigo Drop:Proof there’s never a dull moment in Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Globe Guide explored Monteverde as a guest of Green Spot Travel and Senda Monteverde. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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Thanks for all the great tips! I’m working at the butterfly garden here in Monte Verde and thought you might want to know that tarantulas are not actually poisonous, despite common folk lore. (Although their hairs might cause some itching if you pick them up) Figured I’d share, since that’s one less thing for folks to be scared of! Hooray!
Haha OK good to know, thank you!