Renowned as the place with Latin America’s longest zipline, Monteverde in northern Costa Rica is a popular destination for the thrill seekers traversing the region. There’s loads of great places to visit in the Central American country, as this Costa Rica Travel Guide details, but for me there was something really special about Monteverde.
The small town boasts accessible cloud forests, delicious coffee and fascinating wildlife. It’s elevated 1400 metres above sea level, so is noticeably cooler than the rest of the country, but trust me, after a few weeks or moths travelling around the rest of the humid continent, this is a well received respite!
The town has a distinctively European feel, due to its significant Quaker population. In the 1950s, Quakers and pacifists came to the town from the US, choosing to leave their homeland because they were unsatisfied with the government’s involvement in the Korean War. They chose Monteverde as the ideal place to settle, due to its temperate climate and Costa Rica’s lack of military. Because of this, most people in Monteverde and Santa Elena know each other – when my friend left her phone in a taxi the restaurant owner knew exactly who it was, and rang them to get the phone returned. I can’t think of anywhere else in Central America with this sort of town spirit!
Getting to Monteverde
The most sensible way to get to Monteverde is from the South – direct buses leave from San Jose a few times a day. But of course, we went for the non-sensible way. Read on if you’re thinking of getting to Monteverde from Nicaragua…
After a lovely two weeks exploring Nicaragua, we ended up in Granada, a city in Southern Nicaragua, and journeyed to Monteverde from there. Thanks to a very kind border crossing and virtually no wait for transport, we made it there in a day, but we could very easily have ended up stranded somewhere around the border!
We took a 6:30am chicken bus from Granada to Rivas, which is a market town on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. From Rivas, it’s a half hour chicken bus or taxi ride (we opted for taxi, to save time) to San Juan Del Sur, the town closest to the Costa Rican border. We had to stop in SJDS to meet a friend who was joining our Costa Rican leg of the adventure, so we took another taxi from there to the border.
I had heard horror stories about the Costa Rican border crossing – in reality, it couldn’t have been laxer. After handing over our forms we were stamped out of Nicaragua and entered no mans land – a barren landscape belonging to neither country. We were actually navigating the middle of nowhere for quite some time – until I asked a policeman (what way is Costa Rica?) and he pointed to the outline of more inspection booths on the horizon. We entered Costa Rica by crossing through these inspection booths, but the whole experience was pretty quick and painless.
On the other side men were waiting ready to take you to any destination in Latin America, it seemed. As soon as we said ‘Monteverde’ three coach companies approached, trying to get us on board. However, it turned out none actually went to Monteverde – all buses required a change in ‘Las Irmas’.
We’d been on the bus for three hours when we begun to realise that we had no idea where Las Irmas was (I don’t know what we were expecting, a flashing sign maybe?). Had we already gone past it? I decided that our innate navigational skills probably wouldn’t be too much use here, and thought it was best I ask the bus driver.
Turns out Costa Rican Spanish is completely different to Nicaraguan Spanish. With a classic blend of my poor language skills spoken in my cockney drawl (great for a conversation starter in hostels, not so good when I’m trying to navigate with foreign bus drivers), and a bit of interpretive acting, we established that the bus was in twenty minutes, and it was a fifteen minute drive away. Relived, I made my way back down the bus and sunk into the seat. Then, five minutes later, we pulled into a service station.
We were assured that this was just a quick stop but when we left seven minutes later, I used my A* GCSE maths to work out that we would infact be two minutes late. It’s Latin America, nothing is on time, the sensible part of my brain reassured me. Nonetheless, I was feeling a tad stressed when we disembarked the bus at Las Irmas.
Ten minutes after the bus was due. Have we missed it? I worried. It would have been ok if we were in a town, but Last Irmas was infact merely a forgotten junction of the pan-american highway. To our left and right there was nothing but trees, and behind a road ascending steeply uphill with a sign advising us that it was 35 kilometres to Monteverde. That’s a long old climb…
But of course, Costa Rican time does actually mean half an hour after it’s supposed to be. My heart soared as the bus pulled up, and even sharing it with various livestock didn’t matter as we trundled up the hill to Monteverde. Due to it being a constant incline, it took us a good two hours to get there. We arrived at 6:30pm, after 13 hours travelling.
In short, Monteverde is not the easiest place to get to. But let me tell you why it’s worth it…
Where to stay in Monteverde
I cannot recommend this hostel enough – it is hands down the best hostel I’ve stayed in in Central America. The staff are absolutely lovely, always on hand to help and you can tell that they love their job. They are fluent English speakers (as are most people in Monteverde – it used to be a Quaker residence) but will also help you with your Spanish if you ask! Dorms are only $7, which is a steal for Costa Rica.
There’s a delicious free breakfast every day of fruit, eggs, toast and what my friend described as ‘the best banana bread she’s ever tasted’. I unfortunately couldn’t try this novelty due to that pesky gluten allergy – but the hostel owner even said if I could locate some gluten free flour he’d make me a special one! They were just really great people.
The whole hostel felt very rustic and rural, and while friendly and buzzing with people during the day, was very quiet at night. Monteverde’s not got a huge ‘going out’ culture anyway – and early nights are quite a good idea as the best time for jungle treks is the morning! The rooms were equipped with everything we needed, and there was good WiFi.
The Tree House
We may have spent all of our food budget on The Tree House – a restaurant built up around a tree, which has a fantastic atmosphere but is rather pricey! If you’ve ever been to a rainforest café, it kind of reminisces that – although without the fake animals! The food was really nice, albeit rather Western, with lots of seafood dishes on the menu (my heaven). I had squid, shrimp and potatoes and they were all served on a sizzling hot plank, straight out of the oven.
However, if you are coming from $1 street food dinner Nicaragua, you’ll be pretty shocked at the prices here, which are more similar to what you’d pay in the UK, Aus or the US; if you’re on a budget you could always eat elsewhere and check it out for drinks! It’s pretty cool to say you’ve eaten in a tree in the jungle.
La Campesino is a small, local restaurant serving authentic Costa Rican food, including great Casados (meat, rice, veg and plantain). The place is family run and has very friendly service – it’s also fairly budget friendly.
The Choco Café
This local café serves fantastic chocolate treats (that Costa Rica and the region is famous for), tasty coffee, and appetizing meals. We stopped off for a hot chocolate during a storm and it gave us the energy lift we needed to brave the outdoors after!
There is also a large supermarket in town – which is so well stocked it contains Dairy Milk chocolate and rosé wine! – so cooking at your hostel is easy.
Things to do in Monteverde
Monteverde is famous for all the Cs – chocolate, coffee, and cheese. There’s a cheese museum worth visiting, but do enquire ahead to go on the tour! (We didn’t and just enjoyed a view of the cheese churning in a vat. An interesting way to start a Tuesday).
Of course, while you’re there you have to check out the zipline! It’s suitable for most abilities and ages, and it’s great fun, although a tad scary in some places. You quite literally feel like Tarzan as you zoom through the trees – and on the last 1km zipline, you get hoisted into a horizontal position and pushed off into the jungle, zooming like superman. Going through the trees at this angle is odd to say the least, especially when, mid-zip, you slow down considerably – there was one point when I wondered – Is this my destiny? To be stuck in the middle of a zipline in Costa Rica forever? Luckily I made it to the other side, and I did indeed feel like superman.
My favourite part of the zipline was the Tarzan swing at the end. You don’t have to do this – but if you’re in good health, definitely do, it’s fantastic. Two workers buckle you in to a more sophisticated harness, and without saying anything, bundle you out a gate. But it just so happens that you’re standing on a 40 metre platform, and the gate leads nowhere. It’s not a bungee, as you don’t go headfirst (and it’s not high enough for all you Ben Nevis fanatics), but as you zoom around the trees, you basically are Tarzan.
Another unmissable part of Monteverde is the cloud forest park. You get a taxi there and pay a small entrance fee, and get given a map with various (easy to follow) trails. Then, it’s just you and the jungle. Various tropical birds and animals can be spotted (look out for sloths!) and it’s a wonderful peaceful and serene walk. We took a picnic with us and sat on a log in the rainforest eating lunch, which was a lovely experience.
Do make sure you check the weather before you go, as there is always a slight danger of being positively drenched as you make your way round (happened to us, obviously). My clothes were all wring-out able and everything in my bag ruined. But such is Costa Rica in the rainy season!
Birds, bats and butterflies
There’s so much wildlife residing around Monteverde – National Geographic once deigned the town to be the best place to spot the Quetzal bird, and you are welcome to take a look out for the animal in the trees around town. The Monteverde Butterfly garden offers a range of tropical butterflies, and The Bat Jungle enables visitors to learn about bats in a controlled environment.
Getting Out of Monteverde
As previously mentioned, Monteverde is MUCH more accessible from San Jose than the North. Buses leave from Santa Elena at 6:30am or 2:30pm. We got the 6:30am and made it in ample time to catch a bus to Puerto Viejo in the same day.
Monteverde is a Costa Rican jewel, tucked high up in the clouds of the mainland. It’s pretty touristy, but still retains an unmatchable charm, due to its quirky combination of Quaker expat culture and stunning surrounding rainforests. Despite the agonising journey from Nicaragua (which I’m sure could be done more simply), it is a necessary stop on your Central American journey.
Where to next? Venture North to Nicaragua, explore more of Costa Rica, or head South to Panama! Here’s a great review of San Blas Adventures; who tour the San Blas islands between Panama and Colombia – a great way to end a trip in Central America!