Trust Us, You Need At Least 3 Days in Monteverde, Costa Rica
Around four hours by bus from San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, Monteverde is famous for its cloud forest and the numerous animals that reside within it.
While it's a popular overnight destination, you really need at least three days in Monteverde to enjoy everything it has to offer.
I recently spent three weeks in town. These are the activities you don't want to skip — and how to do them all in three days.
Spend Time in the Cloud Forest
The cloud forest is the biggest draw of this outdoor destination. And it's certainly its most impressive feature. Most people focus on the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, where you can do relatively easy trails that take you to different altitudes and through hanging bridges. Sloths, monkeys and birds are common sights for trained eyes. And be on the lookout for other standout species like groups of coatis scurrying down the trees.
If you only have time for one hike, choose this reserve. But don't make the common mistake of ignoring the other two, thinking they'll all be the same. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve provides an entirely different look into this ecosystem, with denser woods and fewer people. Felines like pumas, ocelots and jaguars roam around. Don't worry, only the very lucky (or unlucky?) few ever get to see them. Although, I did get to hear an ocelot's growl and feel how it made the earth around me shake.
Finally, you have the Curicancha Reserve, said to be the best spot for wildlife watching.
Take a Horseback Riding Tour
After the cloud forest hikes, my absolute favorite activity in Monteverde was horseback riding. Cowboy culture is still very strong in the region, so you'll get to see some pretty astonishing landscapes while learning about the local way of life.
There are several companies that offer this experience, but I loved my tour with Horsetrek Monteverde. Marvin, the guide, loves and respects his horses. Even though it was our first time riding, he taught us how to control the horses, remain calm and navigate different terrains. By the end, we were galloping with confidence.
Enjoy views of misty hills as you go into a forest on the way to a powerful river where you can take a quick dip. During the ride, Marvin will teach you cowboy songs, tell you more about his horses and even cut fresh fruit from the trees for you to taste.
Dare to Do the World's First Zipline
Monteverde isn't known as an adventure destination only because of its numerous forested trails. This is the birthplace of commercial ziplining, so the activity is pretty much a requisite for anyone passing through.
You'll find numerous options, but Selvatura Park is probably the most popular and convenient. It's close to the town center of Santa Elena (the heart of Monteverde), has numerous courses for all levels and offers other attractions like hanging bridges and a sloth center.
If you're a pro who needs a more intense challenge, Extremo also has superman cables. Rather than sitting perpendicularly to the cable, you'll be held on your back so you're moving parallel to it as if you were flying. You can also bungee jump and try a Tarzan swing that covers 295 feet at a height of 470 feet.
Go Bird Watching
I'm not a birder at all, but even I was seduced by the idea of catching a glimpse of one of the 366 bird species that live in the cloud forest.
If you go on a regular hike, you're bound to see some of them. But the most exciting ones often require an experienced guide with a sharp eye and binoculars. The holy grail of Monteverde birding is the elusive and beautiful quetzal. Native to Central America, this bird is known for its colorful plumage and unusually long tail.
The birds pass through the area mainly from January to May. To see them in all their splendor, your best bet is to roam around the quiet forests of the Curicancha Reserve.
Do an Immersive Coffee and Chocolate Tour
Agrotourism is a trend that is vastly underrated. Not only does it give us useless city dwellers the chance to realize how the things we consume are made, but it also gives us a heavenly taste of farm-fresh goodies.
Visit Finca Don Juan for a fun (and affordable!) coffee and chocolate tour. Guides explain every step of the coffee-making process but will also put you to work. During harvest season, you'll have the chance to pick coffee beans and fill up a basket to see how laborers earn their living. If you visit at other times, you'll still get to make your own sugar-cane juice and concoct a chocolate mix. Oh, and you'll also get unlimited coffee and hot chocolate. Try the rare honey coffee brew.
But for anyone who doesn't live in a chocolate-producing country or climate, the highlight is getting to try the cacao fruit. You will never find this sweet, gooey fruit at a supermarket because it begins to rot within one or two days. So, your only chance to taste it is at a farm.
If you're lucky, you might even run into Don Juan himself. He'll share his secret to reaching 85 in good health: "Never go to the doctor. They'll just tell you to not eat meat or beans, and to not drink coffee or guaro (a Costa Rican liquor)."
See Nocturnal Wildlife on a Night Safari
Yes, you should go back into the cloud forest for yet another hike. This one will be completely different, though, as you'll get to see species that are usually sleeping when hikers roam about. Frogs, snakes, bats and tarantulas crawl out as the sun sets, and your guide (going on your own is not an option) knows exactly where to find them.
If you visit Costa Rica during the rainy season, you may also get lucky enough to do a night tour in search of bioluminescent (glowing) mushrooms as part of the country's shiny new Fungi Trail led by Oropopo Experience.
Kick Back at Local Watering Holes
You can't come to Costa Rica and not share drinks with the very friendly locals. Many tourists gravitate towards Tree House Restaurante, a central spot built around a gigantic ficus tree. The place is undeniably impressive but also fairly overpriced. Rather, visit Hotel Belmar's Tap Room Beer & Garden to enjoy craft beer in one of the country's few microbreweries.
If you want a more relaxed experience, head to La Cocina De Doña Mayra. If you go in through the front, you'll find a cozy restaurant that specializes in home cooking. But go through the back for a bar mostly devoid of other tourists. Want in on a secret? Ask them for "boquitas," and they'll give you free (and delicious) bites like soups and meats.
But the real town party is at Bar Amigos, whose large space is perfect for dancing. Go on Wednesdays for karaoke night, where locals love doing renditions of rancheras (a Mexican genre closely tied to cowboy culture). Even if you don't sing, join in the intermissions when the DJ gets people on the dance floor.
Best Places to Eat in Monteverde
If you heed a single piece of my advice, let it be to dine at Celajes, the farm-to-table restaurant at Hotel Belmar. It is hands down, one of the best meals I have ever had in my life. Order the cheese platter to delight in housemade cheese with roasted vegetables from the garden along with the hotel's own pesto and jelly. For the main course, there is no wrong choice.
For a more affordable but delicious meal, go to the laid-back Gusticos. We ate here so much, we practically became friends with the owner. You'll find Costa Rican dishes along with international food like burgers. Everything is good, but nothing matches the delightful and chaotic mix of the chifrijo.
Food in Costa Rica is notoriously expensive, so if you're on a budget, go for the affordable fried chicken national chain, Pollolandia.
Where to Stay in Monteverde
There is no better choice for accommodation in Monteverde than Hotel Belmar. Yes, the same hotel that houses Celajes and the Tap Room microbrewery. The beautiful property is owned by a local family who is completely committed to giving back to the environment and to the community through various sustainability projects. Natural wood makes rooms cozy and warm, while large windows and private balconies immerse guests into the surrounding mountains.
If you want a more budget-friendly option, stay at the centrally located Camino Verde B&B or the ever-popular Selina, which is very near the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.
Monteverde's 3-Day Itinerary
This is a lot to pack into three days. But, don't worry! Here's the exact game plan so you don't miss anything in beautiful Monteverde.
- Morning: Start with a bang and hike the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.
- Afternoon: Relax with the slow-paced yet interesting coffee and chocolate tour at Finca Don Juan.
- Night: Enjoy craft beer and dinner at Hotel Belmar (whether you're staying there or not).
- Morning: Do an early morning birdwatching tour at Curicancha Reserve.
- Afternoon: Have lunch at Gusticos, and gather up the courage to go ziplining.
- Night: Head back into the cloud forest for a night walk tour in Santa Elena Reserve. End the night at Bar Amigos.
- Morning: Head out early for a horseback riding tour with Horsetrek Monteverde.
- Afternoon: Recover from the trek with a leisurely afternoon walking around Santa Elena town. Get food, then drinks at La Cocina De Doña Mayra.