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In 2007, Costa Ricans voted Monteverde (literally 'Green mountain') one of Costa Rica's Seven Wonders, though to be fair there's not all that much to choose from in such a tiny country. That said, I have visited this place as well as two of the other entries on the list (the Arenal and Poas Volcanoes) and I think the country folk made the right choice.
Located in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, Monteverde is a destination often teamed with the Arenal volcano (see previous review). We stayed here for a few days while on a whirlwind tour of the country, and having arrived (on horseback, no less) from Arenal, the difference between the two areas was stunning and immediate. Monteverde is known for its Cloud Forest reserves, and sits at an altitude of 1400m which is still almost 1000m lower than Mexico City.
We stayed in Santa Elena, which is the most established village in the area and is sweet in a rustic kind of way. Accommodations are numerous and varied, but names are not always an accurate prediction of what you'll get - we stayed in the Sun and Moon cabins and ended up with nothing but wind and rain the entire time... The village was nice though, and being compact, a lot of things were within walking distance. The main street is lined with shops and restaurants and internet cafes and tour booking agencies, and there is a large supermarket at one end. We ate at the Bakery and at Maravilla which again didn't live up to its name (a marvellous or wonderful thing) since they managed to burn spaghetti, but it was cheap and cheerful. Most of the restaurants served international cuisine, with pizzas and pastas as well as local rice and bean dishes but there was also a Chinese restaurant on this street.
Though nightlife here is limited, not least when you're arriving on Boxing Day, our local guide decided we needed to be entertained and arranged for us to have free Salsa lessons in a local bar. This was off the main drag but easily reached in a taxi, and the night was fun, especially since we made up all but 4 of the patrons in the bar, so basically had our own private venue. One thing that stood out about Santa Elena was that fewer people spoke English than in other parts of the country, but they also didn't necessarily expect you to speak Spanish, as became immediately evident when we were getting a cab home. Going there we had paid 1000 colones, so we were expecting the same price coming back. I was sitting in the front, so couldn't help but hear the driver
radio back to HQ for a price (we weren't that far off the beaten track - I think he was just being annoying). They said 1700 colones, and he replied in Spanish, "No, 2000, 2000". Now 1700 Colones is not very much (about £2.50) and there were 6 of us in the minivan, so we would probably have paid it had he not said that, but I immediately disliked his "let's rip off the non-Spanish speaking tourists" attitude because (a) I do speak Spanish and (b) without tourists, this town would dry up overnight so we had a quick argument in Spanish and paid him just 1000 colones. Apart from this, our dealings with the local people were pleasant - everyone was polite and friendly, and gave directions and advice readily. They didn't seem to mind the tourists (perhaps realising, unlike Mr Taxi Man, how much they boost the local economy) and tolerated Spanglish with a smile. We also found the town very safe, even for wandering around alone at night when the main dangers were unpaved roads lacking street lighting, not any lurking locals waiting to pounce.
Most of the attractions in Monteverde are outside of Santa Elena, and fall into two categories -adventure or nature. We did some of each, though we were in town for less than 48 hours. Our first stop, a 20 minute drive away, was Zip Lining (sometimes called the Canopy Tour) held at Selvatura Park (http://www.selvatura.com/) a conservation project which also includes butterfly and hummingbird gardens and some rope bridges which form a Treetops Walk. Think Go Ape but on a massive scale with rain forests, not piddly little English parks below. Things were not that well organised - people had signed up to do various activities the day before, and on the day we only did the Zip Lining - but this activity in itself was fantastic with 11 long wires with awesome views of the rain forest and a super scary Tarzan swing in the middle. We were accompanied by 4 or 5 guides throughout who constantly checked the safety harnesses and would give you instructions on stopping and starting. They were surprisingly good with names too, addressing me personally from line number 2 onwards.
We were there a full 2 hours and I think it was worth the price. I paid the student rate of £25 despite not being a student - I look young, I had a university hoodie on, and this seemed to be enough for them. Definitely worth trying if you're the right side of 30. However, it's worth noting that prices fluctuate - they advertise them in US dollars, but credit cards are charged in Colones, so you never quite know how much you're paying until you get back home and see your statement. Selvatura also has a restaurant, but this is a proper, formal thing, and not a snack bar, so we didn't have enough time to grab anything quickly. They have a well stocked, but pricy shop, and in reality the only things they sell that you cannot get from the stores back in the village are the usual bags / caps / t-shirts with the name of the park printed on. It is a good idea to reserve in advance at busy periods - you can book a place on any activity in Santa Elena and they'll sort out your transport, but you don't pay until you get there, so you can always change your mind or add extra activities to your plan.
Our next stop was the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde (literally 'Biological Reserve Cloud Forest Monteverde' - http://www.cct.or.cr/english/ ). This is one of two Cloud Forests that fall within the Monteverde umbrella, and is about 6km out of Santa Elena, which takes maybe 20 minutes to drive given the appalling condition of the dirt tracks they call roads (we lost several tyres during our stay in this part of the country). Owned and operated by the Tropical Science Centre of Costa Rica, this particular cloud forest comprises 6 different ecological zones. When we got there we had to wait for a local guide to be free, so we checked out the very friendly hummingbirds in the gallery near the entrance. Then we set off for a 2 hour trek through the forest.
I have done rain forests before - I came back from Australia saying I was "over" them and never needed to see another in my life -and I expected a cloud forest to be little different but this tour turned out to be one of the most interesting parts of the trip. This place is all about the statistics - 150 species of amphibians, 500 species of butterflies, 100 species of mammals, 2500 of plants and even 30 plus species of those pretty hummingbirds, can be found in and around the reserve. The guides were super knowledgeable, and helped us see all sorts of things - the strangler fig tree, a tiny chick sitting happily in its nest, the poor man's umbrella plant, a few lazy sloths and even the elusive Quetzal. They chatted fluently in Spanish and English and were adept at taking photos through their fancy telescope things, which was a great bonus. I would definitely recommend hiring one of these guides, since otherwise you're just wandering around without
Pictures of Monteverde (Costa Rica)
The Cloud Forest
really realising what you're seeing unless you're a closet botanist. You can get a full price list here: http://www.cct.or.cr/english/reserva_monteverde/ta rifas.php
I would highly recommend old shoes or washable sandals as the cloud forest is very muddy. I also wish I had rolled up my jeans in a wonderfully unfashionable way, or worn shorts, since clothes don't dry well in the humidity here. The standard trekking gear of hiking boots, shorts and a sweater would be perfect if you possess such things.
Something I had long been interested in was the Quaker Cheese Factory up the road, or more correctly the ice cream at said factory. La Lecheria is out of town, but handily on the same road as the Cloud Forest, so we stopped on the way back. Founded by the Quakers who settled in Monteverde in 1953, it produces many types of cheese (from the usual to the hmmm, like chocolate flavour cheese) but is especially known for its ice cream. The selection advertised is not vast, and they didn't even have all of these in stock when we visited, but it was well worth it as it had the fresh, creamy taste that only on-site production facilities can offer.
Although there are lots of other things to see and do in the area, from coffee tours to horse-riding to a Serpentarium with more than 20 species of the slithery things, I got to do everything I would have wanted to do during our stay. I liked that we first stayed in Arenal and did activities there, and then came up here for a few days. Some people "commute" from one to the other, but I thought it was much nicer to switch hotels after a few nights and experience a new community for a few days, plus it cuts out travelling time and allows you longer to see and do things.
You can reach Monteverde from Arenal (the aforementioned boat ride / horse-back trip is popular) or from San Jose , though this trip takes about 5 hours. Regular busses also depart to other destinations, such as the beaches, but leave at stupid times (like 5am) so I would highly recommend private transportation or a mini-tour. Getting around the Monteverde area requires wheels, but lots of the activities come with optional transportation, so you don't necessarily need a hire car.
This is perhaps a more sedate part of Costa Rica - it is not full of erupting volcanoes, or lively beaches - but it was an interesting stop for us after the former and before the latter, and I would recommend a few days here on any Costa Rican activity.
For more about the area, visit: http://www.monteverdeinfo.com/