It is possible to get to Monteverde without a car. But it is QUITE spread out and an enormous amount of hiking will be required after you get there. This is only an option for the young and fit.
Travel by bus:
From San José
You can take a bus at 6:30 AM or at 2:30 PM. Ask for the old Puntarenas bus stop, at Calle 14, avenida 11 y 9 . The morning bus passes by Lagartos at about 9 h AM arriving in Monteverde at 11h AM. The afternoon bus passes by Lagartos at 5h PM arriving in Monteverde at 7h PM, later in wet season. 4.5 hours. $5
There are 2 buses: one at 1:00 PM (via Las Juntas) and one at 2:00 PM (direct).
-The 1:00 PM bus from Puntarenas to Monteverde (via Las Juntas) passes by La Irma at 2:30 PM approximately, arriving in Monteverde at 5:00 PM.
-The 2h PM direct bus from Puntarenas passes by Lagartos at 3h PM approximately, arriving in Monteverde at 5:00 PM.
From Guanacaste, Liberia, northern Costarica,
There are buses from Nicoya, Santa Cruz, Tamarindo beach, Flamingo, Playa del Coco, Montezuma, Samara, Hermosa, the Nicaragua Border, Liberia, etc. Taking one of these buses, you can go to Lagartos or La Irma and hop on one of the Monteverde buses. See above, San Jose, Puntarenas, check for bus schedule.
From Southern Pacific beaches: Ballena National park, Uvita, Dominical, Matapalo, Quepos, Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Herradura, go to Puntarenas, then to Monteverde..
From La Fortuna ( Arenal Volcano ): Leaves at 8h am for Tilaran, 4 hours, then see below ( total time: 8 hours, in dry season)
The bus leaves Tilarán for Monteverde at 1h PM, arriving at 3h30 PM approximately, later in wet season. Don't eat a big meal before, it's a bumpy ride
Most people include La Fortuna & Monteverde on trips in Costa Rica, so getting between the two can be an important task. In order to cut the usual nearly 8 hour road trip in a quarter, an alternate path has emerged. The combination of a jeep-boat-jeep trip can take about 2-2.5 hours, by traversing Lake Arenal. This was a pleasant enough trip. Although it is called a jeep-boat-jeep option, it can be a misnomer for some people. Many of the operators don't use actuall jeeps (in the US sense). My trip from La Fortuna to Monteverde started with a shuttle bus from my hotel on the paved roads to the lake; we then hopped on a small boat (katamaran) for the30-45min ride across the lake; after coming ashore on the other side, we piled into minivans for the rest of the trip. The final leg of the trip was about 1.5 hours of quite bumpy roads. The route here does offer some gorgeous views of small valleys, including a lot of coffee plants. We even had to stop for a couple minutes due to a road block of a herd of cows coming towards and around us. Despite the bumpiness, it was still a nice little ride.
These routes are booked on both ends of the trips. I noticed that trip prices were cheaper for ones starting earlier in the morning. The company I went through even stated that it was $17 for the 8AM or $25 for the other trips. This was true on the advertisements in Monteverde too.
You will not have a problem finding a place that advertises this service. I went through Destiny Tours & Internet because they were right by my hotel. The actual operator was Eagle Tours, which was one of the tours doing the same Arenal Volcano tour I was on with another group.
The roads to and around Monteverde are awful! We arrived so late, that we were not able to visit the cloud forest (the entire reason we went to Monteverde)! The road is uneven and filled with bumps and holes. Once you arrive in town, the signs are non-existent. We drove around and around trying to find our hotel. I'm not saying these things to scare you away, just be prepared. I would probably hire a driver the next time. It's not very expensive, and that's what most people do. Much less stress, and then you can enjoy the beautiful place you are visiting.
We thought about renting a car to drive to Monteverde, and then thought better of it. 1. You have to make a large deposit, and on these roads, it doesn't seem so unlikely that you could damage the rental car. 2. You have to figure out where you are going and not hit anyone or anything in the process. 3. The road, as noted elsewhere here, is incredibly bad. 4. It is not really that cheap to rent an SUV!
We ended up hiring a private transport to take us from San Jose directly to Monteverde as soon as our plane arrived. This cost $100. If you have the money and you want to make the most of your time, this seems like a good option! Our driver met us at 10 a.m., and we were in Monteverde by lunchtime! The transportation was in an airconditioned minibus, and our driver clearly knew the road well.
The only problem is that once you are in Santa Elena, you don't have any more transportation and you must either taxi or walk to a lot of places. This trade off was fine for me though.
We arranged the transportation through Desafio Expeditions (the URL is below). They also arrange horseback and rafting trips. Janet, the office manager, is a native English speaker. I think she is Australian.
Okay you have a couple options.
First you can take a public bus. I have the timetable, but not with me at the moment. It's your cheapest option. It takes about 4.5 hours on the bus from San Jose to Monteverde.
Option 2 is to rent your own car. It's a fun way to do a little more exploring on the way on your own. The drive is not nearly as bad as others made it out to be. The road is along the interstate most of the way and when you turn off the interstate the road is completely paved until the final 25 km then paved in town (with the exception of the road to the park). The last 25 km are bumpy and full of potholes but it's a clearly marked route and difficult to get lost. You can do it in a regular car but I would recommend renting a 4 wheel drive if you have the option.
The third option is to take a shuttle service. This is more expensive than the bus and less expensive than hiring your own taxi. I also have shuttle times, but not with me at the moment unfortunately.
Your fourth option is to hire a taxi. This is expensive but the fastest way. Our driver made it from San Jose to Monteverde in just under 3.5 hours but it was a hefty $140 US one way. We did have air conditioning, could stop whenever we wanted to and our driver was playing dvds during the ride, although that made me extremely nervous. But we got there in one piece.
Your last option... if you are planning to visit Arenal as well you can fly from San Jose to Arenal and then take the jeep-boat-jeep to Monteverde.
The road to Monteverde is very bad. It is only 35 km from either Tilaran or the Interamerican highway but it will take you 2 to 3 hours. Be very careful, this sandy and rocky road isn't well maintained and can even be unaccessible during the wet season. You definitely need a 4WD here.
This is actually a city bus that runs up and down the street between Santa Elena ad the Monteverde rain forest.
It's an old yellow bus, with the words Pulaski County on the side. Goes from the triangle in St Elena to the MCF in about 20-30 minutes. Runs 5 times a day. 600Colones, or about $1.25
This is the most popular and quickest way to get to La Fortuna or Arenal area, or the other way around. The whole trip is about 3 hours. That's what it's called, although it's more like van-boat-van. A slightly different version includes a horseback ride. It's an 8 hour trip if you take the bus!
From Monteverde, it's a rough 1.5 hr ride up and down a bumpy gravel road, although the scenery is very spectacular, passing by ranges after ranges of lush pasture and forests. From the Rio Chiquito dock, it's a 30-min boat ride to the other side of Lake Arenal. Volcano Arenal is in front of you as you get closer to the dock on the other side. From there, it's a smooth ride on paved road (finally!) about 20 minutes to La Fortuna.
All the hotels in town can help you to book the trip, which is offered twice daily, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
To get from MOnteverde from Arenal, or vice-versa your best, easiest, fastest way is to take the Jeep/Boat/Jeep. It's actually a minivan, not a jeep.
For $25 a minivan picks you up at your hotel in Arenal, drives you for about 20 minutes to a lake. You then board the boat for a 50 minute or so ride across the lake.
Then you get on another minivan and the driver will drive you to your hotel in Monteverde.
This all takes about 2.5 hours. Faster than a bus around the lake. The road in Monteverde is the worst one you will be on in Costa Rica though. Motion sickness pills wouldn't be a bad idea.
The driver will stop on the MOnteverde portion of the trip at a restaurant/gift shop. He will sit down and eat fast free lunch, reward for bringing a van of tourists to their store. The stop will be about 15 minutes, the place is a bit over-priced.
Your hotel can sign you up for it, or there are many places in Arenal/La Fortuna that sell it also.
If you're like us, you've planned to go see the Arenal volcano in Fortuna AND the Monteverde could forest and you're travelling by bus. If you don't already know, let me inform you that this bus ride will take 8 hours. From experience, a 4 hours bus ride is enough to put you out for the rest of the day... you'll be looking for peace and quiet and a jaccuzi. So we were dreading the 8 hours (one bus will take you half way and then, in the middle of nowhere, you'll transfer to another)!
But there's hope! They've put up a Jeep-Boat-Jeep service that will cut 5 hours off the trip! It's about 20$ (we paid 19$ in Fortuna but saw it advertise at 25$ in Santa Elena... for the same service!). It's offered about everywhere (hotel and tour operator).
And you'll get a wonderful view of this part of the country: the volcano, the Arenal lake, the Monteverde green mountains...
Absolutely worth it!
Everything seems to go to or from San Jose. I didn't want to spend all day on the road going back there and then on to the Pacific coast. The local cheap buses would have taken up at least a day, maybe more. Flying back would have taken 2 days because of the timing. So I had a driver drive me from Monteverde to Samara. Took about 4 hours, and the first 2 hours coverd about 20 miles of Monteverde's famous rock and pot-holed roads. After that it was rather smooth sailing, though Costa Rican highway engineers seem to have an aversion to any straight length of road longer than 30 meters.
Your driver can stop anywhere you want, a little town you go thru, for lunch, for anything. It is costlier, but because of the circumstances, I thought this was the best option for me--saved a lot of time. If there are 4 or more of you, this is the way to go.
I used the company Transport Costa Rica: They were fine, a guy who lived in Monteverde picked me up right on time, and took me there no problem. There is also a service that may do this right in Montevere. When walking by, I saw a storefront that offered this. I didn't check with them, because I already had it set up. They are located just to the left of the ice cream shop in Santa Elena, across from the grocery store.
to reach Santa Elena and Monteverde there are about 20-25 km of dirt road, whichever of the third directions you come from, and it's real, hard off-road... so when I noticed the sign in my pic I absolutely had to stop and shoot it because it's not only advertisement, it pictures perfectly the road...
The only way to get into Monteverde is by way of a dirt road. The rocks are like small boulders and the potholes are bottomless pits. Beware of falling in, as you may need a rope to get back out.
All kidding aside, this is a very rough trek. Bus transportation is available, and a car is really unnecessary for most of your time in Monteverde if you are able to walk moderate distances. However, if you prefer to drive, make sure you have a sturdy vehicle, and if you are apt to experience motion sickness, have medication with you.
You NEED an SUV to get to Monteverde. Hopefully you will have a guide to drive you, but if not, you must have an SUV to make it up the 40 km mountain road that is not only unpaved, but has jagged rocks sticking out of the mud! Additionally there are no barriers and it is only 1.5 cars wide, but must accomodate 2 way traffic (luckily not too much). The drive is not for the faint of heart! I heard this road referred to as a car massage and it is not an exageration!
When arrived we have rented a 4-wheel car (which is absoluyely a must in Costa Rica) with GPS. It turned out to be hard to use. The map of Costa Rica was not complete and lacked a lot of distanations. Take into account that there are no precise addresses over there. A tipical address sounds like. "go about 300m, you will see a churce on your left, then make a left turn, move another 200m and there will be a big tree on your right". Anyway to have GPS in a car is helpful and costs only $5 a day.