The roads to Monteverde are deliberately kept unimproved. It is quite a bumpy trip, and cannot be taken faster because there is too much chance of breaking an axle. In the wet season, a 4x4 is recommended.
There are two main routes - from San Jose to the west, and from San Jose via Arenal. We went via Arenal and came back the western route, which is shorter but not as scenic, and there is a 100 colones toll. Someone tried to flag us down to take a lady and her luggage down to San Jose, but our car was a two seater and she wouldn't have fit. We saw lots of people traveling by horseback, which is really the way to go here if you've got a horse.
Travel by car:
From La Fortuna, go to Tilaran, (follow the road around Lake Arenal) to Monteverde. 4 hours.
We went the other direction on this route:
From San Jose, follow the signs to Puntarenas, then Penas Blancas or Liberia at Lagartos. The turn off is 147 kilometers from San Jose. And about 10 km after the Texaco gas station. Then it's 35 km of dirt road with great views. You have to earn your stay in Monteverde rainforest! About 3.5 hours.
In order reduce the impact of so many visitors, the Topical Science Center (at the main Monteverde Preserve) limits the number of people who can use the paths and trails at the same time. Use of the paths cannot be reserved; instead visitors have access to them on a first-come, first-serve basis. When we went the limit was 100. The current number allowed is probably between 120 and 160.
Those who arrive once the limit has been reached, have to wait 15 to 45 minutes until those on the paths return to the entrance of the Preserve. Visitors who have reservations for the guided tours with guides from the Preserve, have guaranteed entrance to the paths.
That's a good reason to make a reservation with a guide. You can do the trails in the reserve on your own, but you stand a much better chance of seeing animals and finding out what the birds are that you see if you go with a guide.
Use only the marked paths and trails; visitors have gotten lost in the Preserve for leaving the permitted and marked trails.
The trails are often wet and muddy (duh - rain forest = rain). Visitors can rent rubber boots in the reception area.
Not sure if this is general or warning, so I will place it in both. There is only one bank in Santa Elena, which happens to be Banc Nacional. Bank Nacional ATMs only dispense funds to its own customers. So, make sure you have enough colones or dollars to exchange before you go head to this town for several days.
Costa Rica is only ten degrees north of the equator. The same latitude as Nigeria, the southern tip of India and the isthmus of Thailand. By all rights Costa Rica should be hot. But the combination of the high altitudes and the moderating effects of both the Caribbean and the Pacific makes the cloudforest very temperate. I found the 60 degree (fahrenheit) temperatures refreshing and walked around in shorts and a windbreaker. But some of the folks (Californians and Texans) found the weather downright chilly. The best advice is to bring an extra pair of long pants and maybe a sweatshirt.
Only thirty hikers were allowed on this trail--yet we all bunched up at this one specific spot. Why? To see the quetzal. Quetzals are difficult to spot and they feed only on the fruit of a few select trees. So when the quetzal is known to be feeding in a particular tree, the guides will lead their charges to the one spot from which it is possible to view the quetzal. That means a lot of crowding and the relinquishment of personal space trying for that one fantastic resplendent glimpse of the quetzal.
Quetzals are cool--but I'd rather be alone with my thoughts and seeking out the other splendors of the forest than queueing up for a turn at the quetzal scope. I guess what I am saying is: if the quetzal trail is closed because it has absorbed its alotment of hikers, go ahead and take a different trail. You will likely be rewarded with solitude and some other fantastic animals. Man does not live by quetzal alone.
Or epiphytes will grow on you too!
The amount of life in the cloudforest is mind-boggling. It is not enough that every square inch of ground is covered by trees, shrubs, ferns etc. But every tree trunk and limb is then host to myriad epiphytes (mosses, vines, airplants that do not grow in soil but attach to a host).
Our guide, Arturo, estimated that this sign had been "planted" only two years ago. The vegetation takes hold that fast!
This poor porcupine probably met his untimely demise only the night before because he was not at all decomposed. A porcupine does not have many natural predators. This one probably succumbed to disease or injury. No doubt it will soon become part of the living compost pile that is the cloudforest.
The air is quite damp here in the cloud forest. And the sun usually doesn't come out often. I washed some clothes and they were still quite wet when I left 2 days after. I suggest either do laundry before or after coming to Monteverde.
Beware. When taking the jeep-boat-jeep to Monteverde(actually Santa Elena), the driver will arrive in Monteverde and pull over. An ‘owner’ of a local hotel will probably be there, and give you a great deal on a few rooms she has left. For one, it probably isn’t her hotel, for two it may not be a great deal. Hotels often pay someone to lure customers in to their empty hotels.
If you don’t have a place to stay when he pulls over and you get the sales pitch, get out here and walk around. There are at least 25 places to stay within 50 yards of the main street, including at least 3 cheap hostels. No problem finding a place.
I personally don't like the canopy tour, in which you whizz from one platform to another above the rainforest using a cable system. It is mainly for those who love the thrills. Keep in mind that you can't truly enjoy nature this way as you zip quickly across.
Accidents do happen, ensure you do enough research about the companies before taking a canopy tour. The following warning came from the Foreign Affairs Canada website (see url below):
Whitewater rafting and other adventure sports (e.g. the popular Canopy Tour) should only be undertaken with a well established company. Be aware that Canopy accidents do occur from time to time, including one accident in November 2004 involving a Canadian who fell 11 meters after the Canopy cable broke. If you have any doubt concerning the security of the installations, we strongly recommend that you refrain from using them.
Keep your eyes open everywhere you go, as this place is full pf spiders. We saw many small, harmless eight legged "friends", and then the guide spotted this Orange-knee tarantula on the path. If you look very carefully indeed at the photograph, you can see him to the left of the guide who's trying to photograph him.
The main drags in Monteverde and Santa Elena were recently paved, and no sidewalks were placed. The cars will drive extremely close to you, so be very careful and walk in the ditch when at all possible.
The roads can be tricky to down right dangerous. It is said everywhere, the roads aren't in the best conditions. Be careful when riding.
But see also from the perspective of a pedestrian. Don't walk on dark roads at night, and not just in San Jose. These dirt roads usually don't have sidewalk and most car drivers aren't demure. Could be speeding, trying to avoid a pothole or just not putting on their headlights. And in Monteverde, the wind picking up the dirt of the road might be blinding you...
Okay, so I can know I should not feed animals but I am a sucker for animals that may be suffering. There are quite a few dogs running around the town and many of them look quite hungry. I held off giving them anything until I saw a young puppy who couldn't seem to find anything amongst the bigger dogs. He was so adorable too. So, I went down to the market and just bought some inexpensive pepperoni or something. Well, it was hard to get the little doggies to stop following me and they also crowded around quite eagerly to get what I had. A couple were slightly aggressive but not in a dangerous way.
So, just be cautious if you see the dogs and decide they need a snack. I can be such a sucker :-)
If you are afraid of heights, Monteverde might not be the place for you! The best way to admire the scenery is by the suspension bridges and the zip lines, which are tough if you are afraid of heights like me. But it can be done, heck if I did it, you can too!