Arenal and Monteverde are two of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica but visitors are often confused as to which one to visit as they seem similar. If you’re short on time, you’re probably thinking you can only choose one of the two so this is a question we get often: Should I visit Monteverde or Arenal? Neither? Both? Is Monteverde worth it?
In this post, I’ll break it all down for you and compare the two destinations as they are quite different. I’ll explain the differences between the two, a estimated budget, top things to do and other details to help you decide which one to visit.
It’s impossible to say one is better than the other but you will be able to decide which one fits your itinerary in this article. If you can, we highly recommend visiting both!
Monteverde or Arenal? A Detailed Look
- Location and driving times
- Road Conditions
- What to Bring
- Type of Forest
- Tourist Friendly
- Estimated Cost for Visiting
- Things to do
- Sample Itinerary
- Who Should Visit
- Overall Thoughts
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Location of Monteverde and Arenal
Here is a map with the locations of both places.
Monteverde is the name of the entire region consisting of the cloud forests, Santa Elena town and Cerro Plano. Santa Elena is the main town and tourism hub in Monteverde. It is where the bus station, banks, restaurants, hostels and tour operator offices are located. Cerro Plano is the small town next to Santa Elena.
Monteverde sits in the Tilaran mountain range, about 1300 meters (~4000 feet) above elevation. It is famous for cloud forests, birdwatching and ziplining.
Arenal Volcano sits in the Northern Lowlands with La Fortuna as the main tourism hub. The area around Lake Arenal is called Nuevo Arenal. Elevation at La Fortuna is around 200 meters (650 feet).
Most tourists call this area Arenal but the town is La Fortuna which is main reference point.
Driving Times from the Airport
Monteverde: Monteverde is about a 3.5 hour drive from Liberia International Airport.
Arenal: Arenal is about a 3 hour drive from Liberia Airport.
San Jose Airport
Monteverde: Monteverde is about a 4 hour drive from San Jose. It does depend on the traffic out of San Jose and how slow you drive on the unpaved roads.
The roads in and around Monteverde are not in the best shape and not as good as the roads to Arenal. It is highly recommended in rainy season to rent a high car to Monteverde.
There are a few ways to get to Monteverde from San Jose and Liberia. The two main routes are Route 145 (Las Juntas) which is closer to Guanacaste and Route 606 (Sardinal) closer to San Jose. Both roads are steep, curvy and narrow. You can check our Monteverde road conditions post for photos and information on both. **As of December 2019, the Route 606 Sardinal has been smoothed over so it’s a much more enjoyable and easier drive.**
There is one paved road through Santa Elena town but all roads to the cloud forest, wildlife reserves and outside the center of town are unpaved and have lots of potholes.
Arenal has for the most part, all paved roads. The only unpaved roads are to the national park and some hotels but it is nothing bad. You do not need a 4×4 or high car to visit Arenal. There is a section from Tilaran around the lake that is very curvy and windy but it is all paved.
You can see what the route from Guanacaste to Arenal is like in our post.
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How to Get There
You can drive, take a shuttle or a public bus to Monteverde. Monteverde does not have a local airport or car rental offices so you need to rent your car before Monteverde or pay a hefty delivery charge (~$175-200) from the closest office which is in La Fortuna.
- Shuttle: Shared shuttles from San Jose and Liberia are around $44-54 USD per person. Private shuttles are around $200-250 for 1-4 people from San Jose and Liberia.
- Bus: There are direct buses from San Jose to Monteverde, leaving at 6:30 AM and 2:30 PM from Transportes Tilaran bus station, 12 Ave 7-9. It takes about 5 hours and costs 2,680 colones. From Liberia, you will need to take a bus from Liberia to Canas, Canas to Tilaran, Tilaran to Monteverde. The bus from Liberia to Canas takes 2 hours and there is one every half an hour from 8:30 – 3 PM. The bus from Canas to Tilaran leave at 6, 730, 815, 9, 1030, 12, 1 PM, 1:50 PM, 2:35 PM, 3:15 PM, 4PM and 6 PM. From Tilaran to Monteverde there are buses at 4 AM, 8:30 AM, 12:30 PM and 5 PM for 1500 colones.
You can drive, fly, take a shuttle or the public bus to Arenal.
- Shuttle: Shared shuttles from San Jose and Liberia are around $55 USD per person. Private shuttles are around $200 for 1-6 people from both San Jose and Liberia.
- Public Bus: There is a bus from San Jose to Arenal at 6:15 AM, 8:40 AM and 11:30 AM leaving from Ave 7-9, calle 12 with San Carlos Auto Transportes, it costs around 2,500 colones and takes 4 hours. From Liberia, you will need to take the same buses to Canas and Tilaran and then to La Fortuna.
- Flying: Book a local flight with Skyway (get 10% off and extra 10 lbs of luggage) to fly to the La Fortuna airport. A one way ticket from San Jose to Fortuna is around $80 USD per passenger depending on the season.
La Fortuna to Monteverde by Car and Vice Versa
You can drive from Arenal to Monteverde and vice versa. The road is largely unpaved and requires a high car as it goes around the lake. There are some very nice views along this route.
La Fortuna to Monteverde Jeep Boat Taxi
A fun way to get from La Fortuna to Monteverde and vice versa is by the taxi-boat-taxi. You will get picked at your hotel, take a 2 hour boat ride across the lake and get dropped off at your hotel. This costs around $25 USD per person and takes 3 hours. They have one in the morning and in the afternoon.
Since Monteverde is in high elevation, it is much colder and rains often. It does experience the dry and rainy season though. Dry season is about December – April and rainy is May to November. However, it can rain during dry season!
The average temperature is around 25 Celsius (77 F) in the dry season during the day. At night, it goes down to around 18 C (64 F) or lower if it’s really windy. In rainy season, the average temperature is around 22 Celsius (low 70s) during the day. It can get chilly at night if it’s raining hard and windy. It is very normal in the dry season to get light sprinkles in the morning and afternoon, which is why Monteverde is known for rainbows.
Arenal is hotter and experiences typical dry and rainy climate. It is much sunnier and hotter with the average temperature in dry season around 29 C (84 F) and doesn’t get too cold even in rainy season. The hottest months are March and April.
What to Bring
Long pants, a sweater and rain jacket are necessary for Monteverde, no matter what time of year you visit. Closed toed hiking shoes are also highly recommended but you can get away with closed toed hiking sandals. There are many clothing stores in Santa Elena if you forgot a jacket.
As for gear, we always bring our Aqua Quest waterproof backpack. Since Monteverde is high in elevation, mosquitoes are not a huge concern.
For dry season, you can wear hiking shorts and short sleeve shirts. A rain jacket and waterproof backpack are necessary for rainy season. You will need to bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent for Arenal.
Hiking sandals are the best for Arenal since those shoes are great for activities such as ziplining, hiking, rafting, hanging bridges, etc.
For more in-depth tips, check out our Costa Rica packing list.
Type of Forest and Natural Attractions
Monteverde has tropical cloud forests which are named due to their high elevation. This type of forest is characterized by persistent cloud cover, normally at canopy level. They are extremely vulnerable to climate change and it is said that cloud forests will disappear. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world that still has healthy protected cloud forests.
Monteverde has 3 cloud forest reserves: Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve and the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest. Not sure which one to visit? Check our guide to the Monteverde Cloud Forests.
Cloud forests are incredibly important because they are home to many birds and plants that are only found in this type of ecosystem. Monteverde has been named the best place in the world to see the Resplendant Quetzal because of the abundance of protected cloud forest.
Arenal has both tropical primary and secondary rain forest.
Most of the forest in the national park is restored secondary forest as it was destroyed by the 1968 eruption. You can still see plenty of wildlife in secondary forests.
How Tourist Friendly They Are
Though popular, Monteverde is not as touristic as Arenal. However, you can find all the basics in Santa Elena except car rental companies and a local airport. Since roads are not paved and it is still considered a remote location, it has not developed too much beyond that.
Arenal is one of the most visited places in Costa Rica and it has everything. Though this area is very touristy, majority of the businesses in this area are owned by Costa Ricans and you can still get a good feel of a local town walking around La Fortuna.
Estimated Cost for Visiting
You can travel cheap in Monteverde. It has a handful of hostels and the bus is easily accessible. A bed in a dorm is around $15 a night and you can eat cheap at the “fast food” places like the taco and burger stand.
The most expensive thing about Monteverde is the all day park passes if you go to Selvatura Park or Sky Adventures. The passes can run up to $150 for an all day combo tour. Entrance fees to the cloud forests are around $20 per cloud forest reserve.
Arenal can be a lot more expensive depending on where you’re staying. It has everything from $10 a night per bed to $850 a night for 2 people! So how much you spend depends on what kind of vacation you are looking for.
Tours will also take up a chunk of your budget. Guided tours run from $45-200 per person, depending on the activity. Since there are more things to do in Arenal, you’ll most likely be booking more tours.
Things to do/Top Attractions
- Ziplining: Monteverde is famous for their ziplining since it is said to have set up the first recreational zipline in the world. The best ones are SkyTrek and Selvatura Park as those are the only two that actually go over the cloud forest. Xtremo and 100% Aventura have more extreme ziplines with tarzan swing and bungee jumping. For ziplining, Monteverde does not have as many canopy tours as Arenal but the ones they have are more extreme. Recommended for older kids or young kids is OK (if they’re brave and love adventure!)
- Hiking: The cloud forests were nominated as one of the wonders of Costa Rica and is a must do. Visit any one of the three to hike the cloud forests, beautiful views and wildlife. Highly recommended to go with a guide. You will also get to walk the hanging bridges.
- Birdwatching: Named as the best place in the world to see Resplendant Quezals, this is a must for bird lovers. During the months of March – May, it is common to see 6 or 7 Quetzals in one tree as it is their mating season. Visit Curi-Cancha Wildlife Refuge for the best birding.
You can read about other things to do in Monteverde here.
- Ziplining: Our favorite canopy tour is Sky Adventures in Arenal. You get an amazing view of the volcano, lake and rain forest! Another fun one is Arenal Mundo Aventura as their zipline tour goes over La Fortuna waterfall. Arenal and La Fortuna has many more canopy tours than Monteverde with more family friendly, beginner options than Monteverde.
- Canyoning: Canyoning in Arenal is the best because you go deep into the rain forest so it’s not as cold as the cloud forest and there are a ton of beautiful waterfalls you get to rappel down.
- Hot springs: Take a dip in the natural volcanic water in the many hot spring facilities in Arenal. You can read about the various Arenal hot springs here.
- Arenal Volcano National Park: Hike the lava trails in the national park to see the remnants of the eruption from 1968, views of the volcano and lake.
Since Arenal has more activities with the lake, rain forest and volcanoes, there are so many fun things to do and it’s a great place for families. We also love the Rio Frio safari float, La Fortuna waterfall and hanging bridges. You can also take a day trip to Rio Celeste! Read more about our favorite things to do in Arenal here.
We also have a 10-15% discount for tours in La Fortuna! Get the La Fortuna tour discount here.
Monteverde is best for bird watching. There are mammals in Monteverde but less than Arenal due to the colder climate. Only 2-fingered sloths live in Monteverde, no 3-fingered sloths. There are a lot of unique birds in Monteverde that only live in high elevations.
There are also less snakes and frogs in Monteverde because of the colder climate.
Since Arenal is lower in elevation, has rain forest and is more humid, you will find more mammals, birds and amphibians.
Monteverde has around 50+ hotels in the area with more rustic lodges and family run inns. You will find just a few luxury hotels in Monteverde.
Monteverde has more family run hotels that are not super fancy like the ones in Arenal, but still very comfortable and more rustic. Prices are cheaper than Arenal/La Fortuna and other areas in Costa Rica.
Arenal has around 100 hotels in the entire area. With some of the most luxurious hotels in Costa Rica, it’s perfect for luxury travelers.
The most high end hotels in this area are the Springs Resort, Tabacon, Nayara and Kioro which are anywhere from $300-900 a night. Many of these luxury hotels around the volcano are tailored towards romantic getaways.
You can also find lodges in Arenal. Our favorite is the Arenal Observatory Lodge which is the closest hotel to the volcano.
Monteverde has a good number of local restaurants or sodas so you can find cheap food but there aren’t as many options or as diverse food choices as Arenal. But for local food, Soda Sabor Tico is the best and it’s not too expensive. You can get a typical breakfast for around $6.
The ice cream is amazing in Monteverde as it is a farming area, mostly cows for dairy so you have to try their ice cream. Coffee is also excellent in Monteverde because of their elevation. Our favorite is San Luis. We bought so many bags when we were there!
Arenal has more restaurants than Monteverde. You can find cheap local sodas like Soda La Hormiga for $6 a typical lunch plus drink or you can splurge more on Don Rufino’s for steak. We love Rainforest Cafe for their empanadas and La Parada de bus for typical food.
Typically, people spend 1-2 nights in Monteverde and more nights in La Fortuna. This is simply because Arenal is a bigger area and has more things to do. Most people go to Arenal first and then make their way to Monteverde.
Day 1-4: Arenal
Spend 3 days in La Fortuna, embarking on various adventures, seeing wildlife and enjoying the hot springs. Since many activities are half day activities, take advantage of your time in La Fortuna to experience as much as possible. An idea for activities can be like this:
Day 1: Canyoning in the morning, safari float in the afternoon.
Day 2: Relax at the hotel or check out La Fortuna town. Hot springs at night.
Day 3: Hanging bridges, La Fortuna waterfall, Volcano hike.
Day 5 and 6: Monteverde
If you have only one full day in Monteverde, most people go to the parks to do ziplining, hanging bridges or horseback riding. For us, the perfect way to experience Monteverde is do to a birdwatching guided tour at Curi Cancha Reserve in the morning and hike Santa Elena Cloud Forest in the afternoon. If you want a bit of everything, Selvatura Park is the best!
Who Should Visit?
If you love birds, hiking and cool weather, Monteverde is for you. Though it’s known for their ziplining, the hiking and bird watching are actually the best things to do in Monteverde.
Also keep in mind that you need a 4×4 to drive to Monteverde which is more expensive to rent. So if you’re on a budget, consider taking a shared shuttle/bus and do the taxi-boat-taxi from Arenal instead.
Although some people don’t have the time to visit both, Monteverde is absolutely worth it, even for two nights. The cloud forests are incredibly unique and may disappear in this century so it’s worth making the trip to see the cloud forests. Monteverde is popular with Europeans, Asians, birders, seniors, school groups and backpackers who prefer a less touristic destination.
If you’re looking for a romantic luxury hotel, Arenal is the better choice. If you love adventure, don’t mind touristic destinations and more choices for activities, then Arenal is also the better choice. Arenal is also great for families since there are more accommodation options, more amenities and activities.
Here is a comparison wrap up of Monteverde and Arenal.
More birds, better hiking, less touristic, harder to get to, requires a 4×4, unique cloud forests, more extreme ziplining options, hanging bridges, cheaper lodging options.
More luxury hotels, more wildlife like frogs, snakes and sloths, more touristic, doesn’t require a 4×4, more adventure, easier to get to.
Both offer excellent outdoor adventure and experiences and are great destinations for first time Costa Rica travelers. We love both Arenal and Monteverde but when it comes to getting away from crowds and experiencing more nature, we love Monteverde for that more.
I hope this post helps you get a better idea of Arenal and Monteverde and which one you should visit. If you can, I highly recommend visiting both!
Looking for itineraries that have Arenal and Monteverde? Check these out!
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