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 both seem similar and are close to one another. And 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 since they are very different but you will be able to decide which one fits your itinerary in this article. But if you can, we highly recommend visiting both as each destination is special in its own way and offer very different experiences. (Check out our 5 day Monteverde and Arenal itinerary for ideas)
Click the section to skip to it.
- Driving Times from LIR and SJO Airport
- Road Conditions
- What to Bring
- Type of Forest
- Tourist Friendly
- Estimated Cost for Visiting
- Things to do
- How Many Days Should You Visit
- Who Should Visit
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Monteverde or Arenal? A Detailed Look
Location of Monteverde and Arenal
Monteverde is the name of the entire region consisting of the cloud forests, Santa Elena town and Cerro Plano. Santa Elena is the name of the main town ad tourism hub in this area, it is where the bus stations are, banks, restaurants, hostels and tour operator offices are located. Cerro Plano is the smaller town/community next to Santa Elena.
Monteverde sits on the Tilaran mountain range, about 1300 meters above elevation with some of the other points of interests higher such as Santa Elena Cloud Forest. This area is very hilly and is famous for the cloud forests.
Arenal sits in the Northern Lowlands and is the name of the area encompassing Arenal Volcano National Park and the main town and tourism hub of La Fortuna. The area around Lake Arenal is called Nuevo Arenal. Elevation at La Fortuna is around 200 meters and some of the attractions are higher in elevation such as around Nuevo Arenal.
Driving Times from LIR and SJO Airport
Monteverde: Monteverde is about a 3.5 hour drive from Liberia International Airport.
Arenal: Arenal is about a 3 hour drive from LIR Airport.
Monteverde: Monteverde is about a 4 hour drive from San Jose, may be more depending on the traffic out of San Jose and how slow you drive on the unpaved roads.
Monteverde road conditions are known for being in bad shape. The roads in and around Santa Elena are unpaved, with just the main road through town being paved for a short distance. It is highly recommended and necessary in rainy season to rent a 4×4 to Monteverde.
There are a few ways to get to Monteverde from both San Jose and Liberia but the safest route with the most paved road is through Sardinal. We have photos and a video of the Sardinal route to Monteverde here.
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 to visit Arenal. There is a section from Tilaran around the lake that is very curvy and windy, but it is all paved and have beautiful views of the lake.
You can see what the route from Guanacaste to Arenal is like in our post.
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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.
- Driving: Take the Sardinal route from both San Jose and Liberia. If you’re looking for a “fun route” the Las Juntas route has less paved roads but the views on the Sardinal route are nicer. Drive slow as the roads going up the mountains are unpaved with lots of holes. This route has beautiful views so definitely take your time!
- Shuttle: Shared shuttles from San Jose and Liberia are around $44-54 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.
- Driving: From San Jose, take the route through San Ramon which has completely paved roads and some nice views through San Ramon.
- Shuttle: Shared shuttles from San Jose and Liberia are around $54 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: Both Nature Air and Sansa fly to the La Fortuna airport. A one way ticket from San Jose to Fortuna is around $80 per passenger.
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 4×4. 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 to Lake Arenal, take a 2 hour boat ride across the lake and get dropped off at your hotel. This costs around $25 per person and takes 3 hours. They have one in the morning and in the afternoon.
Want to take a shared shuttle? Check out our 10% discount!
Monteverde has according to the locals, two seasons: rainy and less rainy. Since it sits in very high elevation, it is much colder in Monteverde and rains more often with constant cloud cover. It experiences the typical dry and rainy seasons in Costa Rica, with beginning of December to end of April as the dry season and beginning of May to end of November as the rainy season.
The average temperature is around 25 Celsius (77 F) in the dry season, going down to around 18 C (64 F) at night. In rainy season, it gets much colder with the average temperature around 20 Celsius (68 F) during the day if it rains and colder at night. It is very normal in the dry season to get light sprinkles in the morning and afternoon, which is why Monteverde is also known for their rainbows.
Arenal is much warmer and experiences typical dry and rainy climate as well. 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. Some days in the peak months of March and April, it can get up to 31 C (88 F) down by La Fortuna.
The area around Nuevo Arenal and the lake are a bit cooler and fresher since it’s higher in elevation. You can see the Arenal Volcano completely clear any time of the year, except it is harder to see it in rainy season. But when we visited in October, the rainiest month we were able to see it completely clear early in the morning around 6 AM.
What to Bring
Long pants, a sweater and rain jacket are necessary for Monteverde, no matter what time of year you visit as it is much colder. Closed toed hiking shoes/boots are also highly recommended as it is colder there but you can get away with hiking sandals so you don’t need to bring multiple pairs of big hiking shoes. There are clothing stores in Santa Elena if you forgot a jacket and you can also buy ponchos.
A waterproof backpack is highly recommended, we always bring our Aqua Quest waterproof backpacks when hiking in rainy places. Since Monteverde is high in elevation, mosquitoes are not a huge concern.
For dry season, you can wear hiking shorts and short sleeve shirts, you don’t necessarily need a jacket. A rain jacket and waterproof backpack are necessary for rainy season, especially if you plan to hike Cerro Chato (which can also rain in dry 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 all activities such as ziplining, hiking, hanging bridges, etc.
For more in-depth tips, check out our Costa Rica packing list.
Type of Forest and Natural Attractions
Monteverde has cloud forests which are aptly named due to their high elevation. This tropical cloud 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. You can visit all 3 of these cloud forests which are actually quite different as they are in different elevations and the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest is actually drier. 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 tropical rain forest, both primary and secondary in and around the national park. It is not as high in elevation so it is not considered cloud forest, strictly rain forest. This area’s natural attractions are the Arenal Volcano, Cerro Chato the dormant volcano crater and Lake Arenal. There is also a large waterfall, La Fortuna waterfall and the Tabacon river.
How Tourist Friendly They Are
Monteverde is climbing in tourism due to its popularity with bird watchers and still rural community. You can find everything in Santa Elena except car rental companies but they have everything else: pharmacies, banks, laundromats, hostels, taxis, restaurants and ATM’s. Since roads are not paved and it is still considered a remote location, it has not developed too much beyond that.
You will find mostly Costa Ricans living in Monteverde, there isn’t a large foreigner community since its not as easy accessible to airports and cities.
Arenal is arguably the most touristic area in Costa Rica and it has everything: car rentals, luxury hotels, bars, banks, pharmacies, laundromats, restaurants, stores, taxis and ATM’s. 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
Monteverde has a good handful of hostels so you can travel here for cheap as you can get there by bus pretty easily. 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 tours which can run up to $150 for an all day combo tour. Entrance fees to the cloud forests are also a little expensive, around $20 per cloud forest reserve.
Since Santa Elena and Cerro Plano are within walking distance, you can still lower your cost by walking to local restaurants if you’re staying at a more expensive hotel.
Arenal can be a lot more expensive depending on where you’re staying and there are many luxury hotels in this area. There are a few hostels and budget hotels in La Fortuna town ($15-75 a night) but tours will also be the most expensive part of your budget. Tours are around $75-120 depending on what you’re doing and since there are more things to do in Arenal, you’ll most likely be doing more.
The national park entrance fee is $15, the waterfall fee is $15 and the hot springs run at least $35 per person and more plus dinner. Tabacon, the most high end hot spring and hotel has a $90 entrance fee for the hot springs at night plus dinner which is pretty expensive.
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, those are the only two that actually go over the cloud forest. The others like Xtremo do not but they have more adventure with a bungee jump and tarzan swing.
- Hiking: The cloud forests were nominated as one of the wonders of Costa Rica and is a must do when in Monteverde. Visit any one of the three to hike the cloud forests, beautiful views and wildlife. We love Santa Elena the most out of the 3 but any of them are great. Highly recommended to go with a guide.
- Birdwatching: Curi-Cancha Wildlife Refuge 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 for best Quetzal spotting opportunities as well as other hummingbirds, toucans and more.
- Hanging bridges: The hanging bridges allow for a better view of the cloud forest as you can get higher in the canopy. Many adventure parks have their own like Sky Walk and Selvatura Park and you can also see lots of wildlife that way.
Some other top things to do are a night walk, horseback riding and coffee tours.
- Ziplining: Arenal is also famous for their ziplining and our favorite canopy tour is actually the Sky Adventures in Arenal, not Monteverde because you get an amazing view of the volcano, lake and rain forest!
- 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. It’s very touristy and can get quite crowded during high season (March and April) but it’s well worth it. Couples will love Tabacon as they have an adult only section, families will love Baldi.
- 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.
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. You can see the Keel-billed Toucan and Emerald Toucanets fairly easily in Monteverde.
Since Arenal is lower in elevation, has rain forest and is more humid, you will find both sloths, lots of frogs and snakes and more howler monkeys.
There isn’t as much of a variety of birds but you can see the Keel-billed, Black-Mandibuled and Collared Aracari toucans in Arenal. In the national park and hanging bridges, you can see more frogs, pit viper snakes.
Monteverde has around 50+ hotels in the area with more lodges and inns, you won’t find any super luxury hotels in the area since it’s still a rural farming community. One of the most expensive hotels is the Monteverde Lodge & Gardens starting at $250, the El Establo Hotel which starts at $200 and Hotel Poco a Poco which starts around $150. You can also find budget and mid-range hotels like Camino Verde.
There are a bunch of hostels in Santa Elena town such as Santa Elena Hostel Resort and Pension Santa Elena. Monteverde has more family run hotels that are not super fancy like the ones in Arenal, but still very comfortable and more rustic.
We used Airbnb in Monteverde and loved it. We stayed in two different cabinas owned by locals and they were perfect for two people. You can read our review on the Monteverde Airbnbs here.
Arenal has around 100 hotels in the entire area, home of the most luxurious hotels in all of Costa Rica so if you’re looking for an upscale rainforest getaway, Arenal has it for you. 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 making it more expensive.
Then there are cheap hostels in La Fortuna town like Arenal Backpackers Resort. Around the Arenal Volcano, you’ll find mid to high range hotels. It can be extremely difficult to find a hotel less than $100 a night in high season around the volcano. If you’re on a strict budget, pick a hotel in La Fortuna town as those are cheaper. Some good ones are Hotel Las Colinas and Hotel La Fortuna.
You can also find lodges in Arenal. Our favorite is the Arenal Observatory Lodge which is the closest hotel to the volcano and they have a huge property with comfortable rustic rooms.
We have stayed in one Airbnb and it was great for big groups or families since it was an entire house only 5 minutes from La Fortuna. You can read our review on the Arenal Airbnb here.
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.
Then there are more expensive restaurants like Amy’s and the Treehouse restaurant where it costs around $15 a plate and most of the restaurants in Santa Elena town are more expensive. Taco Taco and the burger place in town are cheaper.
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 a decent variety of restaurants and much more than Monteverde, mostly in La Fortuna town. 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.
How Many Days Should You Visit
Most people spend 2 – 3 nights in Monteverde, so they have one full day for the ziplining/hanging bridges adventure tour and one day to hike a cloud forest. Visitors who stay longer are those who are bird watchers as they will spend days and even weeks to see that bird. People who aren’t avid bird watchers don’t normally stay longer than 3 nights as there isn’t too much that interests them after the ziplining and cloud forest.
Because there are more things to do and Arenal is popular for families and couples, visitors can easily spend 5 days in the area without getting bored. Some visitors even spend an entire week in Arenal or have Arenal as their sole destination in Costa Rica.
Who Should Visit?
If you love birds, hiking and a less in-your-face touristic destination, Monteverde is for you. Though it’s known for their ziplining, the hiking in the cloud forests and bird watching are actually the best things to do in Monteverde. But if you’re planning on ziplining and going on adventures in Arenal and not really interested in birds, then Monteverde may not be worth visiting or you may only want to spend 2 nights there.
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.
However the cloud forests are incredibly unique and may disappear in this century so it’s worth making the trip to see the cloud forests alone. Monteverde is popular more with Europeans, older visitors, bird watchers 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. It is more expensive since there are more tours, more expensive restaurants and hotels.
Arenal is popular with Americans and Canadians and you will see lots of school groups in La Fortuna.
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 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.
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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! You can also do a day trip from Arenal to Monteverde but since the travel time is at least 3 hours no matter which option you choose, we highly recommend staying a night or two.
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