Monteverde or Arenal? Which Destination is Better to Explore?

Monteverde sunset
Photo by James Ting on Unsplash
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Monteverde or Arenal? Two regions known for their breathtaking natural beauty, ecotourism, and biodiversity. Both are packed with rare plants, sloth spotting opportunities, mythical birdlife, and enough hiking trails and adrenaline adventures to keep you busy for days. 

One sits amid the Tilarán mountain range and is famous for its carefully preserved cloud forests. The other is home to the most active volcano in the country and bubbles with thermal hot springs. Both offer a slice of Costa Rican life, unlike what you can find on the sunkissed coastlines. 

But which will you choose to explore? Read on to learn more about each region, discover why visitors flock to them in their thousands and hopefully decide which area you’d rather visit on your Costa Rican vacation. 

Monteverde or Arenal: Getting there and around

explore the hanging walkways and suspension bridges of the cloud forests
Photo by Fabio Fistarol on Unsplash

The journey to Monteverde is notoriously tricky. Although the road from San Jose has now been paved after years of trying, it still involves winding hairpins alongside sheer cliff drops. In the wet season, mudslides on the road are common, and some of the newly paved sections are already showing damage. If you want to brave it, be sure to hire a 4×4 vehicle, drive in daylight hours and take your time. If you don’t fancy the challenge, then there are shuttle buses, day trips and tour companies leaving daily from San Jose. The journey should take around 2.5 hours. Once in Monteverde, you’ll find most attractions have good shuttle services to get visitors to and from them. 

La Fortuna, the main town in the Arenal area, is located around 3.5 hours from San Jose, along easy roads that don’t require such steady nerves. Hire a car, book a shuttle, or join a tour group from San Jose to reach La Fortuna. Once there you can explore the town and various attractions on foot. Arenal Volcano is a 20minute trip from the town, and there is no shortage of tour operators and shuttles to drive people. 

Conclusion: Although the road to Monteverde is an experience in itself, getting to Arenal is easier. Arenal wins this one. 

Monteverde or Arenal: Natural Wonders

Enjoy the misty beauty of the cloud forests of Monteverde.
Photo by Christopher Austin on Unsplash

Monteverde is a mountainous expanse of lush, tropical, jungle. Known as a ‘cloud forest’ for its near-constant rain, mist, and humidity, this area is incredibly biodiverse, filled with thousands of species of plants and animals that thrive in this water-rich habitat. 

The nature reserves around Monteverde are popular with wildlife lovers, bird watchers, and naturalists who enjoy wandering the network of trails and climbing to the suspension bridges that hang above the clouds giving incredible views of the forest from above. 

Visitors flock to Arenal to see the country’s most active volcano, which up until 2010 regularly grumbled, spewed ash and smoke into the air, and leaked fiery rivulets of lava. It has calmed down recently, and volcanologists don’t believe it will erupt again for several years. However, it is closely monitored, and if any unruly activity is detected, the area is swiftly shut down. 

Besides the thrill of a recently active volcano, tourists flock here to enjoy the natural playground that surrounds it. To explore the nature reserves, waterfalls, volcanically heated hot springs, and to climb over the lava rocks and paths at the foothills of the volcano. 

Conclusion: for areas of natural wonder, you can’t get much better than these two, and we’re not even going to try and pick between them. It’s a draw. 

Monteverde or Arenal: Plants and Wildlife

watch out for the rare quetzal bird in the forests of Monteverde and Arenal.
Photo By Zdenek-Machacek on Unsplash

Monteverde is a must-see spot for wildlife lovers. The forests are home to an astounding range of animals, including thousands of species of insects, reptiles, and amphibians, and over 400 species of birds. Visitors might be lucky enough to see the rare and timid Quetzal bird, held as sacred by the Mayans. You might also see monkeys, tapirs, wild cats, porcupines, and the famous Costa Rican sloths. But it’s not just animals, the humidity of the cloud forest is the perfect environment for an abundance of plant life to thrive. Look out for giant ferns, colorful bromeliads, and orchids of all shapes and sizes, including ones so tiny you need a magnifying glass to appreciate their full beauty. 

Hikers and wildlife watchers in the Arenal Volcano National Park might come across deer, tapir, monkeys, sloths, snakes, toucans, parrots, and even crocodiles near Arenal Lake. As the area can get very busy, your best chance for wildlife sightings is early in the morning, or to take a night tour when you will see a whole different selection of creatures. Nature lovers will also spot giant ceiba trees, ferns, bromeliads, and orchids, although not in quite the abundance of Monteverde. 

Conclusion: Although Arenal has enough plants and wildlife to keep any nature lover happy, Monteverde takes the win for the sheer abundance of species. 

Monteverde or Arenal: Climate

clouds regularly cover the peak of Arenal Volcano
Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

Monteverde’s location, at altitude between two oceans, is what’s responsible for the climate that has shaped it. Warm, wet winds rising from the oceans meet and cool as they reach the Tilarán mountains. There they settle, covering the Monteverde area in the year-round mists and rain that earn the cloud forests their name. 

Cool and windy with an average temperature of around 66​​°F, the region can be a welcome break for some from the hotter areas of Costa Rica. But it can also be damp, humid, and chilly, especially in the evening so pack accordingly with waterproofs, plenty of layers, and warm clothes for nighttime. 

With an average temperature of 75°F, Arenal is dryer, sunnier, and hotter than Monteverde, with far less mist. However, it does still enjoy heavy rainfalls in the wet season, and clouds have been known to obscure Arenal Volcano for up to 300 days a year. Therefore, visitors should go during the dry season, November – April, if they want the best chance of an unobstructed view of the peak. 

Conclusion: Since the weather in Monteverde works to enhance the sights rather than obscure them, we’ll give this one to Monteverde. 

Monteverde or Arenal: Activities

do some wild swimming in the waterfalls around Arenal
Photo by Have Fun do Good on Unsplash

In Monteverde, the Cloud Forests reserves with their hiking trails and suspension bridges are the main attraction. But you’ll find plenty of other activities on offer, such as the animal houses and bat jungle, or the butterfly, hummingbird, and orchid gardens. For a new perspective on the forest, take a canopy tour through the tops of the trees or a nighttime tour to see a new range of wildlife. Adrenaline hunters can zipline and bungee jump through the forest, while foodies can take a coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour to learn about (and taste) some of Costa Rica’s best exports.

In Arenal, although it is not possible to climb the actual volcano, most visitors come to hike the trails at its foothills which take in lava boulder fields, observatories, and the beautiful Arenal Lake. There are several dramatic waterfalls in the area if you fancy a spot of wild swimming, and you can rappel down them if you wish. Explore the hanging bridges in the tropical forest reserve, Mistico Park, or try river rafting, canyoning, paddleboarding, kayaking, horse riding, mountain biking, or ziplining. Those looking for a more peaceful time can explore nature gardens and wildlife parks, and of course, every day in Arenal should end with a soothing soak in one of the many volcanic hot springs.

Conclusion: There’s no risk of boredom in either of these places, so both are winners for activities! 

Monteverde or Arenal: Eco Awareness

Costa Rica is a world leader in eco-tourism
Photo by Zdenek-Machacek on Unsplash

Costa Rica leads the world in terms of eco-tourism and green living in general. 98% of their energy has come from renewable sources since 2014, while 30% of the country has been designated as a nature reserve or national park, and they have successfully reversed the devastation of deforestation within their country. It’s no surprise then that two of the country’s most popular tourist attractions should be run to eco-tourism standards. 

Monteverde was established in the 1950s by pacifist Quakers, who left the US to avoid the draft for the Korean War. They established themselves in the area while protecting and respecting the forest in which they lived. Their ethos of forward-thinking and sustainability is still prevalent today, and you’ll find it at work in the businesses, accommodations, cafes, and tour operators in the area. 

Similarly, in Arenal, there is a deep regard for the natural splendor of the area. You’ll find that rules surrounding natural parks, reserves, and wildlife habitats are respected and upheld here. You’ll also find the same emphasis on eco-friendly, green methods for businesses operating here. 

Conclusion: We applaud the eco-efforts of both of these areas, but Monteverde takes the win for conservation. 

Monteverde or Arenal: Urban Living

Santa Elena has retained its small town charm despite being the tourist hub of Monteverde
Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

Santa Elena is the main town of the Monteverde region, and you’ll find all the necessities there, including accommodations, grocery stores, banks, and doctors. But despite being the gateway to the Cloud Forests, Santa Elena has retained its small, tranquil, mountain town character, and you won’t find much in the way of nightlife here. Instead, you will find more than its fair share of excellent restaurants serving a variety of delicious global cuisines, and plenty of quirky cafes making good use of the locally grown coffee beans. 

La Fortuna is the hub of tourism for the Arenal volcano. As with Santa Elena, it has all the necessities: medical centers, banks, grocery stores, accommodations, and tour operators. And, as with Santa Elena, tourism has necessitated a thriving restaurant scene offering everything from hipster coffee houses to artisanal bakeries, taco stands, stone-baked pizza restaurants, burger joints, and sushi bars. Similarly, the bar scene has expanded to cater to tourists, and you can find beer shacks, wine bars, and craft breweries in this little town. 

Conclusion: We appreciate that Santa Elena has retained its authentic tranquility, but we’re awarding La Fortuna the win for having more amenities and a little more life.

Monteverde or Arenal: Accommodation

accommodation in Arenal often come with hot springs and thermal spas
Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash

There is no shortage of accommodation for all styles and budgets in both these areas. A search on Booking.com turns up over 170 properties in Monteverde and almost 200 in the Arenal region. Accommodation styles range from backpacker hostels to camping and glamping sites, to family-friendly guesthouses, honeymoon suites, and five-star resorts. 

Arenal has a broader choice with far more 4 and 5-star options and more budget beds available under $20. Also, in Arenal, many of the accommodations have their own hot springs or volcanic spas. 

In Monteverde, the best accommodation is in treehouse cabins and mountain-style ranches offering cloud forest views, but you can find a budget bed under $25. There is also a wider choice of ecolodges and sustainable options here.

Conclusion: We’re giving this round to Arenal for having more options. 

Monteverde or Arenal: Conclusion

keep your eyes peeled for Costa Rican sloths as you explore the nature reserves.
Photo by Adrian Valverde on Unsplash

So it’s a tie for these two areas, which we think means you should visit them both! Both areas are packed with enough wildlife, natural splendor, activities, accommodation options, coffee shops, and restaurants to keep anyone happy. But if you really have to choose between them, it comes down to a personal choice between their main features.

If you want to walk across lava boulders in the foothills of the country’s most active volcano, rappel down waterfalls, soak in hot springs and stay in a town with a bit of nightlife, you should make your way to Arenal. 

But if you’d rather walk through the cool treetops of a cloud forest, look for rare birds and abundant orchids, experience a rare and uniquely balanced ecosystem and enjoy the efforts being made to protect it, then it has to be Monteverde! 

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Anita is from Wales and has been a travel addict since her first trip to Australia ten years ago. Since then she's lived and worked in Oz, New Zealand and Canada, worked many ski seasons and travelled widely through South East Asia, Morocco, India and Europe. She's a nomad, freelance writer, foodie, compulsive reader, tea addict and animal lover.