North of Puntarenas near Santa Elana, the 11,000 hectare Monteverde Preserve is one of the best known protected areas in the tropics. It is inhabitated by 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and 120 species of reptiles.
If you are up for a hardcore backpacking trek, the 24km El Camino route from the Monteverde Preserve to the Childrens Rain Forest Preserve is an epic adventure through dense primary premontane rain forest. This is a slick, muddy route that see very little traffic each year. The hiking route can be very difficult to follow. A guide is required by both Preserves if you plan to attempt this route. The route through the Monteverde Preserve remains semi-cleared (a machette is necessary), but the Childrens Rain Forest side of the route is overgrown and difficult to follow. Make sure to reserve your guide well in advance (506) 645-5291 or 645-5439. In the Monteverde section, there are two shelters that can also be reserved (Aleman and Eladios).
To reach Monteverde from San Jose, head west on RUTA 1 (aka InterAmerican highway) towards Puntarenas. Continue past the Puntarenas Exit for roughly 20km. Just past milepost 123 (obsured), turn right heading to Sardinal (2.8km). At 2.8km from RUTA 1 in Sardinal, turn left. This road was paved in early 2007 to a distance of 12.5km from RUTA 1. At the end of the pavement, the road is a very rough, rocky, winding, climbing 4WD route requiring a high clearance to avoid damage to the underside of the vehicle. At 17.0km from RUTA 1, pass through Guacunal, and continue climbing up this treacherous road. At 19km, turn right. At 26.6km, veer left. At 36.6km, enter Santa Elena. At 41.5km pass the Trapp Family Lodge. At 42.4km, arrive at Monteverde Cloud Forest. Overall, it is roughly a 4 hour drive from downtown San Jose, and about a 1.5 hour drive from RUTA 1.
To reach Monteverde from the north, head south on RUTA 1 (InterAmerican highway) towards Canas. At about 25.5km south of Canas and about 1.8km past the large bridge over Rio Abangares, look for signs to Juanitas near milepost 163. Turn left heading east towards Juanitas (6km). The first 12km of road is paved. Continue through Juanitas crossing Rio Abangares and head east. After 12km from RUTA 1, the road becomes rough dirt and rock road. A 4WD is recommended but not necessary. Stay right at most intersections. Overall, the road is 35km from RUTA 1 to Santa Elena and takes about an hour.
Here are some basic notes on driving in Costa Rica for the tourist. There is a myth about the quality of the roads and of VW bus sized pot-holes. This may have been true years ago, but on the main routes, this is no longer true. With that said, there are still numerous challenges for first time drivers in Costa Rica. First, do not expect much out of so-call “highways”, like the InterAmerican Highway. The fancy name makes the uninitiated think this is a major 4 lane divided, restricted access road. Well, yes, about 1% is. The rest is two lane (marginally), undivided, rural roads with tons of traffic constantly stopping, turning, passing or driving slowly. Like every other road in the country, you can expect to see on the road numerous unexpected cows, cyclists, pedestrians, bus stops, school crossing zones, dogs, mud slides, police check points, unannounced one-lane bridges, missing manhole covers, and, of course, a never ending stream of semi-trucks driving erratically fast. What you do not find on any roads is much signage. There are infrequent signs indicating the distance to the next town, and even more infrequent are road names or numbers (if at all), including even within major towns. To make matters worse, signs that used to exist are disappearing due to deterioration or theft. Also, do not expect drivers to use their head lights, even in a heavy rain shower, unless it is really dark. This makes passing in rain a game of roulette since you can't see the oncoming traffic. Speaking of dark, do not drive at night since the roads in some areas can be ruled by those under the influence of alcohol.
If you have to drive through San Jose, make sure to do it at dawn to avoid the horrendous traffic all day long, including weekends. Keep in mind several maps show highways passing through San Jose. This is not true. They end abruptly on the outskirts of town and you have to slug it out in a crazy stop-and-go traffic and many unmarked turns to get to the other side all day long. There are unsigned so-called by-pass routes around San Jose, but finding them can be a challenging game of trial-and-error, and they are only marginally better.
If you have to drive on the Nicoya Peninsula, you can expect to find generally better roads with better signage. However, there are numerous unmarked eroded road sides, especially over stream culverts. do not drive at night. Watch out for the iguanas sprinting across the road.
A GPS unit can be helpful when navigating roads, however, the maps in Costa Rica were created using a special map datum. This datum is not usually available on GPS units but the road base maps were created with it. Therefore if you use the default WGS84 datum with a base road map on the GPS unit, you will always show a position being about 0.5 miles to the north of the road base map.
When picking up a rental car, make sure to check all the tires for wear, check the spare tire pressure, check the tire jack, and make sure to test the lock on the spare tire. It would be wise to quickly purchase a can of Fix-A-Flat.
Overall, Monteverde Cloud Forest - El Camino is the 3rd most popular hiking trail of all 20 hikes in Costa Rica.