ARE YOU GAME?
Building a Costa Rica vacation itinerary is a lot like playing Tetris. The object is to arrange each piece so it falls perfectly into place in accordance with all of the other pieces. Pieces cannot overlap each other, so careful attention must be paid to the structure of the entire game at all times, otherwise it’s easy for pieces to collect on top of one another. When that happens, you can get in over your head pretty quickly and before you know it, game over.
If you approach your trip planning in a similar manner–carefully calculating your choices, planning aspects of your vacation in accordance with other parts, and not letting your vacation vision escape you–you’re bound to find the perfect fit. In other words, you’re more likely to experience a vacation that carries out that which you aim to get out of your trip. In Tetris, you familiarize yourself with the pieces so you are prepared to make educated and logical choices about what to do with each when it comes time to play. When planning a trip to Costa Rica, familiarizing yourself with the various aspects of trip building (such as selecting destinations to visit, accommodations to stay at, activities to participate in, and transfer services to/from each to pull everything together) fulfills the same purpose, best preparing you to make informed decisions regarding your travel experience.
Unless you have an endless budget, years to travel for, and no care in the world, your game parameters are likely set out for you. That is to say that your vacation plans will be affected, at least in some way, by the amount of money you have to spend, the amount of time you have to travel for, and/or any number of personal factors, needs, or preferences. In a country such as Costa Rica where the vast number of destinations and attractions that travellers have to choose from can be overwhelming, it’s safe to say that you’ll be given far more ‘pieces’ than you’ll be able to make fit. The trick then, is to determine which interest you the most so you can incorporate those, and only those, into your trip.
Although not everyone enjoys the beach, the majority of travellers who reach out to us for vacation planning assistance request that part of their trip be spent at a coastal destination. The remaining vacation time (typically the first half) is left open for visiting Costa Rica’s in-land areas–most notably, the La Fortuna (Arenal) and Monteverde regions. Planning visits to one (or both) of these destinations can positively impact vacations by providing unique Costa Rican experiences that cannot be had along either coast. Some of the country’s highest-rated activities, stunning hotels, and most breathtaking landscape are hidden among the in-land region. A visit is not to be missed.
Combine an interest in visiting both the in-land region and the coast, and you can imagine how quickly a 7 or 8-day vacation plans itself. For those travellers who have more time to travel for, visits to both La Fortuna (Arenal) AND Monteverde are possible, in addition to saving time for rest and relaxation at the beach. However, travellers who have stricter schedules typically find themselves having to choose one of the two areas–either La Fortuna (Arenal) OR Monteverde–and given the unique appeal of both destinations, it’s no wonder having to choose one over the other can be a stressful task.
- For those travellers who are planning to visit one of the two areas (either La Fortuna/Arenal or Monteverde) but are considering taking a day trip from your chosen area to the other, you may be interested in reading our related blog post: How To Make A Day Trip To Monteverde from La Fortuna (Arenal) Or Vice Versa.
Although it is impossible for us to label one of the two areas as ‘better’ to visit than the other, it is possible for us to spoil travellers with tidbits of information regarding both destinations, helping them make informed decisions regarding their trip. Before deciding which location will make the cut, consider what La Fortuna (Arenal) and Monteverde have to offer.
DEFINITE DIFFERENCES AND STRIKING SIMILARITIES BETWEEN LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) AND MONTEVERDE
Travel distance from the San Jose (SJO) Airport:
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) is located approximately 3-3.5 hours from the SJO Airport (via direct, ground transportation – depending on the type of ground transfer service used, the route duration could take longer)
- MONTEVERDE is located approximately 3.5-4 hours from the SJO Airport (via direct, ground transportation – depending on the type of ground transfer service used, the route duration could take longer)
Travel distance from the Liberia (LIR) Airport:
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) is located approximately 3-3.5 hours from the LIR Airport (via direct, ground transportation – depending on the type of ground transfer service used, the route duration could take longer)
- MONTEVERDE is located approximately 3-3.5 hours from the LIR Airport (via direct, ground transportation – depending on the type of ground transfer service used, the route duration could take longer)
Surrounding road conditions via San Jose/Alajuela:
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) is accessed via paved roads. Sections of the stretch of road between San Ramon and La Fortuna are mountainous and curvy, however the road conditions for the route are decent overall.
- MONTEVERDE is accessed via a combination of paved and bumpy roads. Sections of the stretch of road between the Pan American Highway and Monteverde are mountainous, curvy, bumpy, and slow-going, causing the road conditions for the route to be moderate to poor overall.
Surrounding road conditions via Liberia:
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) is accessed via paved roads. Sections of the stretch of road between Tilaran and La Fortuna are mountainous and curvy, however the road conditions for the route are decent overall. This route also provides travellers with a scenic view of Lake Arenal.
- MONTEVERDE is accessed via a combination of paved and bumpy roads. Sections of the stretch of road between Tilaran and Monteverde are mountainous, curvy, bumpy, and slow-going, causing the road conditions for the route to be moderate to poor overall.
Transportation options and access to/from the area:
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) can be accessed via public bus, taxi, shared shuttle service, vehicle rental (travellers are able to drive to/from the area themselves), private transfer service, and domestic flight (the La Fortuna/Arenal airport is located 10 minutes outside of La Fortuna/Arenal in El Tanque).
- MONTEVERDE can be accessed via public bus, taxi, shared shuttle service, vehicle rental (travellers are able to drive to/from the area themselves), and private transfer service. Monteverde does not offer a domestic airport. For this reason, flights to/from the area are not available.
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) – including the entire downtown core and the majority of the town’s outskirts – is built upon flat land. The majority of streets run straight and flat (with the exception of some stretches of road around the Arenal Volcano). The town’s elevation is approximately 300 meters above sea level (some attractions exist in locales at higher elevations).
- MONTEVERDE – including the downtown core (called Santa Elena) and the majority of the town’s outskirts (including Monteverde and Cerro Plano) – is built atop Costa Rica’s Tilaran mountain range. The majority of streets are curvy and hilly. The town’s elevation is approximately 1300 meters above sea level (some attractions exist in locales at higher elevations).
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) is primarily warm (on average, between 25-30 degrees Celsius) and sunny (more so during the dry/summer season). During the wet/winter season, the area remains warm and mostly sunny, with occasional cloud cover and rain showers.
- MONTEVERDE is chilly (on average, between 18-20 degrees Celsius) and cloudy year round (warmer temperatures are recorded during the dry/summer season). Given its high elevation, cloud cover is frequent, as is wind, which is most rampant (together with rain showers) during the wet/winter season.
- Both LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) and MONTEVERDE welcome the practice of the English language. Although not all Costa Rican’s are bilingual, a large percentage of the population living in the La Fortuna (Arenal) and Monteverde regions has a basic understanding of English and the majority of individuals who work in the tourism industry can converse in both languages (English and Spanish).
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) offers a mixed urban-rural feel. The downtown core offers urban amenities (including, sadly, a Burger King) while the outskirts offer more natural settings, local farms, and small, quiet neighbourhoods.
- MONTEVERDE offers a small-town, rural feel. Shy of the urban development in La Fortuna (Arenal), Monteverde’s downtown core is small, nearly non-commercial, and more representative of Costa Rica’s farming population.
- Both LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) and MONTEVERDE offer grocery stores, banks, ATMs, pharmacies, churches, and emergency worker sites.
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) is arguably the most popular tourist destination in the entire country. A wide variety of tours/activities, accommodations, shops, and dining options are available in and around the downtown core.
- MONTEVERDE grows in popularity with each passing year. The area offers a wide variety of tours/activities, accommodations, shops, and dining options as the La Fortuna (Arenal) area does, however given that the region is still up-and-coming, Monteverde offers a slightly less ‘in-your-face’ tourist experience.
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) offers 80+ accommodation options, ranging in style, size, amenities, and price. As hotel diversity is widespread, so too is traveller’s choice. In and around the La Fortuna (Arenal) region it is possible to find clean, safe, inexpensive, economy-quality, cabin accommodations on the same road as a 4-star, resort-quality, luxurious hotel. Similarly, travellers can opt to stay at modern accommodations featuring on-site hot springs just as easily as they can choose to take up room and board at a sustainable, organic, holistic, yoga eco-lodge. La Fortuna (Arenal) truly has it all, which is likely the reason why the area appeals to such a large percentage of travellers. Of course, the vast number of accommodation options available is a requirement for the area given the amount of tourism that it caters to on an ongoing basis. Still, despite the abundance of hotels, it is important to note that accommodations can fill up quickly during the high and peak seasons (advance reservations are required).
- MONTEVERDE offers 40+ accommodation options, also ranging in style, size, amenities, and price. However, the range of hotel variety in the Monteverde region is short compared to the abundance of diverse accommodation options found in the La Fortuna (Arenal) region. Surely, this is due to the fact that Monteverde is geographically smaller than La Fortuna (Arenal) and serves a lesser volume of visitors. In addition, given the rural, farming community that Monteverde encompasses, the majority of accommodation choices are small, family-run, boutique-style, cabins and lodges that offer rustic (more so than elegant) nightly stays. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, however for the most part Monteverde is not the destination of choice of travellers who seek resort-quality accommodations gold-plated in luxury.
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) and MONTEVERDE offer a wide variety of dining options ranging from local Costa Rican restaurants (offering traditional culinary dishes) to more modern dining retreats (featuring international cuisine). Both areas provide a selection of dining options within walking distance of the downtown core, as well as additional restaurants spread out amongst the outskirts of town.
Tours, activities, and attractions:
- LA FORTUNA (ARENAL) is nicknamed the epicenter of adventure. It is home to the Arenal Volcano – the area’s largest attraction (physically and figuratively-speaking) around which a number of adventure-based activities have been created. Most notably, hiking tours through the volcano trail (El Silencio Trail) and the Arenal Volcano National Park top the list, with horseback riding tours, mountain biking tours, and ATV run around the volcano not far behind. Given its proximity to the volcano, the La Fortuna (Arenal) area is home to a number of volcanic hot spring attractions (please see our related blog post: The Best Hot Springs In La Fortuna/Arenal: Baldi, Ecotermales, Tabacon, Or The Springs Resort for more information about each). La Fortuna (Arenal) also offers the stunning La Fortuna Waterfall, among other breathtaking cascades (please see our related blog post: La Fortuna (Costa Rica) Waterfalls: Yes, There Are More Than Just One! for more information about each), as well as a wide variety of excursions including canyoneering tours (waterfall rappelling), canopy tours (ziplining), white water rafting tours, hanging bridge tours, aerial tram rides, and safari float tours. Day tours to the Venado Caves, Rio Celeste, and the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge round out an otherwise jam-packed destination dossier, highlighting the fact that most of Costa Rica’s not to miss activities can be enjoyed in the region.
- MONTEVERDE is equally attractive, albeit to a more specific type of traveller. Those who are enthralled by nature – including its sights, sounds, and bird, insect, reptile, and amphibian inhabitants – will fall in love with Monteverde. The area is home to much of Costa Rica’s protected land space and offers a number of rainforest preserves (including the Monteverde, Santa Elena, and Children’s Eternal Rainforest reserves) that travellers are welcome to visit. Guided tours through each are a popular interest, as are visits to local butterfly conservatories, ranarios (frog exhibits), and serpentariums (snake exhibits). Staple rainforest adventures including aerial tram rides, hanging bridge tours, and canopy tours (ziplining) are run in the area, as are tours that aim to offer a glimpse into the daily life of Costa Rican workers, showcasing a variety of plantations and processing systems that produce coffee, chocolate, sugar cane, and cheese.
- Since La Fortuna/Arenal and Monteverde both offer canopy tours (ziplining) and hanging bridge tours, please see the following blog posts for comparisons of tour experiences provided in each region:
Which Costa Rica Zipline Is The Best? Comparing 6 Popular Canopy Tours In Arenal And Monteverde
Which Costa Rica Hanging Bridges Are The Best? Comparing 4 Popular Hanging Bridge Sites In Arenal And Monteverde
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you been to La Fortuna (Arenal) or Monteverde before? What did you think? Been to both? Which did you prefer, and why?
If you’re more of a visual learner, take a moment to view our gallery photos below showcasing some of the highlights of La Fortuna (Arenal) and Monteverde.