Best national park in Costa Rica: Arenal or Monte Verde

When I was planning our surf trip to Costa Rica I was very excited to also visit the National Parks.  I had a hard time deciding if we should sacrifice potential surf days in order to visit Monte Verde or Arenal. I researched both Monte Verde and Arenal extensively and in the end, I couldn’t decide between the two so I chose both. And while they are both worth visiting, if I had to only choose one, I’d pick Arenal even though Monte Verde also has a lot to offer. Here’s some things to consider when deciding whether to go to Monte Verde or Arenal.

Monte Verde

Getting to Monte Verde in Costa Rica was an adventure in itself.  The drive to up to Monte Verde from the south is one of the best parts of visiting Monte Verde. It’s a narrow, bumpy dirt road with incredible views of the surrounding mountainsides and small villages. Monte Verde’s claim to fame is that it is the only place you can see the Quetzal bird.  However, don’t expect to show up at Monte Verde and go for a hike and think you are going to see one. Hiking in Monte Verde (and Arenal) is going to cost you and if you have a big family like us, it’s going to cost you a lot.

best national park Costa Rica Santa Elena reserve
Hiking through the Santa Elena Reserve

There are three separate nature reserves in Monte Verde: Monte Verde, Santa Elena, and Curi Cancha. Each reserve charges an entry fee and since we travel on a budget we ended up at Santa Elena because it was a little less expensive than the others. In addition to paying to hike, you also need to hire a guide if you want to see anything. We felt the $56 USD entrance fee was already a steep price to walk through a forest so we opted on not paying for a guide, but if you read the reviews on Trip Advisor you will see that many of the guides are successful in tracking and spotting these rare birds and other animals.  Overall, Santa Elena was a beautiful jungle to hike though, but we saw very little wildlife and we’ve hiked a lot of better things for free in the States.

zip lining in one of the best national park Costa Rica
Zipline with Selpulva Adventures

If you choose to make it to Monte Verde or Arenal, be ready to spend money. I was shocked at the number of tours and attractions fighting to get your dollar and the overall abundance of tourist traps. You envision going to the rain forest to feel at one with nature and instead, you feel like you are at Disneyland trying to process the information overload coming at you.

Since we had made the effort to get to Monte Verde we decided to bite the bullet and try one of the tourist traps, Zip Lining. This had been on our to-do list for a long time and the location seemed ideal for the expense. It was completely worth the money. We chose to try Selvatura Adventures and with 13 different lines, we weren’t disappointed. The entire experience blew me away, from the hikes between ziplines, to the Tarzan swing, to the one-kilometer flight above the canopy.  This made our visit to Monte Verde very memorable for everyone in the family.

Arenal

Now if you end up only visiting Arenal, I’m sure they have comparable zip lines and if you are adrenaline junkies like us, it will be money well spent. Arenal is famous for its hot springs and there are many hotels tapping into the healing properties of them. There are also places where you can go into the hot springs for free, which we enjoyed.

national park Costa Rica cerro chato
Cerro Chato Hike

Where you choose to stay when you visit areas can make a huge difference too. When we went to Arenal we stayed at Essence Arenal, which is about ten miles from La Fortuna. This hostel is very unique because it has built glamping tents on stilts right in the middle of the jungle. We saw more birds from the balcony of our tent than any of the hikes in Monte Verde.

best national park Costa Rica el castillo
Tents in the Jungle

We chose to hike Cerro Chato while we were in Arenal since it was only a few minutes from our hostel.  Again, it will cost you (about $10 per person), but the hike was a very enjoyable climb to the top of the volcano through a dense rain forest that ends at a crater lake at the top. Again we didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but we did come across this one unique bird, and the trail was much more interesting because you had to navigate your way through large roots, mud, and rocks. The climb is steep and requires a good amount of conditioning, however, our five-year-old did it so it’s very doable.

best national park Costa Rica cerro chatto
Isabelle at the end of the Cerro Chato hike

Best National Park Costa Rica Award goes to … Arenal.  Overall, I still would recommend visiting both, but if you are short on time definitely do Arenal.   If you can swing both locations, go for it! You don’t need many days at each, but be ready to spend some money when you are there as food and activities are not cheap.

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Best national park Costa Rica: Arenal or Monte Verde