Just because you're traveling on a budget, there's no need to skip this incredibly beautiful area. There's plenty to see and do without spending a fortune.
I spent a month there and only spent a couple of days putting effort into seeing some of the local sites. I did end up splurging on entry to the main park, but otherwise spent a couple of days seeing and doing a lot without spending too much. See Being a Tourist for a Couple of Days in Monteverde.
FREE Sites and Hikes
Cerro Amigos (Radio Tower) Hike with Bonus Free Cloud Forest TrailOne of the most popular free things to do in Monteverde, the hike to the towers (too steep for me!) starts by the Hotel Belmar. It's really an access road to the radio towers at the top of the mountain and takes 1 1/2 hours straight up hill. Whether or not you will have a few will depend on the clouds, and expect it to be chilly at the top. Have a chat with the watchman and maybe he'll let you climb to the platform on the tower.
According to a few other traveler reviews, if you continue on past the towers, there is a 90 minute loop trail through the beautiful cloud forest.
Monteverde InstituteMost people don’t know that the Monteverde Institute offers a lot of free stuff. They have workshops and talks and will tell you where some free trailheads are that they manage.
Monteverde Institute ReserveThe Monteverde Institute manages a small reserve where you can hike in a protected cloud forest for free. I have seen it called Kaplan Reserve but if you ask at the institute, they'll direct you to the trails where you might even see some local wildlife.
Monteverde Cheese FactoryMaybe not what you had in mind visiting Monteverde, but the cheese factory is right along the road so why why not stop in while you're nearby. You can see some of the cheese-making process and buy some ice cream and cheese in the store.
Artist Coop and ShopsCASEM artists coop has a shop where you can see creations by locals artists. There's a reasonably priced restaurant in the back of the shop called Cuchara de Abuelo. There are sometimes free food samples at the Wholefoods shop, and free coffee samples at the MV Coffee Center.
Trails Near CoopTo the right of the CASEM shopping area, there are some free trails. If you go very far in, they do sell tours but you can walk for free by yourself at least for a while. I have not actually done this, but my local friend told me about it. If you find any more info, please feel free to send it to me and I'll update this page!
Strangler Fig TreeThe hollow lattice work tree is created when the parasite fig wraps around a host tree and after many years, the host tree dies leaving a hollow core.
Climbing up the middle of a strangler fig tree is one of the highlights of visiting Monteverde. You can pay a lot to do it on a tour, or you can do it in one of the free trees around town. There is one main one that's pretty easy to find.
UPDATE March 2021: This particular tree has not been fenced off with barbed wire around the property.
Don't go into the entrance across the road for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge and The Original Canopy Tour since it's private property. They do have a wonderful hollow fig tree on the property (there's a small sign for the trail on their main driveway), but the owner will not be too happy if he catches you. This is why I don't have photos of his tree; I got caught on my way back to the car to get my camera. ;)
Shhhh, Secret Strangler Fig Tree Root BridgeThe Ficus la Raiz (Root Ficus, also called El Puente Raiz or Root Bridge) is one of the best things I've seen in Monteverde and it not on the typical tourist radar. I'm not sure of the exact history of it. Is it a root from the tree that made its way across the river, or did a strangler fig grow around a tree fallen over the river, or was it fromed in some other way? Regardless, the roots reach down to the water making a beautiful and picturesque natural bridge. It's on private land, so tourist offices and hotels will not (should not) direct you to the tree's location. This is a special place, don't ruin it by leaving trash or mistreating the nature.
Here is the approximate location of the trail head not too far from the MegaSuper, which is no more than a nondescript small dirt and brush path that is steep and muddy down to the stream. Head right / downstream to find the tree. See Secret Tree Root Bridge in Monteverde for more details.
Cafe Colibri (Hummingbird Cafe)At the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud forest is the Hummingbird Cafe. I just love this little place and visiting it in 2019, it was just the same as I remembered it from 2001. Although now it's illegal to have hummingbird feeders out, they still do (hmm) and they attract a variety of hummingbirds and other little birds. You can sit so close to them and get amazing photos. I think this is one of the best free things to do in Monteverde. And yes, it is an actual cafe, too.
Eco Paz ParkThe children’s/community park in Perro Negro has easy nature trails, tennis courts of sorts (jungle tennis!), and an organic garden. It’s by donation only (so free). If the owner is there, he'll be happy to tell you all about their vision and how they want to give the community a place to get away from the tourism and enjoy the nature in their town.
Sunset View BenchesThere are a couple of benches along the road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve that are a great place to watch the sunset. You'll see them on the left as you drive toward the reserve, just before the turnoff to the Hotel Belmar.
Arte JaguarI had the honor of visiting Roberto's studio / gallery, Arte Jaguar, with a friend once and was so impressed. If the gate is open, he's home and will welcome visitors to see his amazing art, koi pond, and selection of orchids and bonsai trees(!). He's a very talented man and is also a musician. If you don't have a car, you can have the Monteverde bus drop you off by the Hotel Villa Verde or tell them La Trocha a San Luis (the name of the road Arte Jaguar is on). The studio is about half a mile down the road.
This only falls under free/cheap because you don't have to buy anything, but you will probably want to, so be warned!
San Luis Lookout / MiradorWow, a local told us about this view point and it did not disappoint! You can see across the San Luis Valley all the way to the Nicoya Peninsula on a clear day and there's even a view of the San Luis Waterfall in the distance to the left. The viewpoint is along a steep winding road going down into the valley on La Trocha a San Luis past Arte Jaguar (see above) after the road becomes paved. You will see some incredible views but don't stop along the road until you see the wooden benches.
Location on map.
Cheap Sites and Hikes
Bat JungleThe Bat Jungle wasn't at the top of my list of things to do, but the gal I was with wanted to do it and I was glad we did. There is a lot of educational information about Costa Rican bats in the lobby, and you choose the self-guided tour, it's only around ₡4,500 ($9 about half of the guided tour price). The "tour" is really only one dark room where you watch a bunch of bats from behind glass windows. It might not be the highlight of your trip, but it's pretty interesting.
Catarata Los Murciélagos Monteverde WaterfallThe Catarata Los Murciélagos Waterfall (sort of across from the Bat Jungle) is a beautiful 30 minute hike on private land. You cross a few rustic bridges to come to a picturesque cold waterfall. Coming back up the steep path takes a bit longer. The modest reception office is down the dirt road where for $6 they will unlock the gate to the trail for you.
Valle Escondido PreserveDown by the butterfly farm is Valle Escondido Preserve. They have a hotel, restaurant, and 4.5km of trails on their 17 hectares of property which includes a few waterfalls! Cost is $15 for non-hotel guests. This is more of a splurge for a budget traveler but it's also a great sunset spot since their property sits on the edge looking over the valley. So if you just go to share one of their veggie pizzas (a great deal for a lot of delicious food) and enjoy the sunset, it won't cost you much.
Locals, Wildlife, and Nature
Get to know the locals!!The locals are a fun bunch and you'd do yourself a big favor if you integrated with the locals and spent some time with them. Most of my stay in Perro Negro (Monteverde area) was spent hanging out with locals and not even seeing many of the tourist sights. It definitely inspired Those Ticos Can (and Do) Drink!.
Bird WatchingI have never even been that into birds but let me tell you, after spending time here, you can't help yourself. There are tropical birds everywhere. If you're lucky, you'll spot the Resplendent Quetzal! As you walk around the area, make sure to spend plenty of time looking up.
Clouds, Butterflies, and RainbowsWow, just being in the area at all is spiritual. The clouds rushing by overhead or not even overhead - sometimes you are IN the clouds, the butterflies, coatimundi, agouti, and rainbows! Take it all in, it's breathtaking, and free!
SlothsYou are definitely not guaranteed to see one, but there are frequently sloths across the road behind Tico Tico, and there's a sloth sign on the road by the Frog Pond.
Eat, Drink, ShopSee Best Places to Eat Around Monteverde and Where to Grab a Drink (and a Bite) in Monteverde. A lot of local places offer free or really inexpensive bocas (small snacks) if you have a drink.
GroceriesAs much as I like to shop local, the Mega Super is a good place to grocery shop for best selection and big-chain discounts.
Buy your veggies at the place around the corner from the big supermarket in the triangle (not the mega super by the bus station). Sometimes that guy even brings in some wine and will set it cheap for like $5/bottle. He’ll just have a certain kind and when he runs out, that’s it. So ask if he has a wine special going that day. There’s also a farmer’s market in a large “store” next to the Mega Super on Friday’s from 12-3.
Ropa AmericanaNeed some extra clothing (like I did because I have no idea it was so cold there)? Ropa Americana is like a thrift store with used clothing. There are a few of them in town. There's one down from triangle and one in by the Mega Super.
Getting To and FromThere is one bus line called TransMonteverde that runs between Monteverde (Santa Elena actually) and either San Jose or Puntarenas. It's reasonable and comfortable enough. It takes about 5 hours to get between San Jose and Monteverde for ₡3,060, and 2 1/2 hours between Monteverde and Puntarenas for ₡1,600.
If the timing of the buses doesn't work for you, there are shuttles. Most of the private shuttles to Monteverde, however, cost around $50+ (!) making it cost prohibitive. There is one local Monteverde company called Roca Verde Transporte that picked me up in Quepos (only because they already had a dropoff there) for $30. So if you really need a shuttle, try to contact them to see if you can work a deal.
Getting AroundWalking - Most attractions in the area are within a couple of miles so walking is totally possible if you don't mind lots of steep hills. But because of the steep narrow winding roads, walking not only is it more difficult physically, it's not always safe to walk along the roads with cars screaming along around blind corners. Yeah maybe that sounds a bit dramatic, but it's true!
Public Bus - Public buses run about every hour and a half until around 3pm from Santa Elena to the Monteverde Cloud Forest for $2. Buses pick up anywhere within the triangle of downtown Santa Elena and along the road through Cerro Plano en route to the Monteverde Cloud Reserve.
Taxis - Your other option is the official red taxis. It's a flat fee of ₡1,500 to get around town, but they might charge you more if you're going further outside town or if it's in the wee hours of the morning.