Costa Rica only accounts for 0.03% of the earth’s surface, and yet (depending on your source) it manages to pack an enormous 4% to 6% of the world’s biodiversity into this tiny patch of land like one of Sir David Attenborough’s wildest fantasies. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most people who visit Costa Rica spend a large portion of their time exploring Costa Rica’s famed wildlife. If you’re in the minority group of tourists who plan to drink Mai Thai’s on the beach with your eyes closed then stop reading now. In this post I’m going to show you how to make the most of your wildlife experiences in Costa Rica and what you might see on your travels. In all honesty, you could literally drink your Mai Thai’s, wake up in a half stumbling mess of a hangover and still you are all but guaranteed to see wildlife (like an upside-down sloth casually hugging a tree outside your hotel room door as I did!).
So, in short order, what might you see and where might you see it….?
What Might You See?
Costa Rica is in the top 20 most biodiverse countries on earth and is home to a whopping 500,000 species. Admittedly, 300,000 of those species are insects, and I don’t know many people that would travel half way around the world for an insect safari. That still leaves a staggering 200,000 animals for you to discover and photograph. Obviously, some of those animals are nearly impossible to find (damn you wily Jaguar). Upon speaking to our guide in Tortugero, we were informed he hadn’t seen a jaguar in ten years of working there. Not to fear, other species are spotted with more regularity – depending on what part of Costa Rica you vist. For example, you stand a great chance of seeing: two and three toed sloths; coatimundis; dolphins; caimans; American crocodiles; many a monkey (most notably capuchins and howlers); dart frogs (like in pretty much every advert for Costa Rica); toucans; turtles; basilisks and; bats. If you’re really lucky you might see a tapir or an anteater. If you have a few months or years to spare and the wildlife skills to rival Bear Grills then you might (just might) see jaguars, ocelots, pumas, jaguarundi, margays, ocelots, and little spotted cats.
Where Might You See It?
Just as if you were going on safari in Africa, you’re likely arriving in Costa Rica with a good idea of which animals you’re most excited to see in the wild. I went with the desire to find a sloth that looked like it was smiling (I blame YouTube videos for that). If this is the case, then make sure you do research before you leave and plan your trip around the destinations and National Parks that give you the best chance of sightings. Honestly, there are an eye-watering number of National Parks across the country and hence the wildlife is so prevalent. In fact, the Government of Costa Rica protects an amazing 25% of the country’s landmass including 26 National Parks (at the time of writing). So, ‘which should I focus on?’ I hear you ask. Here are my picks based on a combination of diversity and wildlife spotting opportunities:
Monteverde, also known as the ‘Highland Cloud Forest’, is in Costa Rica’s Central highlands. As its name suggests, it’s a rather large forest that is often descended upon by clouds which provide a unique and mysterious setting for wildlife spotting. It is home to over 100 different mammals including capuchin and howler monkeys, all the cats that Costa Rica has to offer, deer, tapir and sloths. I also managed to see a paca and an armadillo here in case either are of interest to you. It also has 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles, including venomous and non-venomous snakes, frogs and toads. You’ll probably stay in nearby Santa Elena where there are a good number of restaurants and bars for the evenings after a day of walking the reserve’s trails (preferably with a guide to make spotting wildlife easier). The trails also include suspension bridges which allow you access to the forest canopy for a unique wildlife sighting opportunity….and don’t forget the opportunity to go zip-lining across the canopy whilst you’re in Monteverde!
Tortuguero (Coastal Wetlands)
Tortuguero offers the chance to feel like a true explorer. Only accessible by boat (from Moin – the cheapest option) or by light aircraft (from San Jose – the most expensive option), the park is a wetland wonderland fringed with tropical rainforest. It’s also a little less touristy than some of the other parks in Costa Rica which makes it all the more enjoyable (if you’re looking for an abundance of restaurants and nightlife this probably isn’t the park for you). It also offers the opportunity to spot wildlife by boat and foot that you might not have seen elsewhere. My personal highlight was visiting the green turtle nesting grounds at night by taking a small boat, kayaking or canoeing along the park’s canals. This will also give you the chance to spot caiman, American crocodiles and West Indian manatee. If you’re looking for mammals, then head out on the trails. But if you’re all about being on the water then Tortuguero is definitely the place. Cautionary note, you shouldn’t swim in the park because of the dangerous numbers and species of sharks and strong currents off of the coast).
Arenal (Dramatic Volcanic Scenery and Primary Rainforest)
Arenal is not only a great place to spot wildlife (most notably for birders as more than 600 bird species can be found here alone), but it’s also an adventurer’s paradise. You can pick from any combination of canoeing, kayaking, white water rafting, spelunking, caving, kite surfing, hiking, fishing, abseiling, canopy tours, swimming in geothermal springs, quad biking and horseback riding; phew, and that’s all with a backdrop of the spectacular Arenal Volcano (now inactive since 2010 I’m afraid). From a wildlife perspective, you’ll head out from your base in La Fortuna town and head in to the four zones of the park where you might spot sloths, coatis, monkeys, deer and boa constrictors (probably best to have a guide with you for the latter)!
Manuel Antonio (Coastal Rainforest and Marine Paradise)
Manuel Antonio is one of the smallest parks in the country at only 16 square kilometers, but it packs a seriously big wildlife punch in that tiny area. You’re likely to see red-eyed tree frogs, iguanas, bats, monkeys (capuchin, howler and squirrel) and raccoon. However, the park is more than just land animals; its pristine beaches are just the start of a superb marine wildlife habitat that includes spotted dolphins, humpback whales, sea turtles and manta rays. Head out on one of the many boat tours on offer (take a look here for an example) and you’ll be able to swim and snorkel to your heart’s content. It’s the perfect relaxing way to end a tour of Costa Rica’s national parks.
There are undoubtedly many that would disagree with my selections above – after all, there are 26 national parks to explore and I have visited only a handful of them myself! I’d therefore be really interested to hear you recommendations and feedback in the comments section below (any recommendations will probably end up with me wanting to go back again!).