I’m an African safari fanatic (I hear that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem). There is nothing quite like heading out in an open top 4×4 as the sun begins to set and spotting an elephant in the distance. The problem I have is that as a result of my love of safari I tend to judge all of my wildlife encounters against that experience. And herein lies the problem; on most occasions they just don’t measure up. That is, until Costa Rica! Wildlife spotting in Costa Rica is a completely different experience; often on a smaller scale and less dramatic but typically more up-close and certainly a more relaxing and personal experience (spotting a three-toed sloth whilst alone in the eerie quiet of a cloud forest is an entirely different experience to clambering for space amongst a gaggle of 4×4 safari vehicles intent on getting the best angle on a lion kill). Don’t get me wrong, African safaris remain (and will always remain) my vacation of choice, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved the wildlife spotting experience in Costa Rica.
I realise that I’m rambling and that you’re probably wondering where this post is going, right? The fact is that I often post advice on safari destinations and how to maximise your wildlife viewing and photography experiences. Wildlife spotting in Costa Rica (and other similar destinations where the wildlife is on a smaller scale and the setting is more ‘crowded’ i.e. a rainforest full of dense foliage) is very much different, and as such (as my guide told me) a different set of rules apply. The aim of this post is to impart the knowledge (I use that term as loosely as possible) I obtained whilst traversing some of the 26 national parks in Costa Rica; hopefully helping you to maximise your chances of getting that wildlife sighting you’re really hoping for.
So here are my top tips for spotting as much of Costa Rica’s amazing diversity of wildlife as possible:
To Quote My Mother, ‘For God’s Sake Be Quiet’
Unlike a lot of animals on an African safari that have become accustomed to safari vehicles, most of the wildlife in Costa Rica is fairly skittish. As a result, ‘silence is golden’ unless you want to alert them to you being there and send them scurrying off in to the forest (apart from the sloths, they don’t scurry unaware fast). By being quiet you’re also more likely to detect wildlife because you’ll hear it before you see it. After all, when you’re in a dense forest it can be tough to see very far at all. As a result your ears become your best detection tool.
Know Your National Parks
As I mentioned in my Costa Rica Wildlife post there are a whopping 26 national parks in Costa Rica. Whilst some may have similar species it is important that you know what you want to see and where the best place is to see it. Simply put, do your research in advance to make the most of your trip!
The Early Bird Catches the Worm
Without doubt, you can see wildlife at any time of the day in Costa Rica. However, if you really want to maximize the quality and quantity of your wildlife experience then I would advise that you set your alarm clock and make you way out early. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, your best chance of seeing nocturnal animals is when they are making their way back home after a night out on the town. Just after sunrise is the perfect time for this (like they’re doing the ‘walk of shame’). Secondly, the earlier you arrive the fewer other visitors there will be in the park. I didn’t really have crowding problems on my visit, but its best to pick times of day when you really minimize that problem. Crowds mean noise and noise mean animals exit stage right.
Eyes down, Look in
Hopefully you’ll find it more exciting than your average game of bingo, but that old bingo catchphrase of ‘eyes down’ certainly applies. Animals are everywhere. If you’re busy solely staring up in to the trees then you’re likely going to miss a multitude of other wildlife that’s down at ground level (porcupines, pacas and coatimundis to name just a few). Keep your eyes peeled and your ears alert to the tiniest movements and the sounds of snapping branches on the forest floor. Also, make sure you keep your eyes open for animal tracks in the mud and to move slowly, but deliberately. To have any chance of seeing those more elusive forest dwellers all of your senses are going to need to be on high alert scanning every angle of the forest.
Be At One With Your Surroundings
No, I’m not going to advise that you go into some sort of meditative state but I am going to advise that the more you and your clothing stick out the more likely that you’ll be spotted by wildlife and scare it off. So leave the 1960’s tie-dye T-Shirt at home and put on your finest neutral khaki. Steer clear of noisy clothes and bags as well. If your cloths rustle like a hungry child opening a bag of tortilla chips every time you move then it just won’t work. The same goes for camera bags. So steer clear of velcro fasteners and have your camera out and ready so that you avoid having to rustle around your bag every time you spot something. I’d also advise you to steer clear of strong perfumes and aftershaves as the strong scents can ward animals off.
Prepare Yourself For A Long Wait
There’s no point in me pretending that you’ll walk for ten minutes in to the rainforest and come to a clearing where all the animals you could ever imagine are gathered around like a scene from Bambi. It just doesn’t happen. The reality is that if you’re really serious about wanting to see specific animals (especially ones that move around a lot i.e. unlike the sloths) then there is a strong chance that you’re going to need to be in it for long-haul. Depending on what wildlife you’re seeking then this could mean longer walks deeper into the national parks or it could mean setting up in a watchtower or hide and waiting for the wildlife to come to you.
It’s More Fun If You Know What You’re Looking At
When I’m on safari in Africa I’ve now got to the point where I can identify most species by name (I was particularly proud when I finally conquered the differences between a Steenbok and a Dik Dik). Arriving in Costa Rica was like going back to basics. On my first couple of days I wondered into National Parks armed with nothing but a camera and a whole lot of enthusiasm. I soon found out how frustrating it can be when you see a whole host of animals but have no idea what any of them are. I subsequently hired a nature guide for the day and then bought a wildlife guide (laminated so that the damp cloud forest didn’t destroy it within minutes). Armed with this new knowledge I found the whole experience more rewarding and I knew the tell-tale wildlife signs to look out for. So my advice is to hire a guide on your first day and carry a wildlife guide and notebook with you (so that you can make notes on animal sightings and cross reference them to photo numbers).
Don’t Rely On Autofocus
If you’re using an SLR camera with autofocus and manual focus capabilities then be prepared to use manual focus more than you perhaps normally would. In dense rainforest it can prove difficult to get the right focal object and as a result there is a strong possibility that you might end up with a back catalogue of high quality photos of leaves with a blurry howler monkey somewhere in the distance.
Wildlife spotting in Costa Rica is a 24/7 activity; it isn’t restricted to the National Parks. As a result, picking the right hotels can make a difference. Big hotels with large numbers of guests and stylistically manicured grounds aren’t as inviting to wildlife as small eco-lodges and boutique hotels that blend in to their surroundings. Case in point: we stayed in a small eco-lodge in Monteverde and on my way to dinner one night I managed to spot a porcupine in a small clearing opposite my hotel room, a paca racing away (I think I unintentionally startled him in my excitement) and a Coatimundi on the hotel driveway; all in the space of a few minutes.
…And Finally, Respecting The Wildlife
On a safari it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to have the sudden desire to hop out of the 4×4 to quietly creep up to, and pet, a lion. In Costa Rica, where the wildlife spotting is on a smaller scale and, arguably, cuter it seems that some people struggle to curb their enthusiasm and tend to invade the personal space of animals. That’s obviously a no-no; it can have a seriously negative impact on the wildlife and you could potentially end up getting injured. Some basic things to consider are:
- Don’t try and feed the animals and don’t invade their personal space. The closer you come in to contact with the animals the more likely you are to either introduce foreign germs in to their environment or vise-versa. Basically, don’t try and interact with the animals in an attempt to get photos for your Instagram feed.
- Stay well away from the wildlife. Just take a common sense approach and keep a sensible distance. That cute poisonous dart frog might soon become your worst nightmare.
- In the spirit of this very website, ‘take only photos and leave only footprints’. Make sure you take any food wrappers and trash with you when you leave. Costa Rica’s biodiversity depends on it!