From world-famous national parks to little-known private reserves, Alex Robinson picks out six of the best places for wildlife-spotting in Costa Rica.
Few countries can rival Costa Rica for wildlife and natural beauty. Fuming volcanoes lush with cloud forest rise into high, serrated sierra; valleys swathed in lowland tropical rainforests plunge to twin Pacific and Atlantic coasts; and the ocean is fringed with broad sandy beaches. Despite covering just 0.01 percent of the Earth’s surface, the country is home to 4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial species. Wildlife-spotting opportunities abound, from tracking toucans, great green macaws and jaguars in the rainforest to watching turtles hatch on the beaches by moonlight.
For turtle-watching: Tortuguero
The extensive Parque Nacional Tortuguero protects 19,000 hectares of lowland forest, mangroves and tropical beaches on Costa Rica’s northern Atlantic coast. It’s a key biological corridor between North and South America, a breeding ground for myriad fish species – including bull and hammerhead sharks – and a refuge for jaguar, spectacled caiman, tapir, green macaws and three monkey species. Yet the park is perhaps best known as one of the best places in the world to see turtles. Giant leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles hatch here and the beach is also one of the most important nesting sites for the endangered green turtle in the Western Hemisphere. Come between July and October to see the turtles arrive to lay their eggs, and in November to December to see the hatchlings emerge from their nests.
Image by Alex Robinson
For a mountain escape: Guanacaste
In the highlands of Guanacaste in Costa Rica’s Pacific north, smoking mountains lord over a boulder-strewn landscape carpeted with low trees and bushes. Come here to spot armadillos, anteaters and coyotes, who hunt the ridges and rocky hills in small bands, calling eerily to each other at night. There’s no better time to visit than between January and April, when the sizzling dry season sets in and the trees shed their leaves and burst into brilliant flower. As for accommodation, one of the most interesting places to stay is Rio Perdido, sited in a forested valley coursed by twin rivers – one cool and fresh, the other hot and steamy – which course down the slopes of the adjacent Miravalles volcano.
For pristine cloudforest: Monteverde
Dripping with bromeliads, mosses and lichens, veiled with gently swirling cloud and so quiet you can hear a falling water-drop, Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde feels like a sacred place. One of our 21 top sights in Costa Rica, it’s one of the few locations in Central America where you can see the resplendent quetzal – a spectacular, shimmering green and vermillion bird that drifts between the branches as silently as a falling feather. According to the Maya, the quetzal has a song so beautiful it lulls the listener into a trance, but the bird has been silent since the Spanish conquest and will only sing again when the Americas are free.
For rainforest adventures: Nicuesa Lodge
Wedged between steep-sided jungle-covered mountains and an emerald green lagoon in Golfo Dulce lies the 165-acre private preserve Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge. This is the place to come for wildlife spotting in comfort. The cabins sit in a forest garden thick with heliconias and sweet-smelling ylang-ylang trees, and coatis, curassows and cackling scarlet macaws are among the daily visitors. There's a wealth of activities on offer, too: kayaking through mangroves in search of crocodiles; snorkelling with tuna off the black-sand beach; and night safaris where you might spot puma padding along rainforest trails. The lodge has been awarded the highest possible ranking for conservational tourism under the government’s stringent monitoring scheme, so a stay here comes with a clean, green conscience.
For canopy tours: Mistico Hanging Bridges
Set in rich montane forest near Volcán Arenal, the Mistico Hanging Bridges reserve offers the chance to get close to birds and mammals in the forest canopy. Steep trails cutting up the sides of a vertiginous river valley lead to series of swinging rope and platform bridges, the highest of which literally offer a toucan’s eye view. As well as the chance to spot howler monkeys and tanagers, the bridges also provide great views of Arenal itself, which dominates the eastern horizon, its massive cone smoking into a cobalt blue sky speckled with soaring vultures.
For wildcats: the Península de Osa
Jutting into the inky Pacific and covered almost entirely by Central America’s last great Pacific tropical forest, the remote Península de Osa is one of Central America’s last great wild cat refuges. All of Costa Rica’s six cat species can be found here, together with the biggest mammal in tropical America, Baird’s tapir. Yet even in Osa, they are timid and hard to spot. For the best chance of a sighting, stay in one of the handful of forest lodges that fringe the 42,469 hectare Parque Nacional Corcovado, and take a dawn or dusk hike along one of the quieter trails. If you’re feeling really intrepid, you can even book a local guide and camp overnight under the giant Kapok trees in the heart of the park.
Alex travelled with Journey Latin America who offer a broad choice of wildlife and nature-based holidays in Costa Rica. Explore more of the country with the Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Book hostels for your trip, compare flights, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.