One of the best reasons to visit Costa Rica is to see the wildlife, obsessively protected by both the government and private interests, and often easily spotted from beautifully maintained trails in its dozens of national parks and conservation areas. While some of the best hikes require good physical fitness and sturdy shoes, many of the finest wildlife-watching trails are family-friendly jaunts of less than three or four miles (five or six kilometers), accessible to almost everyone.
With just .03% of the Earth’s landmass, Costa Rica is home to some 5% of its biodiversity, making it one of the world’s ecological hot spots. The Osa Peninsula, home to Corcovado National Park, is ranked one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. Whether you want to see nesting sea turtles or howling monkeys, there’s a place in Costa Rica where you’ll find your bliss. As with all things wild, however, there are no guarantees. So, it might be useful to take some of these tips into account:
1) Come Prepared
Perhaps the best investment that serious wildlife watchers can make prior to their trip is in a small pair of travel binoculars, perfect for spotting far-off animals. Remember that in the rainforest, the vast majority of animals spend their lives in the forest canopy, difficult to see without amplification. This does not really apply if you visit one of Costa Rica’s many hanging bridges, aerial trams or other airborne adventures; zip line canopy tours are more for the adrenaline rush than the wildlife watching. A good camera with a zoom lens and waterproof case, is another great investment.
While several wildlife guides for Costa Rica are available, these tend to be more useful for serious birders than casual wildlife watchers. Many parks and popular destinations sell inexpensive laminated wildlife spotting guides that are better for the average tourist.
Some travelers come ready for the uncharted wilderness, wearing expensive hiking boots, Gortex jackets, water purification tablets and everything else you’d need for six weeks in the Amazon. While a few of Costa Rica’s hikes—notably the iconic two-day trek across Corcavado National Park, and climb to Costa Rica’s highest point, Chirripo—merit such preparation, the vast majority of wildlife watchers will be fine in sturdy sneakers (or, better, rubber rain boots) and a cheap rain jacket. Remember that the cloud forests get cold, so bring long pants and a light jacket if you’re searching for quetzals.
2) Hire a Guide
No matter where you go, you’re more likely to spot wildlife with a local guide. If you’re mainly here to hike and get some exercise, feel free to save your money; you’ll still see a few animals. Serious wildlife watchers, however, should pony up for a professional, who will be able to better see camouflaged critters than travelers hailing from a different environment.
Guides range from seasoned, English-speaking professionals toting camera-ready telescopes (great for magnifying small or far-off wildlife), usually for hire at top tourist destinations and around the entrances of popular parks; to young kids who’ll happily point out sloths and quetzals for a few colones, often your only choice off the beaten track. Popular parks like Manuel Antonio and Monteverde have guides waiting at the entrance, but it’s usually best to arrange guides through your hotel or area outfitters.
3) Choose Your Ground
Costa Rica has almost 30 national parks and official conservation areas, as well as dozens of private reserves. Each has its own bird and wildlife list, which is almost always available in English online. Often the most complete lists are on hotel websites, rather than official government sites.
Often, the best place to see Costa Rican wildlife is on the grounds of hotels adjacent to protected areas, as you’ll be spending more quiet time there, well away from the loud, camera-snapping hordes of tourists. Most animals are active at dawn and twilight when the parks are closed. Choose a hotel with expansive gardens or private trails, and you’ll likely find that your morning coffee comes with a few monkeys or parrots as entertainment.
4) Check the Schedule
Certain animals are most visible in certain seasons, in particular sea turtles. If you’re headed to Tortuguero National Park, Las Baulas National Marine Park, Ostional Wildlife Refuge, Parismina or other popular nesting sites, find out when the turtles are nesting and hatching before planning your trip. Whales are also active only in certain seasons so schedule accordingly.
The dry tropical rainforests of Guanacaste and the northern Pacific Coast start losing their leaves in January, becoming more naked and barren as dry season wears on. At the same time, water levels drop, concentrating waterfowl, caimans and other wildlife in a smaller area. This makes February through May the very best time (though also the hottest) to spot wildlife in popular parks, including Rincon de la Vieja NP, Guanacaste NP, Paulo Verde NP and others in the area.
5) Costa Rica is Not A Zoo!
As any expat will tell you, monkeys and macaws may be common in parts of Costa Rica, but you should never promise them to short-term travelers. Why? Because as soon as they tell visiting relatives that “Manuel Antonio has monkeys everywhere,” the only simians they’ll see all day will be zipper-pantsed tourists. And they’ll be stuck trying to get their guests excited about the squirrels, which almost never works.
Or, you may make your way to famed Monteverde Cloud Forest, on that bumpy unpaved road that’s even worse than your guidebook said, just to finally see the elusive resplendent quetzal. And, right after checking Monteverde off your bucket list, the clouds close in, making it impossible to see three meters in front of you. There could be 50 quetzals right above you, and you’d never know.
If you keep your eyes open and mouth closed, you’ll almost certainly see several rainforest animals wandering through the woods. But no one, not even the priciest tour company, can guarantee a sighting, so please keep your expectations in check.
5) Costa Rica Does, However, Have Zoos
Even if your trip doesn’t end up looking like an Animal Planet program, there are dozens of zoos, rescue organizations and refuges, zoos, as well as sanctuaries where you can see Costa Rica’s wildlife up close and personal. These are generally well regulated by the government, and treat their animals with care, but use your best judgment.
Some favorites include Zoo Avenue in Alajuela, close to the international airport, with a variety of animals; Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary, near Cahuita (with a new center in Monteverde), dedicated to the rescue and study of these misunderstood animals and Las Pumas Rescue Center, just outside Canas, Guanacaste, a rescue center where you can see most of Costa Rica’s six elusive big cats—jaguars, pumas, tigrillos, juaguarundis, margays and ocelots—which are almost impossible to spot in the wild.
In addition, there are dozens of privately-owned “wildlife displays” of widely varying quality, including mariposarios (butterfly farms), ranarios (frog displays), serpentarios (snake exhibits) and more.
6) Relax into the Stillness and Silence
The most memorable wildlife sightings almost always happen when you’ve given up, and are resting, quiet and still. You’ll be sitting on your hotel balcony after a day of surfing, when a troupe of monkeys decides to parade past. Or, maybe you’re taking a breather during a steep volcano climb, when a danta quietly appears in the shadows in search of a sip of water. You can’t predict Mother Nature, so just enjoy her.