Costa Rica's Wildlife Hotspots
Updated: May 27, 2020
A true wildlife haven, Costa Rica is nearly 5 times as small as the United Kingdom yet is home to more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity. National parks cover over 25% of the country and in 2017, Costa Rica ran for over 300 days straight on renewable energy. Government incentives encourage businesses to adopt green initiatives and by next year, the country aims to go entirely carbon neutral. 2019 was also a milestone for Costa Rica as it marked 70 years without a standing army.
Just stop and think about that for a second. This is a country whose political and economical stability has allowed its biodiversity to thrive on an unprecedented scale. Its freshwater rivers, lush rainforests, cool cloud forests and vast Pacific and Caribbean coastline are a perfect nesting ground for the country’s wildlife, so it may be of little surprise that Costa Rica is one of the most visited countries in all of Latin America. Where should you visit though? Below I’ll highlight my 5 favourite wildlife hotspots and why you should consider heading to these areas on your holiday to this jewel of Central America.
1 - Tortuguero
Nestled in the far northeast of Costa Rica, Tortuguero translates to ‘turtle catcher’ on account of the eating habits of pirates and traders many centuries ago. These days are long gone however, and this remote part of the country is a real hotspot, with over 300 species of birdlife in the area including colourful toucans and the aquatic blue heron. Other wildlife commonly found here include river otters, caimans, howler, capuchin and spider monkeys and many species of reptile including one of Costa Rica’s most iconic residents; the red-eyed tree frog (pictured in the thumbnail).
What is truly special about Tortuguero though is that you do not explore the region on foot. Rather, you’ll explore its myriad of winding waterways and canals by boat, gently chugging downriver whilst your guide excitedly points out sloths hanging lazily in the trees and birdlife all around. These floating river safaris as I often describe them are such a wonderful way to experience Costa Rica’s biological diversity. A visit to Tortuguero is also a great idea for those who lack mobility, as you can expect to be up on your feet for less time than at other destinations.
Tortuguero is also famous for its turtle hatching season, with July - October prime time for green sea turtles to hatch from their eggs on the beach before making the desperate dash to the Caribbean. Tortuguero is around 4-5 hours’ travel from San José (half of which is by boat) but it’s well worth considering in any itinerary and in my opinion is one of the best parts of Costa Rica.
2 - Arenal
This popular region of Costa Rica is most famous for its volcano, which towers over the nearby town of La Fortuna and man-made Lake Arenal. Admittedly, this area is one of the busier regions of Costa Rica, but its 29,000 acre Arenal National Park is home to a variety of trails that wind their way through rainforest, along the base of the volcano and across old lava rocks left by eruptions long ago.
Kayaking trips across Lake Arenal can introduce to its aquatic birdlife, and a tour of Arenal’s hanging bridges will offer you the change to see wildlife high up in the rainforest canopy that you wouldn’t normally find on the forest floor - a fabulous experience. Another way to experience the wildlife here could be with a visit to Proyecto Asis - a wildlife refuge centre that serves to rehabilitates animals before their release back into the wild. The centre’s volunteer scheme offers participants the opportunity to undertake activities such as preparing food for the animals and cleaning enclosures.
3 - Monteverde Cloud Forest
Arguably Costa Rica’s most famous cloud forest, Monteverde is situated to the southwest of Lake Arenal. It’s a at a higher altitude, so the warm sunshine of Arenal usually makes way for dense fog and plummeting temperatures as you wind your way up through the mountains and into the cloud forest.
Monteverde is a true bird lovers’ paradise, home to dozens of different species of hummingbird and the famous resplendent quetzal, a small bird with bright green feathers that is only found in the clouds forests of Central America. Sightings of a quetzal are high on the list of avid birders! Whilst an early morning tour of various private reserves in Monteverde is the best time to see birdlife, adventurists may also be interested in night tours of of one of Monteverde’s private reserves. The cloud forest comes alive at night, with sloths, tapirs, bats, spiders and snakes lurking within its depths. Sightings of course depend on the conditions that day, but activities like these are highly educational and will hopefully leave you with a profound sense of appreciation for Costa Rica’s rich flora and fauna.
4 - Dominical
As we learned from Tortuguero, Costa Rica’s wildlife isn’t just land based. Dominical is actually a fantastic spot for whale watching! Humpback whales migrate from both Alaska and Antarctica, with both groups descending on Costa Rica’s southern pacific coast between December - April and July - October respectively. For 3/4 of the year therefore, you have a decent chance of spotting whales. Add in the fact that 5 species of dolphin reside here year-round, a short stay in Dominical is an excellent addition to any wildlife itinerary. Venturing into Marino Ballena National Park by boat will give you the chance to see these wonderful creatures and a plethora of tropical fish in their natural habitat.
5 - Osa Peninsula
Saving the best until last, this biological hotspot of just 700 square miles is estimated to contain 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity. That’s half of Costa Rica’s biodiversity. Incredible, right? It is no understatement to say this tropical area is teeming with wildlife and birdlife, for example boasting one of the largest populations of scarlet macaws in Central America.
Corcovado National Park in the far west has a huge number of rainforest trails where this abundance of wildlife can hopefully be seen up close. The various eco lodges in on the western peninsula serve as a perfect springboard for trips into the national park and to Caño Island, an area 8 miles off the coast that is not only thick with jungle and marine life but also home to one of Costa Rica’s premier dive spots. Venture further east and you’ll encounter vast areas of primary rainforest awash with a vast array of species including monkeys, sloths, toucans, frogs, peccaries, coatis and the elusive jaguar. El Remanso Rainforest Wildlife Lodge on the southeastern side of the peninsula is one such property that goes above and beyond to deliver an immersive experience of the rainforest, with its network of private forest trails and scenic waterfalls. Note however that many of these fabulous eco lodges in the Osa Peninsula are on the small side, so booking far in advance is highly advantageous.
Make no mistake, the Osa Peninsula is an absolutely phenomenal wildlife and birdlife destinations. I’d actually go as far as to say that if you only visit Costa Rica once in your lifetime, make sure you include a few nights down here. You won’t regret it.
When to visit?
Costa Rica’s dry season runs from mid-December through to the end of April. Whilst rainfall does increase in May and June, visiting during this time can help to beat the crowds a little and find more competitive rates with certain hotels. Bear in mind though that with this country being right in the tropics, weather is largely unpredictable, meaning you could visit right in the middle of the dry season only for the heavens to open or visit in the shoulder season and experience consecutive days of sunshine. Whatever happens, pack waterproof clothing and a couple of jumpers for those colder evenings in the cloud forest.
Firstly, keep in mind that whilst these are my favourite wildlife destinations in Costa Rica, there are plenty of others that will offer phenomenal experiences. Therefore, I am currently preparing another post with some alternative wildlife hotspots that I am certain you will enjoy. Stay tuned!
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