Do you want to know where to see wildlife in Costa Rica?
Well, the short answer is everywhere! One of the reasons Costa Rica is such an amazing destination is that the wildlife is front and centre of every experience. Ziplining through the cloud forests? Watch bright blue Morpho butterflies flutter out of your way. Setting up camp on the coast in Guanacaste? Look out for Halloween crabs. Taking a walk to the beach? Listen out for Howler monkeys. And the list goes on.
‘Mummy, I saw a crocodile!’, called out our ten-year old as we sped along the highway from Costa Rica’s capital San Jose towards Uvita, our first destination in this lush, central American country. On this three-hour bus journey we saw vultures circling above the hills, a flash of a scarlet macaw’s tail and an iguana bathing in the tropical sun. We were urgently looking out of the windows for brief sightings of any animals, unaware that over the next seven weeks we would start to become almost blasé about some sightings. ‘Just another toucan,’ I said during our third week before catching myself. The boys described scarlet macaws as the ‘pigeons of the Osa Peninsula’ there were so many of them crowding the almond trees while we waited for a bus.
If you don’t want to leave extraordinary animal encounters to chance when you visit save our top tips of where to see wildlife in Costa Rica.
PUNTARENAS / Central & South Pacific Coast
Uvita, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, is the perfect place to start your Costa Rican adventure. Ease into the pura vida lifestyle spotting some of Costa Rica’s wildlife stars while chilling at your accommodation or walking along the palm-fringed beach. Without making too much effort we saw toucans, scarlet macaws, howler and capuchin monkeys, a sloth, massive iguanas, plenty of lizards, turkey vultures, scarlet tanagers, great kiskadees and even an armadillo! We saw almost all of these from our accommodation, Arboura Eco Cabinas, or on a short stroll to the beach.
Find out more about discovering Uvita with kids here
The beach at Uvita is part of Parque Nacional Marina Ballena, named for the Humpback Whales which can be seen off the coast between mid-July and October, and again from late December to late February. It’s also possible to take snorkelling trips to Caño Island – though we recommend planning your visit during dry season, December to April, to take advantage of calmer, clearer seas.
Uvita’s beach and neighbouring Playa Hermosa are known nesting spots for Olive Ridley Turtles. Reserva Playa Tortuga, based near Ojochal, just twenty-minutes further south, looks after eggs laid on these beaches in an effort to conserve the species.
We volunteered at Reserva Playa Tortuga for a week where we helped with turtle conservation, monkey and bat monitoring and coastal management among many other things. You can read about our experience by clicking here. If you are planning to spend more than a couple of weeks in Costa Rica we highly recommend building in a week wildlife-volunteering into your itinerary.
North of Uvita, above the towns of Quepos and Dominical, sits Costa Rica’s smallest and most popular national park, Manuel Antonio. This is an ideal park to visit if you’re short of time and want an easy way to see wildlife in Costa Rica. Don’t forget to pack your swimsuit when you visit as Manuel Antonio has some beautiful beaches too.
For a taste of true Costa Rican wilderness take a trip to the end of the road and explore the Osa Peninsula. Much of the peninsula is made up of Corcovado National Park, said to be the most bio-diverse region in Costa Rica and where it’s possible to see the elusive tapir. In the surrounding areas you should be able to see spider monkeys, beautiful bright blue Morpho butterflies and a plethora of scarlet macaws. We were told that this area would be our best chance of seeing squirrel monkeys, but sadly they stayed in hiding during our 4 days on the peninsula.
A sunrise tour on a saltwater lagoon arranged by our accommodation, Luna Lodge, was spectacular. We were told that the lagoon was full of crocodiles, and we saw plenty of bubbles in the water which may or may not have belonged to these prehistoric reptiles. Happily, or not, we didn’t see any crocodile snouts break through the surface of the water. We did see crested caracara, vultures, scarlet macaws, an osprey, spider monkeys and lots of beautiful and noisy birds!
To increase your chances of seeing wildlife take a guided tour into Corcovado National Park but, unlike us, don’t go on your hike during a tropical rainstorm. The animals take shelter from the rain more than we do! We got soaked and only saw a couple of poison dart frogs for our troubles (though they were extraordinary!).
Tortuguero National Park has been described as the Amazon in miniature. Base yourself in the village of Tortuguero which has a Caribbean feel – where locals speak English creole as well as Spanish – then take to the water. A network of canals, rivers and lagoons connect rainforested islands bursting with wildlife.
Spot crocodiles and caiman, kingfisher and heron, sloths and howler or capuchin monkeys from a boat tour. The beaches here are popular nesting spots for green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles, as well as the magnificent leatherbacks, the largest living turtle species. Time it right and you might be lucky enough to witness a nesting turtle or hatchlings making their way to the sea. We volunteered with ASTOP in Parismina for a week during leatherback season (February to June) and were privileged to see both of these remarkable events.
From Parismina we took a boat tour to Tortuguero National Park and the village of Tortuguero. Our guide also led us on a short hike up Cerro Tortuguero, an ancient, dormant volcano. From the boat dock we were taken on an easy hike on boardwalks above the rainforest floor. Our guide pointed out tree frogs and spiders (we saw a banana spider – yes, it’s poisonous). We kept our eyes peeled for snakes but they remained hidden. The hike uses a series of staircases to climb the steep mountainside up to a viewing platform which overlooks the canals and beaches of this unique region.
Cahuita National Park
At the southern end of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast you’ll find the small, but perfectly formed, Cahuita National Park. Visitor are welcomed on a ‘pay-what-you-like’ basis to see the resident wildlife and relax on the beautiful, white sand, Caribbean beaches. Come here to see sloths and capuchin monkeys or book a snorkelling trip on the nearby reef.
We loved walking along the sandy paths in the park which wove between the beach and mangrove-fringed lagoons (no swimming, crocodile territory). At the tip of the park we had our closest wild sloth sighting, but it was also here where we saw people acting irresponsibly around the wild animals. The sloth (pictured above, photo taken with a long lens) swiped out at one tourist who got too close. Clear signage throughout the park directed visitors to keep food packed away in bags, and not to leave those bags unattended. We watched as more than one group of visitors violated these rules which directly led to a fight between a troop of capuchin monkeys and a gaze of raccoons over packets of crisps. By keeping our distance and being respectful of wildlife we are far more likely to see animals behaving naturally and that, surely, is what we all want?
Ostional Beach on the Nicoya Peninsula is the place to go to witness one of nature’s most incredible sights. The Olive Ridley Turtle arribada, when thousands of turtles descend on the beach to lay their eggs, takes place approximately once a month during rainy season. Each arribada, meaning arrival in Spanish, lasts a few days. Olive Ridley turtle eggs are prized by some locals and are sold as snacks in bars. The local government allows a few local families to collect eggs and sell them in an attempt to curb poaching. However poachers persist. Local and foreign volunteers patrol the beaches to deter them while also gathering important scientific data.
The Northern Zone
Alajuela Province / Monteverde Cloud Forest / Heredia Province
North of San Jose lies Alajuela Province in which you’ll find two of Costa Rica’s most popular sights – Volcan Arenal and the hot springs of La Fortuna. Tourists flock to this area to visit the now-dormant volcano, walk on lava rock, explore hanging bridges, swim under waterfalls, take zipwire and canyoning tours and soak in hot springs resorts. Many tourists don’t prioritise wildlife viewing as part of their visit to this area, but in Costa Rica that doesn’t mean you won’t see any. During our time in La Fortuna we watched hummingbirds in the central square, met a beautiful bright green basilisk lizard in a hot spring resort and watched a swallow-tailed kite soar above Lake Arenal. We watched toucans at sunset from the terrace of our AirBnB in San Carlos, Alajuela and spied hawks and hummingbirds from our campsite at Laguna Hule in the neighbouring province of Heredia.
Also in Heredia is Rio Sarapiqui where Selva Whitewater Adventures run whitewater rafting tours. We booked a boat for the four of us, looking forward to thrills and spills on the river, and it did not disappoint. But what we weren’t expecting was the full wildlife guided tour we were also given. In between each rapid, as we floated down the river, our local guide pointed out monkeys and sloths, four species of kingfisher and numerous types of heron, including our favourite, the tiger heron.
Monteverde Cloud Forest is rightly famous for its zipline tours, flying visitors through the forest and across valleys at a speed that isn’t optimum for wildlife viewing! But book a guide, take it slow and you could spot one of 400 bird species that are found in the forest including the resplendent quetzal, the keel-billed toucan or the blue-throated goldentail. Blue morpho butterflies flutter between the dense foliage which is also supports six species of the notoriously hard-to-see cat family including jaguar, ocelot and puma.
How to see wildlife in Costa Rica
It is a privilege to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Across the globe animals are under threat as their habitat is being reduced. Costa Rica is an ideal destination to view wildlife, but with that privilege comes responsibility. Our guides at Reserva Playa Tortuga gave us some excellent guidelines to follow when walking through the jungle and attempting to see animals, and I pass this onto you. Following these guidelines means that you will have more authentic experience while also respecting the animals whose world you are visiting.
Guide to responsible wildlife viewing
- DO – keep your distance
- DO – keep your voice down
- DO – follow the instructions of your reputable guide
- DO – try to volunteer and make a positive impact
- DON’T – interact with wild animals
- DON’T – feed wild animals
- DON’T – get too close