Wildlife vacations in Costa Rica travel guide
2 MINUTE SUMMARY
You could fit Costa Rica into the UK almost five times – yet it hosts an astonishing four percent of the planet’s diversity. Sloths, monkeys, iguanas, jaguars, caiman and ocelots are just a handful of the species that inhabit the country’s rich lowland jungles and cloud forests – along with a whole rainbow of frogs and over 890 species of birds. Along the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, bottlenose dolphins leap offshore, while endangered sea turtles haul themselves ashore to nest in their thousands – the only place in the world where this occurs in such great numbers.
Costa Rica is not only blessed with this astonishing diversity; it has also gone out of its way to conserve it. Around a quarter of the country’s land is protected, with 27 national parks, plus wildlife refuges, forest and marine reserves. Little surprise, then, that tourism here is orientated towards exploring this luscious Eden, with exquisite jungle lodges, fascinating naturalist guides and options for exploring the ecosystems on foot, bike or boat.
Find out how in our Costa Rica wildlife guide.
Where to go on a wildlife vacation in Costa Rica
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
Costa Rica may be small – but it is dense with wildlife and national parks; unless you have a month or two to spare, don’t even attempt to see it all. To experience the best of the natural world, it’s also essential to spend at least a couple of nights in each place; forests come alive at dusk and dawn, while on the coast, nesting turtles haul themselves ashore once night falls. Local flights are possible, but it seems a shame to skim over these glorious landscapes when distances are so short. Some reserves are only accessible by boat through winding forest rivers – here, the wildlife adventure begins before you’ve even arrived. For more independence, hire a car; all your accommodation will be booked and you’ll have 24-hour support, but with all the flexibility and freedom of an independent vacation.
Combine stunning views with pleasant hikes and – of course – the ubiquitous wildlife in this national park, overlooked by the gently smoking volcano which gives it its name. A number of short nature trails lead you 8km through the park; get around on foot or horse back. Spider and howler monkeys swing through the rainforest canopy; look out too for sloths, coatis, parrots, motmots and hummingbirds.
Manuel Antonio NP
Protecting coastal forest, mangroves, beach and ocean, Costa Rica’s smallest national park is one of its most diverse – and most visited. Its 109 mammal species include two- and three-toed sloths plus a number of monkeys; twitchers can spot over 180 species of birds. The park is always popular, with visitor numbers surging at weekends; explore the well marked trails early on weekday mornings if possible.
Perpetual mist, rich volcanic soil and moderate temperatures make Costa Rica’s cloud forests its most biodiverse regions, with the endangered resplendent quetzal its most sought-after species. Around 400 bird species live in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, including 30 shimmering hummingbirds. The trees of this fairytale forest are cloaked in orchids, mosses and bromeliads which feed on the moist air.
Lined with stunning Pacific beaches, the Nicoya Peninsula is Costa Rica’s driest region. While many travelers head here for the consistent surf, wildlife fans should spend a couple of nights in Ostional, home to the world’s largest scenes of nesting turtles. Hundreds of thousands of olive ridley turtles arrive between Aug-Dec, particularly on nights leading up to the full moon. Utterly spellbinding.
Osa Peninsula & Corcovado NP
While much of Costa Rica has been well developed for ecotourism, the Osa Peninsula hasn’t – which, ironically, means it is one of the best places for wildlife fans as it remains pretty much as nature intended. Around half of the country’s species can be found here, including agoutis, tayras and tapirs. Much of it is protected by Costa Rica’s largest national park, which receives few intrepid visitors.
Named after the endangered sea turtles that nest along its Caribbean coastline, Tortuguero can only be reached by boat, keeping an eye out for otters, caiman and manatees as you do so. Jungle hikes and canoe trips along the creeks take you through the rainforest, where sloths and spider and howler monkeys hang in the canopy. Head to the beach with a registered guide after dark to glimpse the nesting turtles.