Costa Rica offers some amazing opportunities to observe indigenous and migrating animals in their natural rainforest and marine environments. Joining anti-poaching patrols, assisting with research projects, rolling up your sleeves on reforestation and community action initiatives, are just some of the ways that you can help to continue the great work undertaken by eco-warriors and conservationists.
There can be few experiences in Costa Rica more authentic than staying with a local family. Swapping languages, getting shown around the village and learning about traditional farming and cooking techniques let you learn what life is like when your neighbours are monkeys and sloths, all just a short hop from the beach or national parks such as Corcovado and Marino Ballena.
Combining a self-drive vacation in Costa Rica with wildlife watching is much simpler than you might think with a solid series of roads linking many of the country's national parks. Single tracks and a few lumpy, bumpy plantation trails add to the adventure with loads of chances to stop safely and explore on foot or swap your car for a boat as you journey deeper into mangrove swamps and inland waterways.
Jutting out of the southwest coast like an elephant's trunk is the oh-so exotic Osa Peninsula that features over 400 species of bird as well as an abundance of animals including howler, spider and white-faced capuchin monkeys. The peninsula's wild stretch of Pacific shoreline is the perfect place to keep a keen eye out for dolphins, manatees and sea turtles with boat trips into the Golfo Dulce offering more than a few more.
It's almost impossible to visit Costa Rica on a wildlife watching vacation without spending time in the exquisite Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Although you won't be the first travelers to discover vibrant flashes of orchid and spongy, mossy carpets appearing from forests shrouded in mist, visitor numbers are restricted so definitely don't be put off if you're worried about crowds.
If anyone knows how to do eco-accommodation, it’s Costa Rica. Striking the perfect balance between rustic and comfort, you'll get to stay in a cloud forest, rainforest or on the coast; perfect for those who want their wilderness experience to include renewable energy sources and locally-sourced sustenance as well as WiFi to keep those back home as green as the surroundings.
Undertaking nature trails in the company of knowledgeable wildlife experts and experienced local guides is an exceptional means of not only getting closer to the flora and fauna of Costa Rica but also understanding one habitat or distant call from the next. Small group tours let you explore with a guide as well as giving you the chance to share an experience with just a handful of like-minded individuals.
It’s fantastically easy to travel to Costa Rica as a family, with great infrastructure and family-friendly lodges, plus bilingual guides who turn the forest into a giant, thrilling classroom. The more developed Monteverde and Tortuguero national parks are fab for those with younger children – or less keen on wilderness. Plus, it’s an easy self-drive destination – great for toilet stops, and packing plenty of toys.
Costa Rica's protected forests are like a gigantic, outdoor animal sanctuary so why anyone would need to visit a zoo here is mind-boggling. Although the creatures have been brought here because of injuries or abandonment, cages are woefully inadequate and if these zoos want to behave like an authentic animal rescue centres, they should embark on serious rehab and release programmes.
Although seeing wild dolphins is on many a 'bucket list', encounters run by ill-thinking operators may well cause more harm than good. Chasing dolphins or getting too close can result in them becoming disorientated or injured so if you really love dolphins, do your research on the company, find out what their policies are, their experience with cetaceans and what they do to avoid distressing the animals.
Volunteering to be part of a research and patrol team, ably assisting experts whose job it is to conserve and protect nesting sea turtles, can be a humbling and deeply moving experience. Listening at briefings and not being tempted to touch turtles, feed them or use blinding and potentially damaging flash photography, is essential for not putting the lives of these endangered species at further risk.
Spending a couple of nights in each location is a good rule of thumb anywhere – but particularly important on a wildlife vacation in Costa Rica. The forests come alive at dusk and dawn, so day trippers miss out on the morning birdsong and the impossibly raucous sunsets. Turtles, too, nest at night time – so adjust your body clock to become more in tune with nature.