Last updated 26 Feb 2020

Home to more than half a million plant and animal species, Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Its broad variety of habitats, with unspoilt beaches, cloud-shrouded mountains, tangled mangroves and precious primary forests provide refuge for an astonishingly wide spectrum of wildlife in Costa Rica, from whale sharks to white-faced capuchins.

Location plays a role too: flanked by Caribbean and Pacific waters, forming a bridge between the two American continents, Costa Rica is visited by hundreds of migratory bird species each year, and humpback whales from both hemispheres endure a 9,000km journey to mate and raise their young in Costa Rica’s bays.

The allure of Costa Rica’s wildlife is that it is both in your face and tantalisingly elusive all at once. Even in populated areas, visitors might see howler monkeys, white-nosed coatis (likened to racoons) or a pair of scarlet macaws simply by walking to the shops, not to mention an abundance of otherworldly insects.

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However, Costa Rica’s sloths, tapirs and wild cats can be much harder to spot. The fauna here is some of the most colourful on Earth (think iridescent hummingbirds, acid-green frogs and rainbow-bright fish), yet only those who are patient and pay close attention will catch a glimpse of such visual delights. When it comes to year-round wildlife spotting opportunities, Costa Rica delivers, but will always leave you wanting more.

After decades of large-scale deforestation, Costa Rica is now the world’s poster child for eco-tourism, with over a quarter of its land dedicated to national parks and nature reserves.

However much of Costa Rica’s wildlife is still endangered or under threat from illegal logging, poaching, habitat loss and the exotic pet trade. Done right, responsible tourism in Costa Rica can be part of the solution, and taking a sustainable trip with an environmentally-aware guide or tour operator can be a wonderful way to witness nature in all its glory while supporting the communities who aim to protect it.

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Tree frog, Costa Rica

How to go birdwatching in Costa Rica

Purple-throated mountain gem. Coppery-headed emerald. Great green macaw. The names of Costa Rica’s birds alone are enough to prompt the purchase of a telescope and tripod.

There are more than 900 bird species here, with over 200 of them just passing through. Five million birds are estimated to migrate to and through Costa Rica annually, with peaks in March and April as they head north, and September and October as they head south. With such a rich and ever-changing bird population, it’s not uncommon for birdwatchers in Costa Rica to spot a hundred species in just one day.

Keel-billed toucans, hummingbirds and scarlet macaws are some of the most striking and well-known birds found in the region, but none is more esteemed amongst birders than the resplendent quetzal, an iridescent-feathered trogon associated with Mayan legends and symbolic of freedom. It is notoriously difficult to spot thanks to its green plumage, but come to the aptly-named Parque Nacional Los Quetzales in the breeding season (April) and you can see male quetzals putting on a display, gliding through the air to show off their twin tail feathers.

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Toucan, Costa Rica

Other top places for birdwatching in Costa Rica include the wetlands of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, where water birds such as storks, kingfishers, herons and spoonbills gather; Palo Verde National Park, where in dry season visitors can rent bikes to get around the diverse terrain and reach its lesser-known corners; Corcovado National Park, home to the country’s largest population of scarlet macaws (which mate for life), plus more than 400 other species; and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve where 30 different types of hummingbird glimmer amongst the greenery.

Birding lodges within protected nature reserves are an experience in themselves, as guests often enjoy panoramas of the forest from their bedrooms and access to expert guides. Many lodges also provide binoculars and other gear for guests’ use – but you might want to bring your own neutral/camo-coloured clothing. Stay quiet and you’ll be surprised what appears when birdwatching in Costa Rica.

How to see Costa Rica’s wild cats – jaguars and beyond

Six species of endangered wild cat prowl the depths of Costa Rica’s jungles – and while you’d be incredibly lucky to spot any of them (they’re mostly nocturnal, averse to human contact and populations are declining), if you’re trekking through their turf at dusk or dawn they’ll certainly be watching you.

The only big cat on the list, and perhaps the most revered of all, is the jaguar; they are the largest terrestrial carnivore in Central America, preferring to live near water sources such as swamps and rivers. The puma comes second in terms of size – they are equally elusive, but sightings have been reported by farmers and the occasional tourist. Then there’s the tree-dwelling margay, which has been known to imitate the calls of its prey; the ocelot, which is twice the size of a domestic cat and the most populous wild cat in Costa Rica; the lithesome oncilla, which tends to live in higher elevations like Monteverde; and the weasel-like jaguarundi, the only diurnal (active during the day) cat of the bunch.

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Close-up of a puma, Costa Rica

The more remote you venture, the higher your chances of encountering Costa Rica’s wild cats. Overnight or multi-day hikes allow you to travel deeper into your chosen park and increase your odds of spotting a big cat. All six species are known to live in La Amistad International Park (a UNESCO-listed site shared with Panama) and five can be found in Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. Dry season – December to April – offers the easiest access to national parks and the best chance of seeing Costa Rica’s big cats.

It’s worth noting that La Amistad’s tourism infrastructure is very limited and hiking here can be extremely demanding. Corcovado’s trails are more defined and ranger stations (ie. overnight shelters) are well established – but it’s hardly Disneyland. Visitors can expect mosquitoes, scorching beach tracks and a heavy pack (you’ll need to carry your own water), the strain of which is swiftly forgotten when you hear a rustle in the undergrowth or a distant roar – could that be a jaguar? Much of the joy is in the search.

Wherever you go, a professional guide is essential – they’ll keep you safe and spot myriad signs of life that would otherwise pass you by, including wild cat paw prints.

Guaranteed sighting of Costa Rica's wild cats

To guarantee a sighting of Costa Rica’s wild cats, consider visiting Las Pumas Rescue Centre. The reputable visitor-funded centre rehabilitates injured and rescued wild cats before releasing them back into the wild if possible, or caring for them in their sanctuary.

How to see sea turtles in Costa Rica

Sea turtles nest on the shores of Costa Rica year-round – you just need to know where to look. On Costa Rica’s Caribbean side, the turtle’s namesake Tortuguero National Park welcomes nesting Atlantic greens between June and October, with hatchlings emerging in November and December.

Leatherback turtles and the critically endangered hawksbill turtles nest here earlier in the year too, although their numbers are smaller and the chance of spotting them less likely. On the Pacific coast, Pacific greens and olive ridleys lay their eggs year-round, with leatherbacks nesting from November to February.

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Hatchling sea turtle, Costa Rica

One of the most incredible turtle watching experiences in Costa Rica – and on Earth – occurs on Playa Ostional between July and November. For a few days around each new moon (when the sky is darkest), thousands of olive ridley sea turtles drag themselves ashore, laying millions of eggs in the sand just beyond the high tide line. This phenomenon, named la arribada (arrival) is thought to be a technique used to overwhelm predators and reduce egg losses. To witness la arribada, you must be accompanied by a guide, as the beach is patrolled to prevent poachers from stealing the eggs for human consumption.

Photography is not allowed at night time, but there are often a few tardy turtles left at sunrise, which can make for beautiful pictures – just be sure to keep at least 10 metres away from the turtle.

Between 45-90 days after turtles lay their eggs, hatchlings will start to emerge. Many small-scale Costa Rican conservation projects on both coasts dig up and reincubate a portion of eggs to guarantee their safety. The planned release of these hatchlings is more predictable, and locals can usually point you in the right direction. There’s nothing quite like watching a handful of tiny baby turtles flap their way to the water to get swept up by the surf.

Where to go whale-watching in Costa Rica

The balmy, nutrient-rich waters off Costa Rica’s coastline provide migrating whales with the ideal shelter in which to rest, breed and raise their young.

There are two breeding seasons: December to March, when whales from California and Canada head south for warmer climes; and July to October, when Antarctic whales travel north. Costa Rica’s whales are best spotted from the Pacific coast, but the Caribbean side does also see North Atlantic St Lawrence humpbacks from December to March.

So how can you see whales in Costa Rica? Keep your eyes peeled along the shorelines of Guanacaste from December to March – whales gather so close to the coast that it’s possible to witness them simply by walking along the beach. For Antarctic whales, Marino Ballena National Park in Uvita offers some of the finest spotting opportunities, with plenty of tour options to choose from. September’s annual whale and dolphin festival celebrates these creatures with educational talks, family activities and discounted boat tours. South of here, Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula is also a fine choice.

If you choose to take a tour, do your research and ensure you pick an ethical operator. Small boat tours are best and guides should be passionate about the creatures you’re looking for. If you spot a tail or fin, don’t get in: swimming with whales and dolphins in Costa Rica is illegal and can be dangerous and distressing for whales, especially if they’re accompanied by newborn calves.

It’s worth packing anti-sickness meds if you plan to go whale-watching in Costa Rica – binoculars and choppy waves don’t mix well.

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HUmpback whale, Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Where to see sloths in Costa Rica

For many visitors to Costa Rica, sloths are top of their wildlife spotting wish list. Two of the world’s six species of sloth live in Costa Rica – the Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth and the brown-throated (three-toed) sloth. The former has a brown snout and beige fur around its face, while the latter is grey/brown with distinctive eye markings.

Where there are trees, there are sloths – which means they’re present year-round and you can spot them almost anywhere, you can see sloths in Costa Rica in bigger numbers on the Osa Peninsula, at La Selva Biological Station and Tortuguero National Park. Deforestation means much of their habitat has been lost, and they’re far more likely to be found near roads and towns than they once were.

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Sloth in Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica

While your odds of crossing paths with one of these slow-moving creatures during a nature hike is fairly high, you’ll need to look hard to spot them. In Corcovado National Park, where they enjoy their preferred (and sadly much diminished) primary forest habitat, it can take half an hour to locate one sleeping in the lofty canopy, even with a guide who’s received a tip that it’s there.

A sloth’s fur is covered in a green algae which camouflages them amongst the leaves. They also sleep for 20 hours a day, so travellers who spot them moving from branch to branch – such as at popular Manuel Antonio National Park – are very lucky indeed.

If, unlike a sloth, you can’t hang around for days or weeks waiting to spot one in Costa Rica, consider visiting a reputable sanctuary such as Toucan Rescue Ranch (near San Jose), where you can tour the grounds, watch sloth feeding time (no true conservation centre would allow guests to hold them) and learn more about these laid back animals from dedicated volunteers.

How to see wildlife in Costa Rica

Emma Sparks

Emma Sparks is an itchy-footed freelance travel writer and digital editor based in Cardiff, UK. She has written for Lonely Planet, The Telegraph, Love Exploring, easyJet, Skyscanner and more.

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