If there is one place on Earth you should travel to for an eco experience, it's the Central American country of Costa Rica. Nature here is accessible and unparalleled, even after all these years of being known as the eco destination. In the jungles or at the beach, you'll see tons of monkeys, sea turtles, the ever-present coatimundi (raccoon), humpback whales off the coast, colorful Scarlet Macaws in the almond trees, feathered friends of all kinds, and if you're lucky - you might even spot a puma on the trail. On the flip side, Costa Rica wildlife is often of the smaller variety such as snakes, poisonous frogs, spiders, scorpions and other creepy bugs.
It's been about ten years since our first trip to Costa Rica and we loved it so much we've made many trips since then to different parts of the country. We've made new friends, seen so many magnificent sunrises and sunsets from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific, and eaten more than our share of casados and gallo pinto. But the reason we went to Costa Rica in the first place - and why we will always return - is the natural world.
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Costa Rica Wildlife
Let me share a little natural inspiration with you. These are just a few pics of the wildlife you'll see, hear, photograph, and experience in Costa Rica. Not in a zoo or in a rescue sanctuary, but in the wild, along your hiking path, and maybe - if you're lucky - right outside your cabina. Bring along a good camera, pack a long lens (or rent one) and check out these critters you'll cross paths with. They'll entertain and delight you, fascinate and frighten you, but I guarantee you one thing - you'll come home a changed person for the experience.
Are you ready? Let's go!
1. Coatimundi (Coati, for short)
Coatimundis have the same curious nature as their raccoon cousin, with a longer snout, and adorable long tail. They're everywhere in Costa Rica and will usually get out of your way pretty quickly, so have your camera ready.
WHERE? Like raccoons, coatis are foragers and you'll find them pretty much everywhere in Costa Rica on the prowl.
2. Toucans and Aracaris
You'll see colorful toucans and aracaris of all colors and sizes in Costa Rica: Emerald Toucanets, Collared Aracari, Fiery-billed Aracari, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and the ones most people are familiar with - the Keel-billed Toucan and the Chestnut Mandibled Toucan (below).
WHERE? Look for them around fruit trees in La Selva and Monteverde, Carara National Park, the Caribbean coast from Tortuguero down to Puerto Viejo, along the Pacific coast and especially in the Osa Peninsula. You'll find
Colorful hummingbirds are also all around Costa Rica, and make for hours and hours of fun watching them during certain times of the day.
WHERE? Pretty much everywhere there are brightly colored flowers. Look for red, orange, and purple flowers near water.
4. Saltwater Crocodiles
Saltwater crocodiles are massive in size with some of them getting upwards of 25 ft in length!
WHERE? For a truly unforgettable sight, stop at the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles on the Pacific coast on your way to Jaco or Manuel Antonio. You'll see the Saltwater Crocodiles sunning themselves on the river banks below. Your driver will no doubt stop for you to see them, or if you're driving, park your car alongside the road before the bridge. If you want to get even closer, there are now Crocodile Tours where locals take you down to the water and tout their "strength" and "expertise" by attempting to feed these giant animals. I wouldn't recommend the tours however, unless you're into witnessing potential candidates for this year's Darwin Award!
5. White-faced Capuchin Monkeys
Remember Marcel, Ross' monkey on Friends? He was a handsome and friendly white-faced Capuchin.
WHERE? Capuchins are common along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and many can be seen along the nature trails in Manuel Antonio National Park, feeding on clams from the ocean, one of their favorite foods. Don't get too close though (like I did), or they'll show you their canines as a threat display (like this), which is never a good thing!
6. Basilisco (aka The Jesus Christ Lizard)
The Basilisco - or Jesus Christ lizards - get their biblical nickname by literally walking (or running) on water, and to see one in action is a real treat, and supposedly good luck :-)
WHERE? Look for them in wooded and jungle areas throughout the country where they can blend into their surroundings.
7. Spider Monkeys
One of the most common monkeys you'll see throughout Costa Rica, Spider monkeys are highly social and very intelligent. Read about how we helped rescue and reunite two spider monkeys from captivity - it was then I learned firsthand what social creatures they really are. Spider monkeys are super acrobatic in the trees overhead. They can be noisy and very vocal, especially around other monkey species, or when danger is near and they let out an eerie warning scream.
WHERE? Look for them near coastal forests, especially the west coast and Osa Peninsula.
8. Scarlet Macaws
Between poaching for the illegal pet trade and loss of habitat from deforestation, Scarlet Macaws are an endangered species in Costa Rica, with only about 1,500 remaining on the Pacific coast of the country. Chances are you'll see the beautiful and colorful birds flying in pairs overhead at least once during your visit.
WHERE? Find a beach with almond trees and park yourself for the afternoon if you want to see them up close. I sat for hours on a Matapalo beach on the Osa peninsula and watched a pair engage in the most amazing mating dance. That may be TMI, but it's a lovely thing to see when you're on a deserted beach in Costa Rica :-)
9. Halloween Moon Crabs
You'll find these colorful Halloween Moon crabs in sandy areas throughout Costa Rica curiously checking you out until you get too close. Then they'll disappear down their deep holes in the sand as quickly as they emerged. Capuchin monkeys love eating them as a snack. Unfortunately, they've also become a new "designer pet" for some humans to keep in aquarium captivity which usually ends badly for the crab. They require very deep burrows and specific wet, sandy conditions in order to thrive.
WHERE? Beaches and sandy coastal areas throughout Costa Rica.
10. Squirrel Monkeys (aka Mono Titi)
Squirrel monkeys, or Mono Titi, are the smallest monkey in all of Costa Rica and can be found chittering and shrieking high up in the canopy above your head.
WHERE: You'll find plenty of them in and around Manuel Antonio on the country's Pacific coast, where the town's slogan is "Still More Monkeys Than People". The small, narrow wooden "walkways" over main roads encourage the Mono Titis to cross there rather than on power lines to avoid being electrocuted.
11. Two Toed Sloth
The more homely of the two common sloths found in Costa Rica, the Two Toed Sloth is no less adorable to see in their natural environment. They sleep a lot and move oh-so-slowly.
WHERE? You'll often see "Sloth Crossing" signs on main roads, so keep an eye out for them stretched out on their bellies and crossing the road at a snail's pace. If you can, carefully pick them up and help them to the other side, being careful not to over-handle them and disturb the natural protective algae on their waxy coat.
12. Howler Monkeys
If you've followed my travels for a while, you know I absolutely love howler monkeys (my Travlinmad logo is a howler monkey holding a camera)! Howlers can be found in the wild all over Costa Rica. Not only are they fun to watch, and interesting to hear (be prepared to be awakened as the morning sky begins to pale), the babies are also adorable to play with and hold.
WHERE: Throughout the high canopies of Costa Rica's jungles. If you make it to the Caribbean coast, stop in the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo, where you can interact with baby howlers in the Monkey House. They'll climb up one side of you and down the other, grabbing whatever gets in their way - earrings, jewelry, bandanas and hats. And when they're done, they'll fall asleep in your arms, all musky-smelling and warm, their soft fingers and foot pads holding you tight and pressed up against you. Heaven!
Locals in Costa Rica call them "bush- or tree-chickens" since many people still enjoy them on the menu. Green iguanas are commonly seen munching on tree leaves, but if they're not moving around and feeding, you'll have to look closely to see them. Their chameleon-like properties allow them to color-camouflage themselves against most any background.
WHERE? Bushy scrub areas and lowland forest along the coast. They're cold-blooded and like the sun.
14. Spiders and other Arachnids :-(
OK, I admit it - I've been an arachnophobe since I was a kid. But for some reason, it's different in Costa Rica, where I mostly saw spiders outdoors. The places we've stayed and beds we've slept in have never had spiders in them since there's nothing for them to eat indoors. On the other hand, some critters like scorpions are a different story. They like damp areas and are frequently found indoors in bathrooms (always lift the toilet seat beforehand), and in wet towels and clothing! You'll see lots of fascinating spiders in CR, some venomous but most are not, from tarantulas burrowing in their small holes in the ground to large Golden Orb Weavers like this one.
WHERE? Everywhere. It's Costa Rica ;-)
15. Three Toed Sloths
Everyone loves the masked bandit known as the Three Toed Sloth, or Perezoso. Their dark eye makeup and permanent smile make you think they're always happy to see you. Their waxy coat is full of valuable protective algae so try not to handle them too often as it can remove some of that. But if you see one crossing a busy road, reach out and have it grab your hand, so you can pick it up and give it a lift to the other side.
WHERE: Three toed sloths live in humid and also dry forests in Costa Rica. They move slow on land but are amazing swimmers. Look for them sleeping in trees where they look like a nest or bundle of twine.
Caimen are smaller kin of the crocodiles, and also known as the Spectacled Caiman or “Pululo” which mean short and fat in Spanish.
WHERE? Though caimen are generally not where you're likely to be, keep an eye out for them in more damp, swampy lowland areas like Tortuguero, Cajuita, and other rustic wetlands.
17. Frogs, and Snakes, and Lizards, Oh My!
There's no shortage of creepy, crawly things in Costa Rica. All sorts of snakes, frogs, lizards, insects, and reptiles can be found. There are several varieties of poisonous Dart Frogs that you'll come across, though they're only poisonous to humans if you ingest their toxins somehow (by handling them and then licking your fingers...yuk). Even then, the chances of you actually being poisoned are slim.
WHERE? You'll have to hunt for the smaller critters, turning over rocks and leaves to find them, as they generally want nothing to do with you. If you do see one, don't panic. Bring along an Epi-Pen if you use them for the rare insect sting. But otherwise, the only contact you'll have is from a distance.
18. Blue Morpho Butterfly
Imagine hiking through the hot and humid rainforests of Costa Rica. Monkeys, wildlife, and the beating of your own heart are the only things interrupting the silence all around you. Then suddenly, the most brilliant blue flits past you, teasing you to follow wherever it goes. The elusive Blue Morpho butterfly is a sight to see in the wild.
WHERE? Throughout Costa Rica, near humid areas and forests. Finding one may be easier than photographing it - because just as soon as it lands and you focus, off it goes!
Are you a nature lover? Eco traveler? Seeker of natural beauty? Photography Buff?
If you answered YES to one or more of these questions, do yourself a favor. Go to Costa Rica. If you haven't yet visited this natural place, this is your year to see It.
Where to Stay in Costa Rica to See Wildlife
If you're looking for a rustic, yet comfortable eco lodge, Costa Rica has no shortage. There are so many great places to stay, but here are a few of my favorites on both coasts:
Osa Peninsula - South Pacific coast
Located on the country's south Pacific coast, this part of CR is often referred to as the most biologically diverse place on Earth. I love Bosque del Cabo, a Costa Rica eco lodge with beautiful accommodations for the whole family from individual cabinas to family homes. The lodge has a sublime pool, amazing food, and over 700 acres of nature trails surrounding you.
Iguana Lodge is also great for eco-accommodations, its proximity to nature, and perfect location right on the beach. Find rates and more details.
Nicoya Peninsula - North Pacific coast
The northwest coast of CR has the same natural beauty as other parts of the country with a slightly less soggy natural environment than the Osa Peninsula. It's hard to beat the surf town of Nosara and Harmony Hotel is a favorite! It's got easy access to everything you'll love about the Nicoya, like the surfing on famous Playa Guiones and yoga studios along dusty dirt roads. Search rates and availability.
Puerto Viejo - Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has a distinctly different feel than other parts of this small country, particularly the southernmost town on the east coast, Puerto Viejo. Stay at a great little hotel here called Banana Azul, on beautiful Playa Negra - it's close to beautiful nature and Cajuita National Park just up the road. Check rates and availability.