It's been ten years since we first visited Costa Rica in Central America, and loved it so much we've made many trips to different parts of the country since then. We've also made new friends and colleagues along the way, seen so many magnificent sunrises and sunsets from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific, ate more than our share of casados and gallo pinto, and explored to our hearts content.
But the one thing that will always stand out in my mind as a reminder of why we went in the first place - and why we will always return - is the unparalleled natural world that still exists in the wild for everyone to see - or rather, to experience - when you're there.
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 see Costa Rica NOW. If you haven't yet visited the one place on this beautiful Earth where nature reigns supreme, this is your year to see It. I'm not kidding, or exaggerating. Do it!
OK? You're going? Good! Then let me share a little natural inspiration with you. These are just a few pics of the wildlife you'll see, and photograph, and experience in CR. 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 hotel cabina. Bring along your good camera gear (or rent some) and check out these critters you'll cross paths with. They'll entertain and delight you, scare and frighten you, but I guarantee you one thing - you'll come home a changed person for the experience.
So are you ready? Let's go.
1. Coatimundi (Coati, for short)
Coatis 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.
2. Toucans and Aracaris
You'll see colorful toucans and aracaris of all colors and sizes in Costa Rica. 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 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).
Colorful hummingbirds are also all around Costa Rica, and make for hours and hours of fun watching them during certain times of the day.
4. Saltwater Crocodiles
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 where you'll always see the Saltwater Crocodiles sunning themselves on the river banks below. The crocs are massive in size with some of them getting upwards of 25 ft in length! 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 Awards!
5. White-faced Capuchin Monkeys
Remember Marcel, Ross' monkey on Friends? He was a handsome and friendly white-faced Capuchin. They're 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, or they'll show you their canines as a threat display, which is never a good thing!
6. Basilisco (aka The Jesus Christ Lizard)
These 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 :-) Look for them in jungle areas throughout the country.
7. Spider Monkeys
One of the most common monkeys you'll see throughout Costa Rica, Spider monkeys are highly social and very intelligent. We helped rescue and reunite two spider monkeys from captivity one year, and 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.
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. But find a beach with almond trees lining it 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 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.
10. Squirrel Monkeys (aka Mono Titi)
Squirrel monkeys are the smallest monkey in all of Costa Rica and can be found chittering and shrieking high up in the canopy above your head. 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. 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 want, gingerly pick them up and help them to the other side, being careful not to overhandle them and disturb the natural protective algae on their waxy coat.
12. Howler Monkeys
If you've been following me for a while, you know I absolutely love howler monkeys (there's a good reason my Travlinmad logo features 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. 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.
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 not, from tarantulas burrowing in their small holes in the ground to large Golden Orb Weavers like this one.
15. Three Toed Sloths
Everyone loves the masked bandit known as the Three Toed Sloth. 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.
Though caymen are generally not where you're likely to be, keep an eye out for them in more swampy areas like Tortuguero, Cajuita, and other rustic wetland areas.
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, thoigh they're only poisonous to humans if you ingest their toxins somehow (by handling them and then licking your fingers). Even then, the chances of you actually being poisoned are slim. 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 it from a distance.
18. The 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. Try your best at photographing it - because just as soon as it lands and you focus, off it goes!
Where to Stay to See It
There are so many great places to stay in Costa Rica, but here are some of my favorites on both coasts:
Osa Peninsula - South Pacific
Located on the country's south Pacific coast, this part of CR is often referred to as the most biologically diverse place in the entire world. I love Bosque del Cabo for their accomodations, nature trails, amazing food, and over 700 acres of nature surrounding you. Iguana Lodge is also great for eco-accommodations, its proximity to nature, and great location right on the beach.
Nicoya Peninsula - North Pacific
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 Nosara for surfing on the famous Playa Guiones, and Harmony Hotel is a favorite for easy access to everything I love about the Nicoya.
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 and close to beautiful nature and Cajuita National Park.