Costa Rican getaway: 3 fun ways to see wildlife

3 ways to see wildlife in Costa Rica

One of the best things about a vacation in Costa Rica is the chance to see wildlife that you normally only see on television. From insects and lizards to birds and mammals, Costa Rica is rich in biodiversity. The best way to maximize your chances of seeing amazing wildlife is to hire a professional guide to take you through one of Costa Rica’s many parks.

Professional guides in Costa Rica go through a degree program to learn about the flora, fauna and history of their country. They are bilingual and speak excellent English and they are incredibly adept at finding creatures large and small. And, thanks to technology, they are in touch with nearby guides via cell phone so they can share exciting finds.

During my recent trip to Costa Rica, I went on several guided tours and saw a great variety of creatures. I’d like to tell you about my three favorite

Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge

If you’re staying in the Arenal region, don’t miss this six- to seven-hour excursion. You are typically picked up at your hotel and driven to Los Chiles, close to the Nicaraguan border. On the way, you’ll stop at the very popular Restaurante Las Iguanas.


Restaurante Las Iguanas

If you love iguanas, this is the place for you. The trees around this restaurant are covered in dozens of iguanas of all sizes. Our guide explained that years ago, the restaurant owner fed the iguanas in order to serve them on the menu. This is no longer a legal practice, but the iguanas have stuck around in the hopes of getting a yummy meal of left over vegetables.

Iguana in a tree

After a brief stop, the journey continues to the Rio Frio where you will board a covered pontoon boat for a leisurely float down the river. Within the first few minutes of our tour, we saw several species of birds, including jacanas, anhingas and a crested caracara. We also saw three types of egrets (great, snowy and cattle) which are beautiful, white shore birds.

An egret chilling on the Rio Frio


Cattle egret and horse

As we progressed down the river, we found troupes of howler monkeys and white-faced Capuchins. Where there are Capuchins, there are basilisk lizards, also known as Jesus Christ lizards. We saw a nice demonstration of how these lizards got their nickname. Capuchins regularly hunt and eat the lizards. We were able to watch one of the small green lizards make a fast getaway by jumping from a tree branch into the water, then running on its hind legs to the safety of a plant on the shore. The little Capuchin was not happy.

Green Jesus Christ lizard

After the tour, we were treated to a traditional lunch of chicken, rice and beans, and fresh pineapple. If you go on this tour,  be sure to bring an insect repellant, sunscreen and a camera. Some birds and animals, like the sloth, stay high up in the trees and are hard to see without binoculars so if you have them, bring them.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

If you plan to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest region, be sure to dress for the weather. You will be high on a mountain that is covered in clouds much of the time. This means cooler and wetter weather than any other region in Costa Rica. Bring quick drying clothes and a raincoat but expect to feel damp most of the time.

That said, the area is at the top of my list of places I want to return to. It’s stunningly beautiful and the greenest place I’ve ever been. A guided tour through the reserve is the best way to maximize the number of creatures you will see. The guides who work this park are there day after day and have an intimate knowledge of the area.

Our guide quickly pointed out a tiny abandoned hummingbird nest that was covered in moss and lichen.

Hummingbird nest in Monteverde

Walking the paths of the reserve is a practice in meditation. While we were there it was incredibly quiet and peaceful.

Trail in Monteverde

Our guide pointed out tiny objects, like a dead ant that had been taken over by a zombie fungus which was growing out of the carcass. He also found a caterpillar with amazing floral appendages hanging out under a leaf.

Caterpillar under a leaf

The prize of our entire trip came near the end of our hike. Our guide received a text on his cell phone and very excitedly rush us down the trail to a spot where several other people were looking up into the canopy. Sitting there, in all its wondrous glory, was a male Resplendent Quetzal, a bird of such magnificent beauty that it was considered sacred to the Aztec and Mayan people. Our guide let us snap a picture through his spotting scope and, unfortunately, we didn’t get a shot of its two foot long tail.

The Resplendent Quetzal

Before you leave, be sure to stop at the hummingbird gallery located right outside the park and get an up close and personal view of hundreds of hummingbirds and bananaquits visiting the feeders. Check out some amazing photographs (not taken by me) here.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park is located just south of Quepos on the Pacific coast. It’s surrounded by huge palm oil plantations and is a safe haven for 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. Although it’s tiny, it’s considered one of the most biodiverse parks in the world.

It’s important to note that the park puts strict limitations on the number of visitors allowed. Only 600 visitors are allowed on weekdays and 800 on weekends and holidays. Most tours start early in the morning. You can walk through the park on your own, but I don’t recommend it. You will surely miss out on some extraordinary wildlife without the trained eye and spotting scope of a guide.

Our guide allowed us to take pictures with our cell phones through his high-powered spotting scope and we got the best pictures of our trip here.

Bright green lizard

Normally, I immediately kill any spiders that are unfortunate enough to cross my path. But, in Costa Rica, even the spiders are beautiful and interesting to watch.

Spider on a web

Most of the frogs are nocturnal and we were lucky to catch a glimpse of one hanging out on a leaf.

Disapproving frog

The spotting scope can zoom in so closely that we only caught one crab in our picture. The ground around the trail was actually covered in crabs .

Red land crab

My favorite animal, and the whole reason I agreed to Costa Rica in the first place, is the sloth. I love all varieties of sloths. We saw seven sloths total, and six of them where in the Manuel Antonio region. Not one of them would turn and look at the camera.

Sloth eating in a tree

If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica, decide what type of wildlife you want to see and then research which places offer the best chance of seeing that wildlife. For our first trip, we focused on birds and, of course, sloths. We were happy to come home with a list of 81 species of birds along with three of the four types of monkeys (we missed seeing spider monkeys) and both types of sloth.

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