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Where, when and what kind of animal?
Where can you see the most famous animal species in Costa Rica? When and how are you most likely to spot your favorite wildlife? In many cases you will encounter special animals at unexpected places and unexpected moments, for example while driving a car. But there are animals that you will only spot if you go to specific places at the right time and know where to search.
Costa Rica could be called an open zoo and animals are not only to be found in nature reserves. The country has 250 species of mammals, 440 reptiles and amphibians, 922 species of birds, 2,000 butterflies and about 14,000 moths. Check our Activity Calendar to get an impression of where and when you can best spot certain animals. We'd be happy to help you creating together a trip that gives you the best chance of seeing your favorite animals in the wild.
Whales and dolphins
Whale watching is best in the south on the Pacific coast: in the area around Caño Island, at the Marino Ballena Natural Park, at the Golfo Dulce and along the coast of Corcovado. The Humpback whale is the most famous whale species. The whales come every year (in two different periods) to Costa Rican waters to mate and give birth. A group of whales comes from the North (from the West Coast of the US) in the months of December-March with a peak in February. The other group comes from South America in the months July-October with a peak in September.
Several dolphin species live close to the coast of Costa Rica and are therefore easy to spot. The best chance to spot dolphins is on the South Pacific coast. You can also spot dolphins along the Northern Pacific coast and on the Caribbean coast, especially the Southern part. The best time to see dolphins is during the dry months from December to mid-April.
Sea turtles can be seen on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The most impressive encounter is when they come ashore to lay their eggs. Of the 6 species of sea turtles that come to Costa Rican beaches, 3 are best known: the Green Turtle, the Leather Turtle and the Olive Ridley Turtle.
The Olive Ridley is mainly to be seen on the Northern Pacific coast, between July and December with a peak in August, September and October. Then the largest 'arribadas' take place in Nancite and Ostional: thousands of turtles come ashore simultaneously to lay their eggs. Smaller numbers also come to the entire South Pacific coast from August to November.
The Green Turtle can be seen in the Caribbean Coast, like the National Park Tortuguero in the months July-November.
The Leatherback turtle can be seen in the Las Baulas National Park (on the Pacific coast) during the season that starts in October and lasts until February. This turtle can also be seen on the Caribbean coast between March and June in Gandoca Manzanillo, at the mouth of the Pacuare River and in Tortuguero. There is also a chance to see baby turtles born during a night tour. This includes the Olive Ridley in Ostional, the Leather Turtle on both coasts and the Green Turtle in Parismina.
Costa Rica is home to 4 species of monkeys. The Squirrel monkey, the Capuchin monkey, the Howler monkey and the Spider monkey. The best place to spot the four species of monkeys is Corcovado. Monkeys are best spotted by checking strange movements in trees.
Squirrel monkeys live on the South Pacific coast (between Manuel Antonio and Corcovado).
Capuchin monkeys live throughout the country.
Howler monkeys live in different areas of the country and are almost unmissable. Most of the chance to encounter them you have in the North West. Areas like the canals of Parismina and nature reserve La Selva are good places to see the howler monkey. The howler monkey also lives in Guanacaste (Santa Rosa and Rincón de la Vieja), Palo Verde, Arenal and along the South of the Pacific and Caribbean coast.
Spider monkeys are found in in many areas, mainly in Rincón de la Vieja, Tortuguero and Corcovado.
Caymans and crocodiles
These reptiles live in rivers along the coast, in mangroves and in the lowlands (San Carlos; North of the country). The Tárcoles river is the best place to spot crocodiles. From the bridge that crosses this river (part of the Costanera Sur motorway) you can see dozens of large crocodiles underneath you. Especially during the dry period (January-April) or when there is no undercurrent on both sides of the river. The mangroves of Sierpe in the south of the country, Barra del Colorado on the Caribbean coast, Río Blanco near Caño Negro and the canals of Tortuguero also offer plenty options to spot caimans and crocodiles.
Costa Rica has 2 species of sloths: the Three-toed Sloth and the Two-toed Sloth. The Two-toed is more active at night and the Three-toed is easier to find in movement during the day. Both species can be spotted in many places in the country, including along the canals of Parismina, near Cahuita and Santa Elena. Undoubtedly, the southern Pacific coast is one of the best places to see the Two-toed Sloth. Playa Matapalo (35 km south of Manuel Antonio) has a fairly large population of this species.
Butterflies and moths
Butterflies that are active during the day can be found all year round, but are especially active in the dry months; from January to April. Certain species can only be spotted in the rainforest. The best known species, such as the Blue Morpho, can be found in landscaped gardens or a corresponding piece of jungle of many hotels. The beautiful Owl Butterfly you see mainly at dusk. One of the species Morpho butterflies, perhaps the most beautiful butterfly of the rainforest (reflecting almost turquoise blue wings), is usually seen in primary rainforest, especially early in the morning. If you are a butterfly lover, you don't necessarily have to visit a butterfly garden.
It is also worth mentioning that the largest migration of a tropical butterfly species takes place over Costa Rica. This is the moth Urania fulgens. It is striking that the moth flies during the day during its migration. This moth has a black/green metallic color.
Costa Rica can easily be called a frog country because it has 220 species. There are so-called frog farms where you can see frogs in cubicles, but nothing beats spotting animals in their natural habitat. The brightly coloured frogs and the poison dart species attract the most attention.
Perhaps the most photographed frog species in the world is the Red-Eyed Tree frog. Images of this frog species, which symbolizes Costa Rica, can be found everywhere. This tree frog can be spotted in many places in the country. The best chances are in the rainy season from May to December, on the Southern Pacific coast, Caribbean coast and in Sarapiquí.
The poison dart species; the Strawberry (or Blue Jeans) frog and the Green and Black poison frog are also listed as most beautiful Costa Rican frogs.
One of the most special frogs of Costa Rica is perhaps the Glass Frog. The name says it all; by its partly transparent skin you can see the intestines through the belly wall. They live in trees, near rivers and are active at night. There is one frog species that is only found on the Osa Península (Corcovado). This is the Phyllobates vittatus and the most poisonous species of Costa Rica.
Not only in the rainy season you can spot frogs. They can always be found near rivers in the rainforest and especially near pools. These are the most ideal places to see different species together, both at night and during the day. You can spot frogs all year round but during the rainy season the chances of success are greatest. When spotting frogs it is also important to know what to look at and what to listen to. For example, you often find the Blue Jeans frog in Bromeliads and it sounds more like a bird than a croaking frog.
Costa Rica have 920 species of birds. Parrots, Toucans, Hummingbirds and Quetzals are the bird species that rank highest for birding. But the following species should certainly not be missing from the list: the Motmot, the Tanagers, the Montezuma Oropéndola the King Vulture and the Spectacled Owl. Depending on the species you want to see, you can choose to visit certain areas.
Actually, you will see birds all over the country. La Selva and its surroundings, Palo Verde, and Carara South Pacific coast are locations where you can spot many different species. In the high mountains; the cloud forests of Monteverde and Cerro de la Muerte (San Gerardo de Dota) you will find various Trogons and Hummingbirds, including the Quetzal, according to many the most beautiful bird of Costa Rica. This bird lives in Monteverde, Cerro de la Muerte, Chirripó and Las Tablas. In the months March-April this bird lives in lowland areas to breed, making it easier to spot.
The Palo Verde and Caño Negro nature reserves are the best places to see migratory birds, especially waterfowl, in January and March. In Caño Negro you can see the beautiful Jabirú, Ibis, Spoonbill and Heron species.
Of the 6 species of Toucans, 3 are the best known; the Swainsons Toucan is the most seen species and is easy to spot on the Pacific coast, the Sulfur Breast Toucan is to spot in the Caribbean (including Tortuguero) and the colorful Fiery-billed Aracari. The toucan is most seen in the Southern Pacific coastal area.
Hummingbirds (52 species): they are found in all regions where Into Nature travels, from coast and lowlands to the high mountains. Hummingbirds reproduce at different times of the year.
Photographing hummingbirds takes a lot of patience. A good place to wait is at flowers with honey, like at heliconia plants.
Macaws (20 species): some species are green and small, and breed in the hems months. The best known and most popular macaw is the Red Ara (Scarlet Macaw). They are mainly seen on the Osa peninsula, around Uvita and in and near National Park Carara. The Green Ara (Green Macaw) can be seen in the northwest of the country: Sarapiquí, San Carlos and Boca Tapada.
Along slow flowing rivers, in mangroves and coastal areas live large waders and other water birds such as the pink Spoonbill, white Ibis, Stork, Black-bellied duck and the large but rare Jabirú. An excellent place to spot water birds is Caño Negro nature reserve, especially from December to May. Costa Rica's heron species include the Cattle Egret, the Tiger Heron and the special Boat-billed heron.
Costa Rica has 143 species of snakes of which 23 are poisonous. On the Caribbean coast and the south of the Pacific coast you are most likely to encounter snakes. Popular are the poisonous Eyelash Pit viper and Fer de Lance, and the Boa's.
Costa Rica has 6 species of cats; the Jaguarundi, the Puma, the Jaguar, the Tiger Cat or Oncilla, the Margay and the Ocelot. With the exception of Jaguarundi, all species are active at night. Spotting these animals is difficult to organize in Costa Rica. It depends entirely on being in the right place at the right time. In natural park Corcovado you have the greatest chance to encounter a feline. Sometimes you can see paw prints, even those of the jaguar, on the paths and/or on the beach. A feline animal is territorial and often uses the same route, pees at the same place and visits the same water source to drink. Next to Corcovado, nature parks La Amistad, Tortuguero and Nancite are regions where cats live in nature.
Other mammals that are special to spot are the tapir, anteater, boar, nose bear and agouti.
Known and interesting are the leafcutter ants, rhino beetles, luminous beetles, metallic beetles, bird spiders and cicadas that synchronize their singing. One dragonfly, the Megaloprepus caerulatus is one of the largest and most beautiful dragonflies in the world. Unfortunately it is very difficult to spot, this dragonfly is only found in deep primary rainforest.
Some tips for wildlife watching in Costa Rica:
- The chance to spot animals depends on a number of factors; the population of the species, the season (including mating season), food sources, the position of the moon, the area, the behaviour, the time of day and of course your own behaviour.
- Many day animals are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. The moment the sun is about to rise or dusk is the best time to spot animals; day animals are still active and nocturnal animals appear. Most nocturnal animals are active between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. and day animals between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. With full moon there is even more activity at night.
- The best advice is to be as invisible as possible. Do not wear brightly coloured clothing and/or strong perfume. Make sure animals can’t hear you, almost all animals are afraid of humans and hide when they see humans.
- Nice information material to use when spotting animals are the laminated A4's with animal pictures. These are for sale in most souvenir shops (for example at National Parks) and at the receptions of some major hotels.
- Binoculars and magnifying glasses are always useful.
- A good guide immensely increases the chance of seeing wild animals. A frog that sounds like a bird, animals with camouflage colors that you would never see yourself and holes of spiders that are in one place for years: without a guide you wouldn't be able to spot them.
Into Nature Team