Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Planet Earth > the Americas > Costa Rica

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Nature Travel Guide

Wildlife of Costa Rica (The Americas)

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.

Rainforest, cloud forest, mangrove and mountains with large areas protected as national parks.

Play Costa Rica Birdwatching Bingo as you explore.

My favourite locations are Sarapiqui and the Osa Peninsula. Both have large areas of lowland forest with high population densities of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects.

Costa Rica has beaches with palm trees, macaws flying overhead and hummingbirds feeding from the flowers. Head inland to find forest full of wildlife. Down the centre of the country is a line of mountains which includes volcanoes and the famous cloud forest. Cloud forest is very photogenic but there is less wildlife because the higher altitude means less plant productivity creating less food for animals to eat.

A national pride in the wildlife and vast areas of protected national parks makes Costa Rica a popular destination for wildlife watchers. If you pick any random spot there will be things to see but going to a protected area, preferably on the edge of one of the large forests, will mean you see a lot more.

In my experience, single-location wildlife holidays seem much rarer than in other countries. This might be because of a general lack of footpaths away from ecolodges and national parks reducing the options. Undergrowth grows very fast on the equator so the need for very intensive, continuous path maintenance is one of the likely reasons.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
I took this photo of a male Violaceous Trogon in the forest on the Osa Peninsula.

Costa Rica is a world famous wildlife tourism destination. In my opinion there are many good reasons for this and it is a great place to visit.


There are a lot of "ecolodges" in Costa Rica. They are relatively expensive, but if you are only staying for a couple of weeks (and depending on your budget) you might use them for some or all of your trip. In general I have mentioned the main ecolodges. However, there are lots more and my top-tip would be to simply do an internet search as they generally have good websites. Also, you can look at the itineraries of the main birdwatching holiday companies and see where they go. If you go in the "green season" (so called because it rains a lot) there are a lot of good offers (often things like 3 nights for the price of 2) so that could be a good time to go. I have visited at this time and did not lose that many days to rain.

I found Hostel Casa del Parque http://www.hostelcasadelparque.com to be a good, quiet hostel in San Jose and a useful base for doing day trips.

In Costa Rica if you want local, budget accommodation (which in 2017 still generally needed to be booked over the phone in Spanish) you might search online for "cabinas". These are a common form of budget accommodation in Costa Rica.

It is not necessary to stay on campsites to keep the price down in Costa Rica. Prices in 2013 were approximately $4 on a campsite which was not much less than cheap local hotels or travellers hostels. Many of the National Parks have camping facilities which offer adventurous wildlife watchers confident enough to book in Spanish the chance to get close to the wildlife. So, this really is worth considering if you like camping. To camp in Corcovado National Park you need to hire a guide and this may be the case for some other national parks as well as this is an increasing trend in Central and Southern America.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
The Tropical Kingbird is a colourful species of flycatcher seen all over Costa Rica. They often sit on a perch watching intently for an insect to fly past.

Wildlife of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is near the equator with high rainfall and long hours of sunlight. This means plants and animals are abundant. For this reason alone (combined with the excellent tourist infrastructure including lots of dedicated wildlife tourism) it is a very good place to visit.

I think that the countries near Costa Rica are also excellent for wildlife. For example, in the south of Costa Rica the forest continues into Panama with ecolodges offering very similar wildlife watching.

Costa Rica is probably most famous for its well preserved, large forests. In my opinion they should be the main focus of a wildlife-watching trip to Costa Rica. They are generally large enough to support higher predators such as wild cats (including Ocelot, Puma and Jaguar) which are almost impossible to see for a visitor but indicate that in general the forests are in great condition and worth visiting. The famous "cloud forests" are at a higher altitude and beautiful places, however they have less wildlife than the forests that are at lower elevations such as Braulio Carrillo (in the Sarapiqui location), Carara and Corcovado. Costa Ricans care about their forests and compared to other countries I am impressed by the large national parks.

Costa Rica is also famous for sea turtles that come onto the beaches to lay their eggs. Leatherback, Green, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill Sea Turtles can be seen. On the north Pacific coast July through March can be good, on the south Pacific coast try August to March and on the Caribbean coast try April to October.

Costa Rica is famous for its Morpho butterflies. They are large butterflies with bright blue in the wings. Morpho is the genus name and there are in fact 50 or so different species of Morpho butterfly. I do not try to identify them to species and just enjoy the spectacle. Morpho butterflies can be seen all over the country and in most habitats. I typically see 2 or 3 every day. The only places I do not usually see them are high elevations, agricultural areas and urban areas.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
I think the most common bird that I see in the winter is the Chestnut-sided Warbler. However, they are quite small and if I do not have my binoculars I see birds such as Great Kiskadee more.

There are 742 species of bird to be found in Costa Rica (ignoring vagrants, very rare birds and birds that cannot be realistically identified with current identification guides). In terms of numbers of species and the size of the country this is one of the best places in the world to go birdwatching. In my experience, Costa Rica is well-known with birdwatchers throughout the world.

To give an idea of how good Costa Rica is for birds, this is a list of all the species I saw in 30 minutes watching a small patch of trees and flowers from a hotel balcony in the middle of the town of San Vito:- (I also saw unidentified tanagers, warblers and a wren.) Black-mandibled Toucan, Cherrie's Tanager, Buff-breasted Saltator, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Red-lored Parrot, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Tenessee Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Clay-coloured Robin, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Mourning Warbler.

Mammals generally require larger areas to live. For this reason the extended protected areas of Costa Rica are very good for mammals. Monkeys are a highlight for many visitors and they can sometimes be seen begging for food near tourist areas and are a relatively common sight throughout the rural areas. My personal preference is to see monkeys in wild places (such as nature reserves) where they behave more naturally and are exciting to watch. Coati (medium-sized scavengers with long tails) and agouti (rodent-like mammals approximately the size of rabbits) are two of the other more common mammals that can be seen all over the country and in lots of different habitats including some urban areas. Peccaries (a type of wild pig) and raccoons can also be seen depending on where you are. Finally, rarer mammals such as tapir and wild cats might be seen if you are very lucky (with slightly less luck needed if you go to a "hotspot" such as the coastal section of Corcovado).

"The Mammals of Costa Rica" by Mark Wainwright is my recommended identification guide for mammals. I find it an interesting read and also easy to flick-through if I am trying to identify a mammal from its appearance. Because there are not too many species of mammal it is also possible to manage without an identification guide; You could just use the information boards, books at your accommodation and the internet to find out what you have seen in a particular day. However, if you have the space in your luggage it is nice to have a group of animals that you can fairly confidently identify with just one guide.

The climate and high productivity of the plantlife makes insects very common. Because it is warm they also grow to relatively large sizes. Seeing large insects such as grasshoppers, beetles and ants is one of the highlights of a visit to Costa Rica. You have to really keep your eye open for them perched/hiding in vegetation or on the ground.

Reptiles are impressive in Costa Rica. Lizards often grow to over a metre in length and are particularly common in trees and around streams/rivers. There are many species but you can get away with calling the large ones in trees "iguanas" and the ones by water "basilisks" and you are not far wrong! My personal favourite is actually the smaller lizards that sometimes have incredible camouflage.

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Epiphytes are common in the forests nearer the equator. They are plants that live on trees and rely on the rain and any moisture and soil on the tree for nutrients. This is different from being parasatic so they do not necessarily take energy directly from the tree.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
Tent-making bats chew large leaves in a line near the stem to make the two sides of the leaf collapse and form a tent. They can vary their roost sites from day-to-day. I occasionally spot them when out hiking in the forest.

Finding Monkeys in Forest

Monkeys are tricky to find but with experience you can see them more often. The key is to notice the slight movements of branches, sounds and the pitter-patter of feeding debris falling from the tops of trees. After acclimatising to the "sounds of the day" (meaning listening and watching carefully for the first 30 minutes-or-so to get used to the natural noises the forest is making) I find I can start picking out when there is something unusual. I will then stop and wait for up to 5 minutes even if I don't hear anything else. Animals that make similar noises include squirrels and aracaris.

Monkeys often move very slowly, eating as they go. This means that a few minutes can pass before they move to an open spot. Once in view I can usually then follow them (perhaps with my binoculars) even once they are behind lots of leaves again. The key is spotting them initially.

Some groups of monkeys are louder and, with a bit of luck, this means you can spot them much more easily. For example, in Costa Rica I find White-throated Capuchin Monkeys to be the easiest to find as they are noisy eaters. It can also be easier to see monkeys near well-used paths or towns because these monkeys are often used to humans. They may even sneak up to steal food!

Many people will claim that the monkeys always see you first. In my experience this is only true if you are in a large group and/or making a lot of noise. I once watched a group of monkeys for about 5 minutes before one of them looked at me with complete surprise and immediately told the other monkeys in the group that I was there: they obviously had no idea I had been watching them. Is it worth the effort to look for monkeys in more remote areas of forest where they are more difficult to find? I would say yes because I feel like I am seeing more naturalised behaviours and I find it more exciting.

This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on June 2017.

Larger-scale information relating this page include the Planet Earth and the Americas articles.

Even more articles including detailed site descriptions, illustrated wildlife-watching activities, self-guided walks, itinerary recommendations, birdwatching overviews and mammal-watching overviews are available in the premium eBooks.

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