Sleepy sloths, rainbow-hued birds, humpback whales and turtles barely scratch the surface of the huge array of widlife in Costa Rica. Here's all the animals you can expect to see...
Sleepy sloths cling to high branches, dazzling birdlife flits through the canopy, humpback whales breed in tropical waters, giant turtles clamber up beaches to lay eggs, and dense rainforests sustain emerald-green frogs, giant lizards and noisy howler monkeys… And that’s just a handful of Costa Rica’s wildlife.
Spotting extraordinary animals is a daily pleasure and easy to do here; it’s the main reason many visitors come. The country proudly shelters approximately 6.5% of the existing biodiversity in the world.
In fact, with 29 national parks covering a quarter of the country and coast, Costa Rica takes conservation seriously. This makes it one of the best countries to see wonderful wildlife in truly natural settings.
The trick to seeing these slow-moving hairy mammals is to look up. They live high in trees, hanging upside down from branches by their sharp curved claws, munching leaves and snoozing, only coming down once a week to pop to the toilet. Costa Rica is rare in having both two-toed and three-toed sloths – just count the claws to tell the difference.
Us visitors love them for their unthreatening speed, smiley-looking mouths and slow-blinking eyes. They live all over Costa Rica, but a stroll through Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast should lead to successful sloth spotting.
The first time you’re woken by the booming roars and shouts of howler monkeys in Costa Rica is when you really know you’re in jungle territory. Staying in eco-lodges or family-run accommodation on the edge of the parks is the best way to immerse yourself. Once there, you can explore the parks with guides, wildlife-spotting by boat in Tortuguero on the east, for example, or by foot in Manuel Antonio Park on the west.
Alongside howler monkeys, you're also likely to see capuchin, squirrel, and spider: tick all four species off in Corcovado National Park. Watching their easy agility, swinging through the trees sometimes with a baby clinging on, is mesmerising.
Costa Rica lives by the phrase pura vida, or the pure life. This isn’t just a saying in Costa Rica, but an entire way of being. Because of pura vida, Costa Rica is a safe, welcoming country and the locals take every opportunity to live life to the full. No wonder Costa Rica has been recognised as one of the most positive and happy countries in the world.
Marino Ballena National Park (ballena meaning whale) is the obvious starting point for whale-watching excursions in Costa Rica. From August-September and December-March endangered humpbacks arrive; the huge marine mammals migrate to give birth in these warm Pacific waters.
There’s even an annual whale festival in the village of Uvita to welcome them in August. Mothers and calves stay close to the coast and boat operators will take you to see the young learning to swim proficiently as they grow. People can also swim – take a tropical dip off the whale-tail shaped beach near Uvita, where there’s also kayaking and paddleboard hire.
Many people travel to Costa Rica primarily to see the turtles' nesting ritual of digging, laying and burying their eggs on the beach – not easy with flippers. It’s always best to watch them with official guides, so as not to spook these peaceful creatures. Lodges will book you on a local tour.
The four turtle species here are leatherback – the largest, which love to eat jellyfish (nests March-July on the Caribbean; Sept-March on the Pacific), green – the only herbivore (nests June-Oct North Caribbean – see them in Tortuguero National Park), olive ridleys – the most abundant species, named for their olive colour (nests all year on the Pacific coast), and the critically endangered hawksbill (nests Sept-Oct in Cahuita National Park on the Caribbean).
The wealth of activities on offer in Costa Rica is amazing. From exploring the tropical rainforests and national parks on foot to rafting along fast-moving rivers, you’ll never be short of outdoor adventures.
Bird watchers dream of seeing the fabulously vibrant year-round birdlife of Costa Rica. There are more bird species here than anywhere else in the world – 900 in total. Everyone loves spotting joyful keel-billed toucans with their emerald, orange and red bills, though the most exotic bird has to be the resplendent quetzal: small with iridescent green and red colouring and showy long tail feathers.
Find them in the Monteverde Cloud Forest and Los Quetzales National Park between February and May. Hopefully you’ll see tiny flitting hummingbirds, and bright scarlet macaws with their vivid red, blue and yellow plumage, and whose distinctive screech alerts you to where to look. See them on the Osa Peninsula and Carara National Park.
These dinosaur-like gentle giants are common in Costa Rica. Almost every jungle lodge has a semi-resident green iguana – they love to sunbathe by swimming pools and in the gardens of rainforest lodges (they know the good life when they find it), sometimes climbing into tree branches at night.
They’re the largest lizard in Central America: an adult green iguana can reach nearly two metres and live around 20 years, simply eating leaves, flowers, vegetables and fruits.
Costa Rica has not had an army since December 1948, emphasising just how peaceful and democratic the country is.
There’s nothing quite like zipping along in a boat while a pod of dolphins swims alongside, arcing in and out of the water at breakneck speed. They’re around all year, but the best place to spot them is on the Pacific Coast on a whale-watching trip.
Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is home to bottlenose, Risso’s dolphins, rough-toothed, spinner and striped, while on the Caribbean side you can find costero and bottlenose dolphins.
The astonishing-looking red-eyed tree frog was once the cover star of a BBC Life on Earth book from an early David Attenborough series. No wonder: this bug-eyed jumping amphibian is famously strange-looking, with bulging red eyes, a green body and outside bright-orange feet.
Although people assume its startling appearance means its poisonous, it’s actually harmless. A guide will help you spot them in the humid rainforests of Tortuguero National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
The sun-drenched beaches. Unwind after a long day of exploring Costa Rica’s national parks and wildlife spotting with a trip to the beach. Whether you choose the colbat blue view from the Caribbean shoreline or watch surfers from the sands that fringe the Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica’s many beaches are the perfect places to relax.
These huge flying fish provide a brilliant spectacle by propelling themselves out of the sea, flapping their giant ray wings to sail through the air before plunging below the waves again. With some growing to a vast 5m, they’re one of the largest rays on the planet, sometimes swimming in schools of thousands. It’s not certain why they perform acrobatics, but one good place to spot them is the protected waters around the Bat Islands.
Want a tropical butterfly to eat mango and pineapple from your hands? Head for a butterfly conservation centre. From near the Arenal volcano to the butterfly centre of San José, they are dotted around the country.
But of course, you can also see fluttering beauties everywhere in the wild. The blue morpho is the most famous with its huge azure 20cm wingspan. Costa Rica is home to 1,200 butterfly varieties, including 18% of the world’s butterfly species and 90% of Central America’s species.
Costa Rica boasts an abundance of unique wildlife and landscapes. In fact, 26% of the country is composed of protected areas, which shelter 6.5% of all existing biodiversity in the whole world.
How to get there: Since BA launched their direct flight to Costa Rica in 2016, the country is now more accessible than ever. Indirect flights are also available into San Jose with Air France, KLM, Delta, United, Air Canada and more.
How to get around: Costa Rica is a perfect destination for a road trip. Hire a car and easily explore from the mountains and beaches to the coffee plantations and rainforests.
When to visit: Anytime. Costa Rica is a year-round destination with a consistent warm and tropical climate.
Where to stay: Costa Rica has accommodation to suit all budgets and styles of trip. Choose from luxury boutique lodges to international hotel chains, as well as small locally-owned bed and breakfast style properties.
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