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Remarkable biodiversity is visible everywhere in Costa Rica, and there’s always plenty to see no matter when you visit.
Split your time between the glistening coast—spotting whales, devil rays and baby turtles—and the amazing canopied national parks—marvelling at colourful birds, cheeky monkeys and tiny tree frogs. Here’s what to look for and when to see them.
Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world that has both two-toed and three-toed sloths. They live in trees all over the country. You just have to look up and look closely. They tend to blend in with branches and hang out high on the tallest trees. Manuel Antonio National Park never disappoints when it comes to spotting a lazing sloth.
Monkeys are also found throughout Costa Rica. Here are a few popular species and where you’ll be able to see them:
- Manuel Antonio National Park is the perfect place to see white-faced and squirrel monkeys all year round.
- You’ll likely hear a howler monkey before you see one. Nevertheless, you’re bound to spot a howler monkey if you visit Costa Rica’s national parks.
- Spider monkeys are most often seen in Manuel Antonio National Park and Corcovado National Parks throughout the year.
Humpback whales call the warm south Pacific waters home from mid-July to mid-November and from mid-December to April for their annual migration. Uvita is a great location to go whale watching, and it also happens to have a whale tail-shaped coast.
Take a boat tour out on the Pacific and watch calves (baby whales) being taught how to swim by their mothers. You can also take a dip in the Pacific yourself, as the waters there are warm all year round.
You may also be able to see dolphins while whale watching on the Pacific coast. They play in these waters throughout the year. The common dolphin species found in the Pacific are Risso’s, rough-toothed, spinner and striped. Whilst on the Caribbean, you can regularly spot costero and bottlenose dolphins.
Turtle nesting is one of the top must-see experiences in Costa Rica and truly magical. The most spectacular event is the arribada, which is the annual mass nesting of tens of thousands of sea turtles.
There are five different types of turtle species you may be able to see in Costa Rica: leatherback, green, olive ridley, hawksbill and loggerhead.
- Leatherback sea turtle: On the Caribbean, leatherback turtles nest from March to July. On the Pacific, they nest from September to March. Marino Las Baulas National Park is one of the best locations to see this endangered species.
- Green sea turtle: They nest from June to October along the North Caribbean. Tortuguero National Park is said to be the largest green turtle nesting site in the Western Hemisphere.
- Olive ridley sea turtle: Found along the Pacific coast, this species nests throughout the year. Although on many of the beaches, nesting is concentrated from July to November. Ostional National Wildlife Refuge is a particularly important nesting place for females.
- Hawksbill sea turtle: This rare, endangered species nests in Cahuita National Park in September and October and is often found foraging in the Golfo Dulce.
- Loggerhead sea turtle: A good location to see this species is in Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast from May to August.
There are more than 800 bird species in Costa Rica. Most tropical residents can be spotted all year, although there are some months when particular migratory species are more prevalent.
Millions of birds of prey—such as hawks, eagles, vultures, and owls—can be seen in the skies over Costa Rica’s Caribbean region in March and April and again in October and November. It’s said to be the second-largest avian migration on Earth.
Even if you’ve never thought about going bird watching, this is a must-do. Here are a few to keep your eyes out for:
- Quetzals: Many describe this as the most-attractive bird in Costa Rica. These small and cute birds have striking green and red colouring. However, their small size, camouflaged colours and very fast moves make them difficult to spot and even harder to capture on camera. The best place to find them is at Monteverde Cloud Forest and Los Quetzales National Park, which is located in the Pacific side from the Talamanca Mountain Range. The best time to see them is from mid-February to May on avocado trees.
- Hummingbirds: There is 50 different species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica. They typically nest during the dry season months of December through April. Therefore, they may be more reclusive during these months.
- Scarlet macaw: This species was nearly extinct in Costa Rica. Due to the country’s efforts in sustainability and protection of national parks, macaws are growing in population. You can now hear their distinctive sound as they fly across the sky in pairs. They can be seen on the Osa Peninsula and around the Carara Biological Reserve.
The largest lizard species in Central America, an adult green iguana can reach six feet in length. On a hot day, you will find iguanas on the ground catching some rays. Ecolodges are the best places to spot them – they may walk right by you while you’re having lunch!
8. Tree frogs
Costa Rica is famous for its tree frogs, which can be found throughout the year. It’s particularly easy to spot them in the lowland rainforests of Tortuguero National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park and in the cooler regions of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. They are small in size but excellent jumpers and climbers. And despite what some people think, they’re not poisonous.
9. Devil rays
Keep your eyes above water to spot devil rays. Really! With acrobatic jumps, they seem to “fly” out of the water and twirl before splashing back in. These impressive appearances often surprise passengers of boats navigating the northwest Pacific coast at the beginning of the dry season, between December and February.
In Costa Rica you don’t have to go looking for butterflies — they’re everywhere! Around 18% of the world’s butterfly species can be found in Costa Rica, as well as 90% of the species that are found in Central America. Many national parks have butterfly houses with many species of butterflies that will eat mango and pineapple from your hands.
The blue morpho is the most famous butterfly in Costa Rica. You will most likely see its huge, vibrant blue wings fly right past you. It’s one of the largest in the world, with a wingspan of 20 centimetres (8 inches).
Wildlife in Costa Rica
Experience Costa Rica’s tropical wilderness on this amazing 12 day journey. Discover some of the country’s highlights including the iconic Arenal Volcano and spot some amazing wildlife such as leatherback turtles, sloths, monkeys, the famous quetzal bird and over 200 other kinds of bird species.