If you’re a nature lover, you will absolutely adore Costa Rica. They carry 5% of the world’s biodiversity and it is a birdwatchers, animal lovers, plant lovers, insect lovers, anything to do with nature lover’s heaven.
Whether you want to go whale watching, observe sloths or study insects, Costa Rica has all that and more. You can create a vacation focusing on just wildlife watching alone!
You can find wildlife of all shapes and colors here, from the spectacular macaws to the majestic whales. It’s small enough of a country that you can be watching giant sea turtles at the beach and then in a few hours spot wild boars in the jungle.
So if you’re coming to Costa Rica to see some wildlife, read on to see where you can see some of the most popular animals.
When and Where to See Costa Rica Wildlife
Which animal would you like to see first?
I will be referring to this map so you can use it as reference when I’m talking about the different provinces.
You can see a variety of different whale species in Costa Rica on the Pacific side such as sperm whale, blue whale, and sei whales.
However, the prized whale to see is the humpback whale since Costa Rica has the longest humpback whale viewing season in the world. Humpback whales from both the Antarctica and Alaska overlap for a period of time in Costa Rica during their migration.
It’s fairly common to see mom and baby during the beginning of the season as they are rearing and feeding their young. If you’re lucky to see one, they put on some pretty spectacular shows as they’re playing around in the water but make sure not to get in the water with them as they are protected.
Best time to go whale watching:
Antarctica humpback whales – July to Nov
California humpback whales – Dec to April
North Atlantic humpback whales – Dec to March
In the months of Oct to Nov, the early birds and late risers overlap
Best places for whale watching: Drake Bay: South Puntarenas, northern region of the Osa Peninsula
Drake Bay is one of the most isolated places in Costa Rica so you can either take a domestic flight or you can take a boat ride from nearby Sierpe. There are a few tour companies that operate whale and dolphin watching tours that you can enjoy.
During the months of Aug – Nov, you will be sure to see humpback whales in Caño Island and the Corcovado area as well.
Parque Nacional Marino Ballena: Located in Puntarenas, 16 km south of Dominical and 180 km SW of San Jose
There’s a reason why this is called the Whale National Park, this is one of the best places to see humpback whales. You can take a boat tour to Isla Ballena (Whale Island) and there are many tour companies operating here.
This park also has the largest coral reef on the Pacific side of C. America so the marine life here is astounding.
There are a few more places along the Central and North Pacific to go whale watching. We saw humpback whales in the Gulf of Papagayo in the North but it is not quite as common as the South Pacific. In Nicoya, the two best beaches are Tambor and Pochote.
Dolphins sightings are fairly common in Costa Rica, especially on the Pacific side. You can see all different species of dolphin from spotted to bottlenose and they are very playful.
Sometimes you’ll see them swimming alongside the boat or even next to you while kayaking!
Best time to see them: Year round. Many species such as bottle nose and spotted make Costa Rica their home 12 months a year so you have a good chance to see them.
If you want to see the spinner or common dolphin, they pass by Costa Rica from Dec – March and are not seen as much the rest of the year.
Best place to go dolphin watching: Same places as the whales except you have equal opportunity along the whole Pacific coast. On the Caribbean side, you have a chance to see bottlenose dolphins near Limon.
Many whale watching tours combine whale watching and dolphin watching since the two are commonly seen in the same waters. Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay, Quepos and Manuel Antonio, Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, Manzanillo, Nicoya Peninsula and Gulf of Papagayo. We have seen several times groups of bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Papagayo!
Costa Rica is famous for their sea turtle conservation work since it is a haven for these impressive creatures to come and lay their eggs.
Sea turtle population has been declining at an alarming rate the past few years, especially the hawkbill who only have about 8,000 nesting females left in the wild. Many people steal turtle eggs to sell, poach turtles for parts and sold as souvenirs. Turtle reproduction is fairly slow since they don’t become sexually mature for years and years, some not until they are 40 years old.
In Costa Rica, the turtles are highly protected here and hunting them for food or any other reason is not allowed. Only in special situations the governments allows for the citizens to collect eggs. Costa Rica has designated certain sites for a turtle refuge and exist solely to conserve and help these sea turtles.
Best time to see sea turtles: Some turtles are present all year long. You can see sea turtles on both the Caribbean and Pacific.
- Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, Leatherback sea turtle and Pacific Green sea turtle – all year long
- Leatherback sea turtles – Feb to July
- Atlantic green sea turtles – June to Nov
Best places to see sea turtles: If you want to volunteer in helping these sea turtles, there are lots of organizations that do this. Majority of them are volunteer programs that you will have to pay for as it helps cover lodging, food, salaries and other costs to keep these programs running.
We have seen lots of turtles out in the Gulf of Papagayo – one swam right towards me at Coco beach!
Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas
This national park was established in 1990 to protect turtles from poachers. You can see them on Playa Grande in Oct – May laying their eggs. You have to reserve in advance for a spot and it is for turtle viewing only.
Find more information about it here.
If you want to help out with conservation or research, you will have to join an organization.
Tortuguero National Park
This national park is in the northeast corner of Limon in Costa Rica and this beach is one of the most important for the endangered green turtle nesting sites in the Western Hemisphere. Turtles come here from the months of July to October to hatch their eggs.
Over 2,500 turtles are usually tagged each season which is a big increase from ten years ago. This site is one of the most important for sea turtle egg hatching. You can go on a viewing tour or volunteer here as well.
Santa Rosa National Park
This national park is in Guanacaste and is the oldest in the province. There are two beaches in this park that are the most important for sea turtle nesting, Naranjo and Nancite.
You can see in one night, hundreds of turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs and it is one of two sites where the Pacific Ridley sea turtles pass through in Costa Rica.
Ostional Wildlife Refuge
This park is also located in Guanacaste and is a major nesting ground for the Olive Ridley turtle. You can pay for a tour to go with a guide (highly recommended) and you’ll go after 6 pm since turtles come at night.
The best time to come see the turtles on shore is during arribadas (the last quarter moon of each month during green season).
These are the main national parks where you can view turtles and volunteer but there are many more places.
Osa Peninsula and Corcovado: Many of the beaches are nesting sites for 3 species of turtles.
Camaronal Wildlife Refuge: Located south of Samara in Guanacaste. 3 species come here to nest between May – Nov.
Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge: Located on the south Caribbean coast. Leatherback turtles nest here from March – May.
Cahuita National Park:On the Atlantic coast in Limon. 4 species of turtle nest are here between July – Oct, March – July and nest from Feb- May.
Finca Baru Wildlife Refuge: Located on the South Pacific coast. Is a nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles from July – Nov.
These guys are so cute! And they are usually the highlight of a trip to Costa Rica. These guys are a bit hard to see out in the wild however since they blend in so well with their surroundings so look hard! There are 5 species that live in Costa Rica, and the main ones are the two-toed and three-toed.
Sloths are unable to survive outside the tropical rainforests of C. and S. America but they do astonishingly well inside. A couple species however are endangered or critically endangered since they live most of their lives in the trees eating leaves among other things. Deforestation has become one of the main reasons for their decline in S. America.
Best time to see them: All year long. Rainy season better than dry season since all the trees and flora flourish during this time.
Best places to see them: There are sanctuaries you can visit and many national parks where they live on both sides of the country.
This famous sanctuary has been featured on Animal Planet and they work hard to help and educate people about sloths. They are located in Limon, near Cahuita and you can go there to visit for the day or you can apply to be a volunteer.
They accept volunteer applications for people who want to stay with them and work. This does cost money to cover lodging, food and other costs but you get hands on experience taking care of the sloths.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
The Santa Elena cloud forests in Puntarenas are a great place to see sloths. If you want to see them in the wild, it is best to hire a guide since they hard to see. You can be walking under a whole family and never notice! There are also a couple wildlife reserves in Monteverde that you can visit to see sloths and other animals.
Manuel Antonio National Park
In Manuel Antonio National Park in Puntarenas, there are a couple tours that you can book where they will take you wildlife watching. The forests here are much more lush and a more suitable habitat for sloths than the dry heat in Northern Guanacaste. You can see both two and three toed sloths in Manuel Antonio and is one of the prime spots to see sloths in the wild.
Corcovado National Park
This national park is also located in Puntarenas and is considered one of the most biologically diverse places on earth (according to Nat Geo!) It is fairly common to be able to spot these guys out in the wild and you can book a tour and go with a guide.
These national parks are the top places to see sloths but of course there are other places you can see them too.
Santa Rosa National Park – Located in Northern Guanacaste
San Jose – Capital of Costa Rica, even in the outskirts of the city sloths live in the trees
La Selva Biological Station – Located in Puerto Viejo
Four different species of monkeys are found in Costa Rica: White-throated Capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys and spider monkeys. The spider monkey is endangered and two species of squirrel monkey are listed as vulnerable. The howler monkey population has been declining the past few years due to deforestation and electrocution by power lines.
Best time to see them: All year round
Best places to see them:
Corcovado National Park as mentioned earlier is a biological diversity hotspot and is the only park where you can find all four species of monkeys here. You can find the white face, spider and howler monkeys at the Santa Rosa National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest, San Jose and La Selva Biological station.
Howler monkeys are extremely common here in Guanacaste and in Coco you can see them hanging out in the trees just walking in downtown. We used to have a couple families for neighbors! Howler monkeys are the loudest land animal so if you can’t see them, you’ll definitely hear them!
Squirrel monkeys are only found in the southern part of Costa Rica such as Corcovado and Manuel Antonio National Park. Many national parks have wildlife watching tours so it is recommended to hire a tour guide to spot the less seen ones such as the squirrel monkeys.
Birdwatchers, get out your binoculars! 6 different species of toucans are found in the rainforests of Costa Rica. The chestnut mandibled toucan is the largest of the six and all can be seen in the tropical and subtropical forests.
Where you can toucans, you can also see macaws as the two birds commonly found in the same areas.
Best time to see them: All year long
Best places to see them: These colorful creatures are a very important part of the rainforest ecosystem and being so flashy, it is fairly easy to spot them while hiking in the national parks.
Carara National Park
Carara National Park in Puntarenas is a great place to see the toucans since it has more primary rainforest. Other national parks to see toucans: Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Sirena Biological Station, Cahuita National Park, La Selva, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Aviarios del Caribe, Hitoy-Cerere Biological Reserve, Irazu Volcano National Park, Jaco, Turrialba Volcano National Park, and Arenal National Park.
You will be able to see on both sides of the country and many beaches are very good for snorkeling. Playas del Coco is one of the best places in the country to go scuba diving and see the fishes in great numbers and huge sizes!
You’ll see all types of tropical fish such as butterfly fish, angel fish, pufferfish, and much more. If you’re looking to do some sport fishing or see some bill fish, you can hire a sport fishing company so you can experience the excitement of catching a rooster fish, sail fish or even the elusive marlin! Or you can just grab a pole and fish like a local!
There is so much wildlife in Costa Rica that it’ll be impossible for me to list them all. These are the main animals people want to see the most but of course there is tons more to see!
While you’re hiking or snorkeling, watch out for peccary, coati, anteaters, snakes, lots of different insects, tropical fish, tropical birds, sting rays, sharks, deer, raccoons, bats and even the sly jungle cats.
If you want to read up or be able to identify the wildlife when you’re here in Costa Rica, I suggest getting a pocket/field guide or a book. Books are great for when you have time to sit and read and the field guides are excellent for identifying the animal in the moment. Plus they’re way easier to carry around than books!
Here are some of the books and field guides we use.
Also do NOT forget to bring your zoom lens! If you want to get pictures of wildlife, I highly recommend bringing a lens that goes at least to 300 mm like this one. I currently have a 55-250 mm lens but I can’t tell you how many times I wish it was longer especially for photographing birds. So many missed opportunities because of this!
More posts on the wildlife of Costa Rica here!
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