If you’re a nature lover, you will absolutely love Costa Rica. The country holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity! Whether you want to go whale watching, see sloths or study insects, Costa Rica has all that and more.
So if you want to see some Costa Rica wildlife, read on to see where you can see some popular animals such as sloths, monkeys and more.
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Humpback whales are the most common whales in Costa Rica because it has the longest humpback whale viewing season in the world. Both the Antarctica and Alaska humpback whales 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 usually playing around in the water.
Click here to read more about whales in Costa Rica.
Best time to go whale watching
- Antarctica humpback whales – July to November
California humpback whales – December to April
North Atlantic humpback whales – December to March
In the months of Oct to Nov, the early birds and late risers overlap. August and September are the best months to see humpback whales in Costa Rica as they are very common all up and down the Pacific coast.
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 and has excellent whale watching opportunities.
- Marino Ballena National Park: In Uvita, 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!
- Gulf of Papagayo: This area is best to see the Antarctica humpback whales in July – September.
It is pretty common to see dolphins in Costa Rica, especially on the Pacific side. You can see species like spotted to bottlenose and they are very playful. They love to play in the waves of the boat so you may see them swimming close by or next to you while kayaking!
Year round. Many species such as bottlenose and spotted live in Costa Rica all year so you have a good chance to see them.
If you want to see the spinner or common dolphins, they pass by Costa Rica from Dec – March and are not seen as much the rest of the year.
Best place to see dolphins
Same places as the whales except you have equal opportunity along the whole Pacific coast. They are especially common to see in the Golfo Dolce. On the Caribbean side, you have a chance to see bottlenose dolphins near Limon.
Many tours combine whale and dolphin watching since the two are commonly seen in the same waters. Some places are Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay, Flamingo, Manuel Antonio and Puerto Viejo.We have seen several times groups of bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Papagayo,.
In Costa Rica, the turtles are highly protected and there are protected reserves specifically for sea turtles. There are many different species of turtles in Costa Rica, such as the leatherback, Olive Ridley and Atlantic Ridley sea turtle. Many of them are critically endangered.
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
The best time of year to see turtles in Costa Rica is the rainy season or July – December. This is when the mass gatherings are the most intense.
Best places to see sea turtles
- Las Baulas National Park: 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.
- Tortuguero: This national park is in the Caribbean North. It is one of the most important endangered green turtle nesting sites in the Western Hemisphere. Turtles come here from the months of July to October to lay their eggs. In November, you can see babies hatching.
- Santa Rosa National Park: Naranjo and Nancite, two beaches in the park are very mportant for sea turtle nesting. It is difficult to visit this national park since the road is in extremely bad condition and is usually closed off in rainy season.
- Ostional Wildlife Refuge: This refuge is one of the most important places for turtles in Costa Rica, specifically the Olive Ridley turtle.
- Gulf of Papagayo: It is common during July – September to see turtles mating in the water. Mostly Olive Ridley sea turtles as they then nest in Playa Naranjo or Ostional.
- Camaronal Wildlife Refuge: Four different species of turtles go to Playa Camaronal to lay eggs May – Nov. This private reserve is near Samara.
- Cano Island: It is common to see turtles, particularly juveniles at Cano Island and you can snorkel with them.
Other refuges and places
- Osa Peninsula and Corcovado: Many of the beaches are nesting sites for 3 species of turtles.
- Montezuma: The Atlantic Riley turtle lays their eggs on this beach. The local community does baby sea turtle releases in February.
- 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 here between July – Oct, March – July and Feb- May.
- Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge: Although this is a popular surfing beach, it’s also part of the Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge. During rainy season, up to 40 turtles nest per night.
The best time to come see the turtles on shore is during arribadas (synchronized mass gathering of turtles). It is appropriately named because during this period of time (usually the last quarter moon in rainy season) sees up to tens of thousands of turtles coming to the beach to nest at once. They come 24/7, even during the day!
This happens in only a handful of places in the world, with 2 of them in Costa Rica: Ostional and Playa Naranjo for the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles.
The most sought after animal to see are sloths in Costa Rica. These guys are a bit hard to see out in the wild however since they blend in so well with their surroundings. The sloths in Costa Rica are the two-fingered and three-fingered.
Best time to see them
All year long.
Best places to see them
The best places in Costa Rica to see sloths are Manuel Antonio, Puerto Viejo, Tortuguero, Dominical, Uvita, La Fortuna and the Osa Peninsula. They are abundant in more humid areas since the forests are green all year long so they always have food.
However, they are not common in Guanacaste where it is very dry. If you are in Guanacaste/Puntarenas (Tamarindo/Coco/Samara/Montezuma/Santa Teresa) and want to see a sloth, you will need to travel to the rainforest or visit an animal sanctuary.
Read more in-depth information about sloths in Costa Rica.
Four different species of monkeys are in Costa Rica: White-face Capuchin monkeys, Howler monkeys, Squirrel monkeys and Spider monkeys. All monkeys except White face are endangered or threatened in Costa Rica.
Best time to see them
All year round
Best places to see them
The Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park is the only place where you can find all four species of monkeys.
Squirrel monkeys are only found in the southern part of Costa Rica such as Corcovado and Manuel Antonio National Park. Howlers and white face monkeys can be seen all throughout Costa Rica. In particular, howlers are especially common in Guanacaste. Spider monkeys are more common in the Osa Peninsula but can also be seen in Rincon de la Vieja National Park in Guanacaste.
You can read more about monkeys in Costa Rica.
6 different species of toucans are found in the rain forests of Costa Rica. The Black-mandibled toucan is the largest of the six and all can be seen in the tropical and subtropical forests.
Best time to see them
All year long but best during rainy season when the fruits they like are in season. Sometimes you can see up to 10 or more toucans in one tree!
Best places to see toucans
You can’t see all 6 toucans in one place in Costa Rica but you can see up to 3 in one. In Monteverde, you can see the Emerald Toucanet, Keel billed and Black Mandibled Toucan. You can see the Black Mandible and Fiery Aracari in Manuel Antonio and Osa Peninsula. Similarly, in La Fortuna you can see the Black Mandibled, Keel-billed and the Collared Aracari. It is very hard to see the Yellow-eared toucanet though.
Some other excellent places to see toucans in Costa Rica are Puerto Viejo, Tortuguero, Poas, Uvita, Boca Tapada, Osa Peninsula and Bijagua.
You can read more about toucans in Costa Rica in this post.
Many beaches on both Pacific and Caribbean are very good for snorkeling. You’ll see all types of tropical fish such as butterfly fish, angel fish, pufferfish, and much more.
Additionally, 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 a marlin. Costa Rica practices catch and release for offshore fishing or you can keep the fish you get with inshore fishing.
Costa Rica Wildlife Video
Check out our video of some Costa Rica animals we’ve seen. We hope you get to see some of them too!
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If you want to read up or be able to identify Costa Rica wildlife, I suggest getting a pocket/field guide or a book.
Also do NOT forget to bring your zoom lens! We currently use a Canon 100-400 mm lens and a 1.4 extender on a crop Canon 80d which works great for wildlife shots. Sigma and Tamron both have a 150-600 mm lens which is excellent as well.
Here are some of the books and field guides we use. We also highly recommend hiring a guide as they have trained eyes and know how to find wildlife. Especially if you are a photographer, you will need a guide to find the animal you want to photograph.