If there’s any animal that visitors want to see in Costa Rica, it’s the sloth. The sloth has become the symbol of the country, due to its oh-so-adorable face, snuggly body and very pura vida lifestyle. After the birth of Sloth Kong from Costa Rica’s surprising wins in the 2014 World Cup and the singing sloth in the #SavetheAmericans campaign, sloths have risen to be the most beloved animal of all.
If it’s your life goal to see one of these precious perezosos during your trip to Costa Rica, it’s best to do a bit of research about them first. They’re common, but not so that you’ll see them everywhere all the time. Since they camouflage themselves so well, you could walk past a handful of them and never notice!
So here I answer the question that many of you ask: where to see sloths in Costa Rica?
A little information about sloths first
There are two species of sloths in Costa Rica: the Brown-throated sloth, a species of 3 toed sloth and the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth. Both of these can be seen in Costa Rica. The technically correct name to call them are 3-fingered and 2-fingered as both sloths have 3 toes in their hind feet.
Facts about sloths:
- Mammals that belong to two families: Megalonychidae (two-fingered sloth) and Bradypodidae (three-fingered sloth). There are 6 species within these two families
- They are related to anteaters, which have a similar set of claws
- Arboreal mammals, (tree-dwelling) in Central and South America
- Leaves are their main food source but provide little energy, so they lower metabolic rates and body temperature to balance it out. Hence the sloooow movements
- They cannot survive outside the tropical rain forests of C. and S. America
- They defecate and urinate once a week when they climb to the ground
- Life span of around 20-30 years
- They are competent swimmers
Two Fingered Sloth
This two-fingered sloth is largely nocturnal, so it’s harder to see them than the 3-fingered sloth. If you do see them, they will most likely be sound asleep.
Their two front feet have two toes, each with a set of long curved claws. However, their hind feet have three toes. They differ from the 3-fingered sloth by their longer snout, separate front toes, larger size and no hair on the soles of the feet.
Where to See Them
Map of distribution:
Two-toed fingered live in dry forests, humid forests, riparian forests and old secondary forests. In Costa Rica, they live in both sides, the Caribbean and Pacific from sea level up to 3,000 meters.
Places they’ve been commonly spotted:
- Manuel Antonio National Park
- Osa Peninsula
- Corcovado National Park
- Limon, Puerto Viejo, Cahuita
As you can see from the map, they are found in almost all of Costa Rica.
The Brown-throated sloth is the most common of the 3-fingered sloth species. All of their feet have 3 fingers with long claws. They have a round head and a short nose.
They sleep around 15 hours and are active both day and night.
Where to See Them
Map of distribution
They are found in pretty much the same areas as the two-fingered sloth, but they are easier to spot. When the two sloths overlap in habitat, the Brown-throated tends to be of smaller size and more numerous, as they are more active than the two-fingered sloths.
3-fingered sloth are not found in the Monteverde area.
Wildlife Refuges and Sanctuaries
If you absolutely have to see a sloth and want to get up close and personal with one, then the best option is to visit a wildlife refuge or sanctuary. There are a few dedicated to sloths or have sloths.
Jaguar Rescue Center: This rescue center helps and rehabilitates all sorts of animals, including sloths. Also located in the Caribbean, part of the La Ceiba wildlife refuge by Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
Toucan Rescue Ranch: This rescue ranch is in Heredia and rescues and rehabilitates wildlife.
**Not a rescue center or refugee** Sloth Institute: Non profit dedicated to conservation and education on sloths. Though they aren’t open to the public or rescue center, if you want to learn more about sloths, they are the place to ask. You can find a lot of information on their Facebook page on sloths and how to help sloths in Costa Rica.
How to Guarantee a Sloth Sighting
The best way to see a sloth in the wild is to hire a naturalist guide, especially if you’re visiting a national park. They are trained to see sloths, since they are extremely good at camouflaging themselves. The first time I ever saw a sloth in the wild was thanks to a guide who was nice enough to point out to everyone the two-fingered sloth sleeping high in the trees.
There are many tours such as night time wildlife watching tours at Arenal, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio that offer the possibility to see sloths. I’ve also seen sloths on the Rio Frio nature safari in the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, a tour from Arenal. Sloth sightings were all thanks to the guide and their sharp eyes!
Best Place to See Sloths in the Wild
Sloths are easier to see in Central and South Pacific and the Caribbean. It’s harder to see them up in Guanacaste, where they aren’t as common. But go down South, and you’ll have great luck seeing one in the wild. If you are in Guanacaste in the Gulf of Papagayo area or Tamarindo and have a car, you can go up north to Bijagua (where Rio Celeste is) as a hotel Casitas Tenorio has sloths on their property.
The best places to see both two and three-fingered sloths are on the Caribbean side, Manuel Antonio National Park and the Costa Ballena (Dominical, Uvita and Ojochal). We’ve even seen sloths on the Costanera highway that goes by Dominical, just hanging out in the trees on the side of the road. Sloths are known to cross the roads in Puerto Viejo and we have seen them snoozing in the trees of our hotel in Tortuguero.
Arenal and Monteverde are two other places where sloths are seen but not quite as easily. It is best to take a night tour in Monteverde to see the 2 fingered sloths. We have never seen a sloth in the Arenal Volcano National Park, but we have seen them at the Nayara Hotel and in the surrounding forests around La Fortuna town.
Tips for Seeing Sloths
- Do not touch them. If you see one, don’t touch it as a certain species of moth lives and lays their eggs in the fur of the three-toed sloth. A certain type of red algae also lives in their fur giving them an illusion of moss and they also get stressed out when touched by strangers.
- Always look up in the tree tops and through the trees. I’ve walked under a sloth that was literally 5 feet above my head but didn’t notice until someone told me to look up.
- Bring a pair of good binoculars or a long zoom lens for an up close look. If you’re with a guide, many of them bring telescopes. You can use your cell phone camera to take a picture of it through the telescope
- If you see an injured sloth and you have a phone, you can call 911 and ask for the nearest wildlife rescue center. If there is a local nearby, ask them for the closest vet or ask if they can help (some locals may have had previous experiences with sloths especially if they are farmers or naturalist guides).
- Take tons of photos when you see one because they are just so darn cute!
- And please, do NOT hug sloths (and no “sanctuary” should ever allow you to). As awesome as it sounds, you should never touch a wild sloth or any wild animal. Please do not try to move it so you can get a selfie.
Now you know where to see sloths in Costa Rica and it’ll be an amazing moment I promise, in fact it’s one of the 10 essential experiences to have in the country. Happy sloth watching!
Want more sloth action? Watch this video of sloths we saw in Uvita!
More Costa Rica wildlife posts here!
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