Any serious birding enthusiast must at some point make the pilgrimage to Costa Rica. There are over 850 avian species in this tiny Central American nation, so there's no shortage of great birding opportunities. On this unforgettable nine-day itinerary you'll take to the mountains, jungles, and coastline, venturing into national parks and dense rainforests to view the most elusive, exotic, and beautiful birds in Costa Rica.

Highlights

  • Go birding in the jungles around Arenal Volcano National Park
  • View exotic species in the wetlands of the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
  • Hike alongside sky-blue rivers in Tenorio National Park
  • See flocks of scarlet macaws around the River Tárcoles

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - Experience San José's Culture and History San Jose
Day 2 Birding at Vara Blanca - Transfer to La Fortuna/Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Arenal to Caño Negro Caño Negro
Day 4 Early-Morning Birding at Caño Negro Caño Negro
Day 5 Caño Negro to the Celeste River & Tenorio National Park Cañas
Day 6 Travel to Rincón de la Vieja National Park Cañas
Day 7 Palo Verde National Park - Travel to Tárcoles Tarcoles
Day 8 Birding at Villa Lapas - Optional Visit to Carara National Park Tarcoles
Day 9 Tárcoles to San José - Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Costa Rica - Experience San José's Culture and History

The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city center.
The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city center.

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, a local representative will meet you and escort you to your hotel. The rest of the day you'll have free to explore the city at your leisure.

Perhaps take a stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), which features over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). Then visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, neoclassical, and Baroque styles. There's also a pair of popular museums in San José: Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), and Museo del Jade, which houses the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts.

Be sure to explore Barrio Amón, a bohemian neighborhood home to historic cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For dinner, opt for a restaurant in the hills of Escazú. This elevated region on the western edge of the city offers panoramic views of the valley below. That said, San José is filled with great restaurants serving everything from traditional Costa Rican fare to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: Birding at Vara Blanca - Transfer to La Fortuna/Arenal

Hummingbirds are a common sight
Hummingbirds are a common sight

After breakfast at your hotel, you'll meet your English-speaking guide and embark on a great Costa Rica birding adventure. The first stop is the highland village of Vara Blanca, which is located just north of San José, on the Continental Divide between the volcanoes of Poás and Barva. All told, you'll spend about 1.5 hours enjoying some fantastic birding outside of the village. Common varieties include the fiery-throated hummingbird, barred hawk, ornate hawk-eagle, chestnut-mandibled toucan, tanager, and flycatcher. 

Afterward, you'll drive north two hours to the town of La Fortuna, the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park. You won't miss the namesake volcano—Arenal juts 5,479 feet (1,670 meters) out of the ground like an arrowhead. Upon arrival, you'll check into the Arenal Observatory Lodge, which sits on 870 acres of rainforest with its own bird sanctuary home to around 500 species. The prime vantage point is a 92-foot (28-meter) tower where you can observe birds like herons, trogons, and red-lored parrots. 

For dinner, you can dine on Costa Rican and international cuisine at the Arenal Observatory Restaurant, which offers its own stunning views of Lake Arenal.

Day 3: Arenal to Caño Negro

You can see red-lored parrots in Caño Negro
You can see red-lored parrots in Caño Negro

In the morning you'll transfer 2.5 hours to the far north of the country, stopping at times to take birding breaks at ideal vantage points. Today's destination is the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, which, comprising 24,612 acres (9,960 hectares), is the largest wetland in the country. Within its boundaries are lagoons, rivers, rainforest, and tiny villages, making it ideal birding territory as the area lies in a key migratory route for northern birds. 

Upon arrival, you'll check-in to your eco-lodge and then head out and explore. There's good birding around the property, as it features dense bushes and tall trees amid secondary rainforest. These conditions attract many species like the spot-breasted wren, greenish elaenia, cinnamon woodpecker, yellow-throated euphonia, red-legged honeycreeper, black-cheeked woodpecker, and red-lored parrot, to name a few.

Day 4: Early-Morning Birding at Caño Negro

The anhinga, or
The anhinga, or "snakebird" (note the serpentine neck)

Today you'll enjoy one of the most exciting birding tours in the country. The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is known for its incredible diversity of resident birds as well as being the winter home for thousands of returning migratory birds. On this tour, you'll observe many species found only in this unique ecosystem. 

Some birds you can spot include kingfishers, cormorants, anhingas ("snakebird"), southern lapwings, black-bellied whistling-ducks, black-necked stilts, purple gallinules, russet-naped wood-rails, yellow-breasted crakes, black-collared hawks, lesser yellow-headed vultures, snail kites, bat falcons, agami herons, little blue herons, great egrets, tricolored herons, boat-billed herons, and many others. 

This is a three-hour tour accompanied by a local guide who will lead you to the best vantage points. After the tour, you'll return to your hotel. Since you'll have the afternoon free, you can choose between a number of other tours/activities in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge such as a wetlands boat tour, sport-fishing excursion, or nocturnal nature walk.

Day 5: Caño Negro to the Celeste River & Tenorio National Park

Bridge over the Río Celeste
Bridge over the Río Celeste

In the morning, you'll leave the northern plains and travel southwest toward the Pacific coast, stopping along the way at the Rio Celeste and Tenorio National Park. The road heading into the national park offers good birding, as it's home to various species like the lovely cotinga, black hawk-eagle, white-fronted nunbird, keel-billed motmot, sunbittern, yellow-eared toucanet, and the lattice-tailed trogon.

Then you'll visit one of the most incredible sights in the country: the sky blue Río Celeste, located inside the park. Local legend has it that after God was done painting the sky he washed his paintbrushes in this river, hence the name, which translates to "river of the sky." The scientific explanation says the vivid blue color is due to a mixture of sulfur and carbonate, which originates in the dormant Tenorio Volcano

You'll embark on a four-mile (seven-kilometer) hike on a trail that runs along the Celeste, passing many sites of interest like the river's famous waterfall and the Blue Lagoon, a natural turquoise pool. Later, you'll stop at a viewpoint with vistas of the Tenorio Volcano. But it's not just incredible landscapes you'll enjoy; Tenorio National Park is a great birding destination too. Here you'll find species like the violaceous quail-dove, black-eared wood-quail, rufous-vented ground-cuckoo, and more.

Day 6: Travel to Rincón de la Vieja National Park

A motmot perches on a sign in Ricón de la Vieja
A motmot perches on a sign in Ricón de la Vieja

With your guide, you'll drive a little over an hour northwest from the hacienda to Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Spread over 34,000 acres, this protected area is home to tropical forest, cascading waterfalls, natural hot springs, dozens of rivers, and two volcanoes. The many hiking trails here attract travelers year-round, and this includes bird lovers. After checking into your hotel, you can head into the park and do some birding.

Multitudes of bird species are found here, as the dense canopy of laurel trees provide the ideal avian habitat. Some of the most colorful examples include emerald toucanet, motmots, turkey vultures, red-billed pigeons, white-fronted parrots, keel-billed toucans, northern-barred woodcreepers, and more. Rare and exotic mammals found in the area include kinkajous, pumas, a variety of monkeys, sloths, tapirs, and jaguars. 

Day 7: Palo Verde National Park - Travel to Tárcoles

Wood storks are common in these wetlands
Wood storks are common in these wetlands

After breakfast, you and your guide will transfer 45 minutes south to Palo Verde National Park. This large protected area (some 49,000 acres) is unique in that it's home to both tropical dry forest as well as wetlands. Before entering the park there are rice fields where you'll find good concentrations of wood storks. Also here are the black-necked stilt, great egret, and solitary sandpiper. During the migratory months, you'll see bobolinks, dickcissels, and many more species.

Once inside the park, you can view an even greater variety of exotic specimens. There's the thicket tinamou, fulvous whistling duck, northern shoveler, least bittern, glossy ibis, jabiru, hook-billed kite, northern harrier, white-tailed hawk, mangrove cuckoo, and the scrub euphonia. After birding, you'll continue to the central Pacific coast and the town of Tárcoles. Sitting on the banks of the river of the same name, Tárcoles is known for its scarlet macaws and giant crocodiles.

Day 8: Birding at Villa Lapas - Optional Visit to Carara National Park

Go macaw spotting in Carara National Park
Go macaw spotting in Carara National Park

Accompanied by your guide, you'll embark on a birding tour along the trails around Hotel Villa Lapas. This hotel sits on almost 500 acres of land that abounds with exotic birds. Interesting species here include the chestnut-mandibled toucan, fiery-billed aracari, pale-billed woodpecker, and various types of trogons (slaty-tailed, gartered, black-headed, etc.). Plus, groups of scarlet macaws often fly overhead, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. 

The forest trail behind the hotel is also worth visiting as there's a good chance of spotting the long-tailed manakin, a colorful bird that performs choreographed dances to attract females. After the tour, we recommend visiting Carara National Park. This protected area spans 12,900 acres and includes both tropical dry scrub as well as southern Pacific rainforest, which makes it home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Some 360 of birds call this area home, including the scarlet macaw. 

Day 9: Tárcoles to San José - Departure

Sunset over Costa Rica
Sunset over Costa Rica

This morning you'll enjoy one last leisurely breakfast in Costa Rica. At the appropriate time, you will transfer about an hour by road back to San José and the international airport, where you'll catch your flight home. Come back soon!

Map

Map of Birding Highlights of Costa Rica - 9 Days
Map of Birding Highlights of Costa Rica - 9 Days