Finding Wildlife in Costa Rica
Costa Rica's rich biodiversity and large areas of protected land mean plenty of opportunities to view wildlife. There are whales and dolphins offshore on the southwestern Osa Peninsula, four species of monkey in nearby Corcovado National Park, and turtles crawling ashore to lay eggs at Tortuguero National Park, in the northeast.
You don't need to travel far from the capital of San José to spot some of the jewels in the ecological crown. You'll find quetzals, macaws, and hundreds of other species of birds in Monteverde Cloud Forest, and you can view some of Costa Rica's 1200 butterfly species at the Butterfly Conservatory near Arenal. Below we offer a comprehensive list of Costa Rica’s wildlife highlights.
Bonus: Short drive times and wildlife galore make Costa Rica ideal for a family vacation—here's more on family travel in Costa Rica.
Hundreds of Bird Species in the Monteverde Cloud Forest
Over 900 species of birds call Costa Rica home—more than in all of North America. Strict conservation laws keep avian numbers protected, and from tanagers to momots and trogons, there are far too many to list in their entirety. Here you'll find a few of the most eye-catching species.
Resplendent quetzals were once worshipped by Mesoamerican tribes, and it’s easy to see why. With bright green plumage and red breasts, they are among the world’s most beautiful birds. They can be elusive, though, so your best bet to see them is during mating season in April. Toucans are another highlight, and Costa Rica is home to six species. One of the most popular is the multi-colored and vibrant keel-billed toucan. Scarlet macaws, with their famous red, yellow, and blue plumage, are everybody’s favorite parrot, and they abound here. They're often seen feeding on fruit or gathering to drink at clay riverbanks.
Also, Costa Rica is filled with hummingbirds. There are more than 50 species here, from the green-crowned brilliant to the violet sabrewing. Fun fact: their wings flap an incredible 70-80 times per second. These birds can be seen in gardens and forests throughout the country, attracted to the nectar of flowers as well as manmade feeders. Overall, Monteverde Cloud Forest is one of the best places to go birding, but there are countless other sites such as Carara National Park, La Selva Biological Station, and Manuel Antonio National Park. Bring your binoculars.
Spider Monkeys in Corcovado National Park
There are four main species of monkeys in Costa Rica. Spider monkeys are one of the largest and most intelligent. They possess long arms but are particularly adept at swinging from branch to branch with their long, prehensile tail. White-headed capuchin monkeys are another species and are highly intelligent. Skilled at using tools, they are famously daring and will often snatch shiny objects from unsuspecting humans.
The howler monkeys are the largest in the region. They are famous for their loud howls (which sound more like guttural roars) that can be heard for over three miles. Interestingly, they are also one of the laziest monkeys and spend over 80% of their days asleep. Finally, the cutest but most endangered species are the smaller squirrel monkeys. With their distinctive black-and-white face and orange back, they live in large groups to ward off predators.
All four species can be seen in Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica. Squirrel monkeys are harder to see and are most commonly viewed in Manuel Antonio National Park. The other three species can be found sporadically in forests throughout the country.
Jaguars in Puerto Viejo
Visitors to Costa Rica will be very fortunate to spot the largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar. That's because they are generally regarded as nocturnal or crepuscular (active at twilight). Because they need such a large territory to hunt, they do so mainly at night. Their biggest populations are in Corcovado and La Amistad national parks. Other smaller cats include ocelots, which are roughly the size of dogs. They also hunt at night over large territories and can be seen rarely in Corcovado, Monteverde, and other forests.
Because big cat sightings are rare in the wild, it's a better bet to see them at rescue centers, including the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo, Las Pumas Rescue Center west of Arenal, and La Paz Waterfall Gardens, just north of San José.
Three-Toed Sloths in Manuel Antonio National Park
While Costa Rica's big cats can remain elusive, it’s rare that sloths would outmaneuver you with their speed and guile. These animals have such a slow metabolism that it takes them over a week to digest a meal. This is responsible for their lethargic movments—it often takes hours for them to move even short distances. The three-toed sloth is the most commonly seen of these animals, while its two-toed relative is less commonly visible since it's nocturnal.
Sloths are found in most national parks in Costa Rica, particularly on the southern Pacific coast, usually hanging upside down in large-leaved guarumo (Cecropia) trees. To guarantee seeing them, head to the Sloth Institute in Manuel Antonio National Park or the Sloth Sanctuary in Puerto Viejo.
Blue Morpho Butterflies in Monteverde
There are more than 1200 species of butterfly in Costa Rica, which comprises nearly 20% of the world’s species. The most famous is probably the enormous and elegant blue morpho, with its electric coloring and wingspan of over eight inches. Other highlights include the owl butterfly, named for its eye-like markings (a feature that deters predators), and the glass-winged butterfly, denoted by its translucent wings.
The best places to views these species include the Butterfly Conservatory near Arenal and Monteverde Butterfly Gardens, a brief walk from downtown Santa Elena in the Monteverde region. The conservatory is just one of many things to do around Arenal; here's a comprehensive guide to visiting the region.
Sea Turtles in Tortuguero National Park
It’s not just in the forests that Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity is on display. Just offshore of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts there are equally as many wonders. Here not only is the snorkeling and diving great for viewing tropical fish, but you can also see many of the larger creatures via organized boat trips.
For many visitors to Costa Rica, the sight of a sea turtle swimming beneath the ocean's surface, or crawling up a beach to lay its eggs, is an unforgettable highlight. More fascinating is that these animals return every year to the same beaches to lay those eggs. Regarding species, the leatherback is the world’s largest sea turtle, reaching over eight feet in length.
Playa Grande near Tamarindo is a prime nesting site from October to February. You can also visit the aptly named Tortuguero National Park, located on the southeast coast, in March-April for nesting season. There's also the smaller olive ridley turtle, which can be seen year-round in many spots, including Santa Rosa National Park and Playa Ostional.
Whales and Dolphins on the Osa Peninsula
Humpback whales come to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast to breed throughout the year and it’s one of nature’s great spectacles to see them leaping and twirling out of the water. Northern-hemisphere species arrive from December to April, and southern-hemisphere species arrive from July to November. They are most commonly seen on the southern Pacific coast, especially the Osa Peninsula. Bottle-nosed dolphins can be seen year-round off both coasts, often playfully following alongside boats. Spotted dolphins and other species are found mostly on the Pacific. For more on Costa Rica's stunning coasts, see our guide to its best beaches.
Want to work some of these wildlife hotspots into your Costa Rica itinerary? This 7-day itinerary takes you to beaches, volcanoes, and jungle, including the bird-filled Monteverde Cloud Forest. Or spend a week exploring the Caribbean coast and hang out with the Tortuguero sea turtles.