The best places to spot Costa Rica’s amazing wildlife
Costa Rica is renowned for its wildlife, and this goes beyond just the synonymous sloth. It is an incredibly diverse country, offering the chance to spot an extensive list of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, butterflies and invertebrates. From high in the trees to under the water's surface, there is an abundance to see.
Birdwatchers + turtle trackers: Tortuguero National Park
Sitting on Costa Rica’s north-east Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is a haven for birdwatchers. Board a boat and you can cruise along the river deep into the mangroves. After a while, it is engines off and you float along, carefully listening to the wildlife around you. This is when a guide is vital. Familiar with the surroundings and with an expert eye, they will point out everything from scarlet macaws and black-mandibled toucans high in the trees to bare-throated tiger herons and brown pelicans near the river’s surface.
But it’s not just birds you will observe on the riverways. We were fortunate enough to see plenty of spectacled caimans, several emerald basilisks, a Jesus Christ lizard (its name derives from the erratic way in which it runs) and a gaudy leaf frog.
One of the most exciting moments for us was when we spied an anhinga sitting on a static log. It was cameras up as we saw his trophy between his beak – a freshly caught fish. Before we knew what was happening, its prey was bashed on the side of the wood and gobbled down.
Another way to explore the Tortuguero River is by kayak, which allows you to get deeper into the mangroves, as particular laws prohibit you from entering certain parts with a motorised boat. You can then navigate the waterway at your own speed and snake in further than you normally could.
Tortuguero is also known for its turtles. Green sea, hawksbill (July to October) and leatherback (February to April) turtles all nest on the beaches here. If you are lucky, and timing is on your side, you could see an overlap of both stragglers coming to the shore to lay their eggs and hatchlings racing to the sea.
Where to stay: Tortuga Lodge & Gardens
Located at one end of the riverway, Tortuga is a beautiful spot that looks straight onto the water. The rooms are elegant and simple, and you feel instantly at ease when you arrive. There are plenty of activities to do – from night walks to private, guided explorations of the river, where the rainforest constantly hums. It’s perfect for families and couples alike.
Spy on sloths + monkeys: the Southern Caribbean Coast
Moving down the coast, you come to the Southern Caribbean. Completely different to Tortuguero, it is the wide ocean and long beaches that draw you here – ideal for families with surfing teenagers.
Our favourite place to spend a day is Cahuita National Park, a 20-minute drive from Puerto Viejo. With your guide, you will follow the walking trails that snake along the stunning coastline. Here you can witness the big and the small, from sleeping sloths snoozing on a branch and white-throated capuchin monkeys swinging from tree to tree to green vine snakes and northern racoons.
This national park is very peaceful and runs at a slower pace. Along the way, when the humidity rises, you can take a dip in one of the natural pools and we can organise a private beach picnic for your lunch. This is bound to be one of your favourite days.
Where to stay: Hotel Aguas Claras
The Southern Caribbean Coast used to be limited in terms of fabulous places for our clients to stay, but Hotel Aguas Claras has changed this. Only a five-minute drive out of the main town of Puerto Viejo, it’s very quiet and has its own pathway to the beach.
There are six Victorian houses, all lovingly decorated in a Cornish-inspired style, with handcrafted art and mosaics. Splashes of pastel colours, coral reefs and bright tiles, along with the surrounding rainforest, all help you feel instantly at ease when you arrive. You can start your day off at the yoga pavilion before taking a splash in their very instagrammable swimming pool.
For all things water: Osa Peninsula + Golfo Dulce
The Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce, the only tropical fjord in the Americas, are tucked away in the south-west corner. As you arrive by propeller plane, you can see the dense rainforest laid before you, which looks like a sea of broccoli florets.
A wonderful way to experience this area is on the water. Between the port town of Golfito and the Osa Peninsula, roughly a 40-minute boat journey, you will be able to spot dolphins. When they dart along the ocean waves and up close to the boat, it can take your breath away, especially if there are around a hundred of them!
Another great way to explore is by kayaking through the mangroves. As you gently paddle along the still water, you may observe spectacled caimans and American crocodiles dip and dive into the lagoon. When it is time for a break, drift under the shady trees and your guide will crack open a fresh coconut – a well-deserved treat in the heat.
Where to stay: Playa Cativo Lodge
This wonderful ecolodge is nestled in the Golfo Dulce. A 30-minute speedboat ride, where you whistle by some of Costa Rica’s finest and mostly uninhabited jungle feeling like James Bond, comes to an end as you take a sharp right into a private cove. The boat gently slows and you have arrived at what can only be described as paradise.
The main house has six rooms and this is also where you will dine with fellow guests and relax in the library. Scattered among the palm trees and with a glorious backdrop of verdant jungle, there are also some more private, slightly larger casitas. Everything has been hand selected and they all have a distinct style.
There are plenty of activities to get involved in here, including stand-up paddle-boarding in the ocean, yoga on the edge of the jungle, night-wildlife walks and pitching in on their farm. Playa Cativo is a very special place, the staff are extremely welcoming and we would recommend no less than three to four nights minimum here.
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