Best of Costa Rica National Parks for Spotting Wildlife
While accounting for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface area, Costa Rica contains nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An amazing 25.6% of Costa Rica’s land area is protected by a system of National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. These protected areas include tropical rainforests, white sandy beaches, mountains, volcanos, caves and waterfalls.
By the way, if, like me, you love exploring the world by the different types of landscape, check out my friends Mike and Anne’s National Geographic book ‘Ultimate Journeys for Two‘. In the book, the adventures are organized exactly this way: mountains, deserts, jungle, rivers and lakes, and of course, there is a safari section.
Anyway, when my two good friends decided on a destination wedding in Costa Rica, we took this opportunity to plan a three-week road trip to some of the best Costa Rica National Parks to see the country’s amazing wildlife. To maximize our chances of finding wildlife, we did careful research and planned our trip around the most wildlife-rich reserves in the country.
This itinerary highlights the best national parks in Costa Rica for spotting wildlife.
The wedding festivities lasted a full week in Riu Guanacaste Resort on Mato Palo beach not far from Liberia. And when you are in a country as rich in wildlife as Costa Rica, even an all-inclusive resort becomes a wildlife watching destination.
There were Howler monkeys and Green iguanas on the resort grounds and even some microbats flying over the pool after dark.
We had our introduction to wildlife watching in Costa Rica in Palo Verde National Park. The boat tour in Palo Verde is one of the best things to do in Guanacaste. We booked the tour from the resort since the park is conveniently located only 1.5hr drive away.
Wildlife watching on a river cruise often allows for the close encounters with wildlife. The water acts as a natural barrier and animals tend to be more at ease. A little bit too much at ease, sometimes.
Early in the cruise, we came across a group of curious White-faced capuchins. After checking us out they boldly jumped onto our boat and climbed on top of our heads! This is what I call being up-close and personal with wildlife.
The most interesting creatures on the river are the Brazilian hog-nosed bats. These tiny creatures roost out in the open on the tree trunks. They arrange themselves into a neat line and when threatened they start shifting in unison, which makes them appear as a slithering snake. Not many predators are keen to mess with a snake.
Visiting Palo Verde National Park
Palo Verde can be visited on a day tour from the nearby city of Liberia. You can hire a taxi in town to take you to the park’s entrance and back. Once in the park, it is the local family-owned Palo Verde boat tours that run the cruises on the Tempisque River. Alternatively, you can take an organized tour from Liberia.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Once the wedding festivities were finished a small group of us rented a car at Liberia airport and headed on a two-week long road trip through some of the best Costa Rica National Parks. Check this post for more tips on planning a trip to Costa Rica.
Our first destination was Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Located in the Cordillera de Tilarán mountains, Monteverde is one of the most magical landscapes of Costa Rica. It is a thick tropical forest with the mossy tendrils of Old man’s beard hanging from tree branches among a million shades of green.
The most amazing wildlife experience in Monteverde is the Hummingbird Gallery. Late in the afternoon hundreds of the tiny, brilliantly-coloured birds congregate in the small garden attracted to the nectar feeder. Standing there surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds beating their wings too fast for the human eye to see is an unforgettable experience.
The night walks in Monteverde are a good chance to see some of Costa Rica’s iconic species such as Sloths, Mexican porcupines as well as a variety of reptiles and amphibians.
You can take a day tour to Monteverde from San Jose or you can visit the park independently to allow yourself more time for exploration.
It is an easy 35km drive from San Jose. There is also a public bus service from San Jose to Santa Elena that departs twice a day (6.30am and 2.30pm). From Santa Elena you can take a taxi to the reserve.
The accommodation options in the reserve consist of La Casona hostel and some private rooms that can be booked directly through the reserve’s website.
Manuel Antonio National Park
From the misty mountains of the continental divide, we headed back to the coast and to Manuel Antonio National Park.
One of the most popular of Costa Rica National Parks, Manuel Antonio is also one of the most crowded ones. There is a bitumen road running all the way from the park gate to the beach – not exactly a wilderness experience.
But there is certainly plenty of wildlife in Manuel Antonio and it is reasonably easy to find.
We explored the park on our own (you can also hire a guide at the gate) and found a Three-towed sloth, endangered Central American Squirrel monkeys, Howlers and Crab-eating Raccoons.
Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is an easy 20-minute drive from Quepos. It can be explored independently or on a guided tour from Quepos.
The park is closed on Mondays.
Damas Island is an ‘under the radar’ little gem near Quepos. The mangroves of Damas are the best place in the world to see the Silky Anteater – the smallest Anteater in the world.
We took a river cruise with Ave Natura and spent half a day exploring the waterways around the island.
Apart from the sleepy Anteater, we found a family of Four-eyed opossums sheltering inside a hollow log, the island’s own population of White-faced capuchins, a stunning Mangrove boa and plenty of birds.
Visiting Damas Island
Damas Island is an easy drive from Quepos and for the best wildlife sightings, book your tour with Ave Natura. They will pick you up in Quepos and bring you back at the end of the tour.
Corcovado National Park
Corcovado is arguably the best National Park in Costa Rica for viewing wildlife. Called by National Geographic ‘the most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity, Corcovado takes up almost a third of the remote Osa Peninsula.
And this place is truly remote. There are no roads in the park and you can only get here by boat from Drake Bay or a long hike from Puerto Jimenez.
We opted for the boat and spent three night exploring the trails around Sirena Ranger Station.
More than anything, I wanted to see one of the wild cats of Costa Rica and Corcovado was my best chance to spot one.
The park did not disappoint. On a hike to the Puma Valley, we spotted Pumas! A female and two cubs. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine coming across an entire family of pumas in Costa Rica.
In the three days, we also saw the endangered Baird’s tapirs, all four species of Costa Rica’s monkeys, a Northern tamandua (another tree-dwelling ant-eater), Collared peccaries, Central American agouti, Tent-making bats, a tiger snake, a Fur De Lance (Costa Rica’s deadliest reptile) and an incredible diversity of birds.
The most amazing thing about Corcovado animals is how unafraid they are of people. Because Corcovado has been protected since 1975, the animals have no memory of being hunted and as a result, have no heightened fear of humans.
Visiting Corcovado National Park
It is compulsory to have a nature guide with you for visiting the remote wilderness of Corcovado. The access point for Corcovado is the small laid-back town of Drake Bay. The Award-winning Surkos Tours agency offer a range of options for visiting the park. Be prepared to rough it a little — the accommodation in the park is very basic.
Whale watching in Drake Bay
The Osa Peninsula is also the best place to see whales in Costa Rica. And since we were already here, we took a whale-watching tour with Divine Dolphin and spent an afternoon watching the Humpbacks that have travelled here from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to rest, mate, and give birth.
Apart from the whales, you are also likely to see some Pantropical spotted dolphins on the tour from Drake Bay.
And after the nightfall, there are spotlighting walks that you can join if you would like to see some poison dart frogs.
Poas Volcano National Park
From Drake Bay, we headed back towards the Continental Divide and it turned out to be the most spectacular drive of our trip. We drove along the winding mountain roads, through the cloud forest shrouded in thick mist. Because of high elevation and precipitation, we were literally driving through the clouds for the large part of the journey.
Poas Volcano is a pretty special place. At 1.5km wide and 300m deep, t is one of the largest active volcano craters in the world. The turquoise lake filling the main crater is one of the most acidic in the world, with a pH of around zero.
The park undergoes periodic closures due to volcano spitting sulphuric gassed into the air. Most recently the volcano erupted around Easter in 2017, which caused the park to close again.
Once the park re-opens, you can walk all the way up to the edge of the steaming main crater.
The crater is surrounded by the Dwarf Cloud forest. Because of the altitude, strong winds and sulphuric fumes, the growth of trees here is stunted. Apart from being short, the trees are also twisted into tortured shapes creating a forest that would be at home in a Brothers Grimm tale.
Visiting Poas Volcano National Park
Poas Volcano is located about an hour drive from San Jose, which makes for an easy visit at the start or the end of your vacation. If you don’t feel like driving, you can opt for an organized tour to the volcano.
Tirimbina Biological Reserve
Home to Costa Rica’s longest suspension bridge, Tirimbina is a private reserve that serves as both an eco-tourism destination and a research station. It is also one of the most affordable places in the country to experience the rainforest.
We stayed in Tirimbina for three days and explored the trails around the Reserve. We had some of our best bird sightings in Tirimbina: Keel-billed and Black-billed toucans, Collared acaris, Nunbirds, woodpeckers and plenty more.
I was most excited to find our first poison dart frogs – the Strawberry or Blue-jeans dart frogs. Both names are correct – this species has a bright red back and equally bright blue legs.
Although the coolest wildlife encounter we had, was with the Two-toed sloth and her young, as they crossed the canopy bridge right above our heads.
Visiting Tirimbina Rainforest Center
Tirimbina Lodge can be reached by car – it is about a 2hr-drive north from San Jose airport.
Tirimbina Lodge has a number of accommodation options from Economy to Deluxe rooms. The lodge offers the following tours: Night Walk, Bird Watching, Bat Program, Chocolate Walk, Natural History Walk, and a Self-guided Walk.
La Selva Biological Station
While staying at Tirimbina we visited the nearby La Selva Biological Station to see the adorable Honduran White bats. These cute little bats roost underneath the large leaves of Heliconia plant and can only be found in a few spots in the country.
We returned to La Selva for a night walk with our guide from Tirimbina and finally found the Red eye tree frog – a species that was very high on my bucket list.
We also picked up another poison dart frog – the Green and Black dart frog.
Visiting La Selva
La Selva Biological Station can be reached by car – it is about a 2-hr drive from San José airport. The closest major town to La Selva is Puerto Viejo – 7 km away.
Most people visit La Selva for a Jungle Walk or a Night Walk. These can be booked on the spot at the station’s visitor centre.
Palo Verde National Park
We finished the road trip at Palo Verde National Park, having come full circle in two weeks. This time we explored the forest of Palo Verde. Not surprisingly, we didn’t see as much wildlife on foot as we did from the boat. The only mammals we spotted were the White-faced capuchins and a White-tailed deer.
But the wetlands in and around the park provided for some amazing bird watching opportunities. We spotted Jabiru storks and Double-striped thicknees as well as herons, Northern jacanas and kingfishes.
There is also an interesting lookout in the park that can be reached by an adventurously-steep trail.
Explore further afield
Latin America has some spectacular wildlife watching destinations. If you would like to explore the region’s wildlife further, check out the magnificent flamingos of Celestun in Mexico.