Wondering what are the best places to see wildlife in Costa Rica? Ever dreamt of seeing a wild puma on your travels? Then check out our 2-week itinerary for a road trip in Costa Rica in search of wild encounters of all kinds.
When my two Canadian friends decided on a destination wedding in Costa Rica, we took the opportunity to add a two-week wildlife-watching road trip to the post-wedding festivities.
With an amazing 25.6% of Costa Rica’s land area protected by a system of National Parks and Wildlife Reserves, there is a lot of ground to cover, even if you only visit some of the most prominent National Parks.
A good way to research the best wildlife destinations in a given country is to go through trip reports on mammalwatching.com website where keen wildlife watchers from around the world post reports of their sightings of mammals.
Based on this research and suggestions from other travellers, our Costa Rica road trip included visits to Corcovado National Park, Tirimbina Biological Reserve, La Selva Biological Station, Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Palo Verde National Park, Poas Volcano, Manuel Antonio National Park and Damas Island, and a whale watching adventure in Drake Bay.
Of course, with limited time, we couldn’t visit all of the top National Parks in Costa Rica. Our itinerary concentrated on the Pacific Coast and the mountains of the Continental Divide. This meant that we missed out on the gems of the Caribbean coast, including the magnificent Tortuguero National Park.
We travelled as a group of 9 people, so the most cost-effective way of getting around turned out to be a minivan that we rented in Liberia. The cost of travel in Costa Rica can be quite high, but teaming up with a small group of friends from the wedding party, we managed to keep the costs of our Costa Rica itinerary on the low side. This is also a good idea if you are planning a trip to Costa Rica with a large family.
Road Trip: Costa Rica wildlife and wild places
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.
Of course, this was just the beginning. So if you are looking for a Costa Rica road trip itinerary that highlights the best wildlife watching opportunities in the county, have a look at our itinerary below. You can follow the entire two-week itinerary we did or select individual destinations and add them to your own Costa Rica road trip.
Palo Verde National Park boat tour
We got our first taste of what Costa Riva has to offer in terms of wildlife encounters 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 a 1.5hr drive away.
Wildlife watching on a river cruise often allows for some 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 like a slithering snake. Not many predators are keen to mess with a snake.
Apart from the bats and capuchins, the river cruise is a good opportunity to see a wide variety of birds, including Tiger heron, Little blue heron, Black-crowned night heron, Little green heron, Crane hawk, Collared forest falcon, Green kingfisher, Mangrove swallow, as well as American crocodiles and green and spinytail iguanas.
Visiting Palo Verde National Park
If you don’t want to drive, Palo Verde can be visited on a day tour, like this one, from Tamarindo. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi in Liberia or Tamarindo 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.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Driving distance: 156 km. Time: 3.5hrs
Once the wedding festivities were finished, we picked up our rental van at Liberia airport and headed on a two-week-long road trip to Costa Rica’s National Parks.
Our first destination was the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Located in the Cordillera de Tilarán mountains, Monteverde is one of the most magical landscapes in Costa Rica. It is a thick tropical forest with mossy tendrils 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 feeders.
Standing there surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds beating their wings too fast for the human eye to see is an unforgettable experience. If you are visiting Costa Rica with kids, you’ll find the hummingbird gallery to be one of the most enchanting family experiences in the country.
The species that we managed to identify were: Violet saberwing, Green-crowned brilliant, Stripe-tailed hummingbird, Coppery-headed emerald, Purple-throated mountain gem, Steely-vented hummingbird, Green violet-ear and a few Bananaquits.
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. But steer clear of the Kinkajou Night Walk experience – it was overcrowded and aimed at mass tourism rather than at keen wildlife watchers.
Visiting Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
We took half the day to get to Monteverde from Liberia, stopping for a swim at a waterfall and busing a wild cat sanctuary. If you don’t mess around, you can do the drive in just over 3.5 hrs.
There are some beautiful accommodation options around Monteverde, from glamping to Luxury lodges to B&Bs. We rented a house, and the host even delivered dinner for us in the evening.
You can take a day tour to Monteverde from San Jose, like this one, 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 (6.30 am and 2.30 pm).
We spent one night in Monteverde, which gave us enough time to see the cloud forest, visit the hummingbird gallery, and do a nocturnal tour. But you could easily add another day and explore more walking trails in reserve. A visit to Monteverde is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica on a budget.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Driving distance to Quepos: 194 km. Time 3.5 hrs
From the misty mountains of the continental divide, we headed back to the coast and to Manuel Antonio National Park via Playa Hermosa. One of the most popular Costa Rican National Parks, Manuel Antonio, is also one of the most crowded. 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. In the few hours that we spent in the park, we saw Three-toed and Two-toed sloths, Crab-eating raccoons, South American squirrel monkeys, Howler monkeys, and of course, lots of birds and reptiles.
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. You can also visit Manuel Antonio on an organized tour, like this one from San Jose.
There are some fantastic accommodation options in Quepos. You can rent an entire house with incredible ocean or jungle views. We found Quepos to be the perfect place to splurge on a nice house. It wasn’t even a real splurge – the accommodation in Quepos is surprisingly inexpensive.
We spent 2 nights in Quepos and visited Manuel Antonio on one day and Damas Island (more below) on the other. There are, of course, plenty of things to do in Quepos apart from watching wildlife, and you can easily spend more time in the area.
Damas Island was a bit of a secret gem on our Costa Rica itinerary. It is an ‘under the radar’ little spot 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 the country for spotting Costa Rica animals. 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 nights exploring the trails around Sirena Ranger Station. More than anything, I wanted to see one of Costa Rica’s wild cats 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 (howler monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys and capuchins), a Northern tamandua (another tree-dwelling anteater), 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 offers 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 nightfall, there are spotlighting walks that you can join if you would like to see some poison dart frogs.
Visiting Drake Bay
Drake Bay is quite a remote little town and it takes a little bit of determination to get to it. In the dry season, it can be reached by a dirt road that crosses the mountains and several rivers. But in the rainy season, you need to get to Sierpe and take a boat up the Río Sierpe to Drake Bay.
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 a 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 eruptions. 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’s 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 of the volcano, like this one from San Jose.
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 Centre
Tirimbina 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 Biological Station
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.
This wraps up our epic Costa Rica itinerary to see as much of the country’s wildlife as we could in a relatively short time period. At the end of the day, we were very happy with the destinations we settled on. They allowed us to explore a range of environments from rainforests to beaches to volcanos and mountain ranges. And of course, we spotted an incredible array of wildlife, with 30 species of mammals alone. You can see our mammal species list for our trip here.
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.
More on Costa Rica
- 30 Costa Rica Animals and Where to See Them on Your Travels
- Six Stunning Wild Cats of Costa Rica
- How to Enjoy Osa Peninsula Wildlife without a Tour
- Spotting Wildlife in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica
- Corcovado Tour Review: Spotting Wild pumas in Costa Rica
- 25 Landmarks in Costa Rica to Add to Your Bucket List
- Road trip: Costa Rica Wildlife & National Parks
- Whale watching in Drake Bay, Costa Rica
- Exploring Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica
- Wildlife of La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica