Into the Wild in Costa Rica

From scarlet macaws to leatherback turtles, Costa Rica’s unique biodiversity is a world all its own.


Though small, Costa Rica’s ocean-flanked mass is packed with enough flora and fauna to make biologists dizzy and animal lovers tickled. A family trip to the Central American country to view wildlife is sure to be a learning experience, as children of all ages will delight in seeing a suspended sloth or a dazzling red macaw grace the tropical canopy.

Critter Count

Giant leatherback turtles, olive ridley green turtles, scarlet macaws, quetzals, tapirs, three-toed sloth, spider and howler monkeys, dolphins and tropical fish are just a few of Costa Rica’s diverse varieties of animal life. Because the country is so small and its habitats so compact, animal sightings are pretty much guaranteed in Costa Rica anywhere outside of the capital.

Best Sighting Seasons

While creatures are abundant in the land of pura vida, or “pure life,” it does help to know when and where to go for the best chance to spot critters, and to enlist the aid of a guide. When it comes to quetzals and sea turtles, it’s best to go during nesting season. For those with their heart set on glimpsing the emerald resplendent quetzal, go during their mating season from March to June, and keep all eyes on the trees. Quetzals are mostly found in the cloud forests of Monteverde.

Monkeys are some of the easiest animals to spot, and I remember great numbers of capuchin monkeys thrashing around the canopies of Manuel Antonio on the Pacific side of the country. Another critter I was lucky enough to see a few times in Monteverde was the three-toed sloth. For sloth sightings, keep your eyes on the tree limbs and watch out for a bit of misplaced leafy fur. Sloths are whitish brown, but their fur usually takes on a green hue. With a bit of luck and patience it’s not hard to view these laid-back Bradypodidaes

Green turtles nest on the Pacific side of the county from June to December. However, if you really want to see baby turtles scuttling to the sea, hatchlings are promised in September and October. Viewing endangered turtles requires going with a guide (more below). On Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, leatherback turtles are common in Tortuguero, literally translating to ‘place full of turtles.’ Tortuguero is set against a maze of mangroves on one side and the sea on the other. The mangroves are bustling with wildlife, especially birds, and can be explored by boat with a guide.

Turtle Play and Preservation

One of the most rewarding ways to spot a turtle is to volunteer with an endangered turtle protection project. Alec Hutchinson with PRETOMA (Programa Restauración de Tortugas Marinas) has had many family volunteers come to help with mother turtles and their hatchlings. Hutchinson says that children as young as 3 years old come to help on the project. “If visiting with parents, we do not set a minimum age, but I would say that children 8 and above generally are able to have a more integral experience in the program,” said Hutchinson.

One-week trips without frills start at $330 per person and most of the volunteer work is done at night when the turtles are active. Volunteering includes finding nests and moving them to a safe-zone, tagging and measuring turtles and helping with baby turtles. This is a very hands-on experience that children and adults can both appreciate.
Contact Information: Tel. 506-2241-52-27.

Base Camp/Where to Stay

On the Pacific: Besides the locations for the PRETOMA nesting projects, other fauna-filled locales on the Pacific are Manuel Antonio and the Osa Peninsula. While Manuel Antonio is touristy, the Osa is much more remote and harder to get to. Both are great options depending on the desired experience.

In the Mountains: For mountain-dwelling creatures, head to Monteverde, a small town surrounded by three lush reserves in a cloud forest. There are few cloud forests in the world, and the unique flora and fauna in Monteverde is one-of-a-kind.

On the Caribbean: Tortuguero is teeming with wildlife on the Caribbean, and staying in one of the lodges along the mangroves is your best bet. South of Tortuguero, families who want to combine wildlife with beautiful beaches can stay in Puerto Viejo and take day-trips to Cahuita National Park.  

Destinations: Costa Rica, Monteverde, Tortuguero, Manuel Antonio National Park

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel

Activities: Hiking, Bird Watching, Sightseeing

User Comments

I would love to go on one of these costa rica expeditions just to see and study the wildlife there. I especially want to see the sea turtles, and maybe even help with their preservation in some way. There isn't much need for that where I'm living now.

In the Wild! I'll never forget our brief stop en route from the Puerto Jimenez airport (Osa Peninsula) to Bosque del Cabo, the rain forest lodge where we were staying (nothing like the Hyatt- highly recommended!) to hear and see the howler monkeys. The "drive" from the airport seemed to be straight out of Indiana Jones: lush vegitation, a deeply rutted road that only the driver knew how to navigate, small streams we had to cross... It was exciting! When the driver stopped and announced that there were howler monkeys in the trees, I couldn't have been more excited. The loud, guttural howls of the male monkeys were like nothing I'd ever heard- before or since. That was the first of many wild animal experiences during our week-long trip in the Osa Peninsula- a trip I'll never forget!

Volunteer here!! Will definitely volunteer for PRETOMA next time I'm visiting!

Turtles rock! When working for PRETOMA, I wonder if after a hard night's work they serve you breakfast?

Sign me up! Ok, I'm ready to go!

Make sure to stop by the Canas Blancas Animal Sanctuary! One of the wonders of the wild Osa Peninsula is Canas Blancas. Some great folks bought a piece of land there and settled to create an animal sanctuary, where they take in all kinds of injured animals needing special care. The sanctuary is a half day tour across the Golfo Dulche (Sweet Gulf). You can catch a boat from Puerto Jimenez. It is a wonderful place to see these creatures of the jungle up close and help out a good cause. They work only on donations and have dedicated themselves in the rehabilitation of the local animals. Kids have wonderful tales to tell after this adventure!

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