With its amazing biodiversity and impressive species count, and with 26 percent of its territory under conservation, Costa Rica is the place to come and observe wildlife. Right? Well, yes and no. The country’s national parks and reserves provide protected habitat for all these animals to feed, roam and just “be.” However, some people come away disappointed not to see tapirs, jaguars and anteaters as shown in many a TV nature program. Spotting animals in the wild can take patience, the right time of day and weather conditions, and a slice of good luck.
But with some planning, you can ensure that you and your animal-mad kids have great visual encounters with some of Costa Rica’s emblem creatures. To help you do that, we’ve put together the following list of reserves, rescue centers and parks where close animals encounters are assured. Note: Your best bet for good sightings in the two national parks mentioned here is to get there early, before the crowds and the heat of the day send most creatures deep into the forest.
ZooAve – San José de Alajuela, north of Juan Santamaría International Airport, 2433-8989, www.zooavecostarica.org, open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, entrance ₡3,900 residents, ₡7,500 tourists, ₡2,000 children
Despite the name, this is not a zoo but a private bird and animal refuge, breeding and rehabilitation station. Native species are reintroduced into protected wild zones. Good for scarlet and green macaws, toucans and quetzals, but ZooAve also features jaguars, pumas, monkeys, tapirs, turtles, iguanas, peccaries and some non-native species.
Toucan Rescue Ranch – San Isidro de Heredia, 30 minutes north of airport, 2268-4041, www.toucanrescueranch.com, open daily by reservation only, entrance ₡4,000/₡2,000 resident adults/children, $15/$7.50 nonresident adults/kids
A private rescue facility to study, rescue and if possible rehabilitate toucans. Also a captive breeding program for all five toucan species found in Costa Rica. You can also see owls, macaws, whistling ducks, porcupines and kinkajous. Funding comes from an adoption program, tours and two small guesthouses ($115 per night for five guests, including tour).
Refugio Herpetelógico de Costa Rica – Alto de las Palomas, old road between Escazú and Santa Ana, 2282-4614, www.refugioherpetologico.com, open 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, entrance ₡2,000 adults, ₡1,500 seniors and kids under 12, nonresidents $14 adults, $11 students, $7 kids under 12
For biologist Rodolfo Vargas, the “snake refuge” started as a personal project to receive confiscated animals from the Environment Ministry or the local fire service. But he needed funds to maintain the increasing variety of snakes, reptiles, monkeys, parrots and turtles in his care, so he opened to the public last year. The star is Sobek, a huge crocodile, whose front feet were amputated by farmers to stop him wandering into their fishponds. Tours are offered in English or Spanish, and you can become a Friend of the Refugio.
Curú Wildlife Reserve – Nicoya Peninsula, 6 km south of Paquera ferry, 2641-0100, www.curuwildliferefuge.com, open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily, entrance $10
Still a working farm but with 80 percent given over to protected forest and the reserve, Curú embraces a sandy sea cove with safe swimming. The reserve features a long-term program to reintroduce scarlet macaws and spider monkeys in the area, as well as eight trails to look for capuchin and howler monkeys, agoutis, basilisk lizards, white-tailed deer, peccaries, coatis and otters.
La Marina Wildlife Rescue Center – San Carlos de Alajuela, 8.5 km northeast of Ciudad Quesada, between Palmera and Aguas Zarcas, 2474-2202, www.zoocostarica.com, open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, entrance $8 adults, $5 children
This privately funded center opened in 1957 to care for confiscated or injured animals, and boasts a highly successful, world-recognized Baird’s tapir breeding program, with the latest tapir born in October. The 12-hectare facility has a new jaguar compound donated by Jaguar Motors. Some 50 green and scarlet macaws have been reintroduced into the area near La Marina, and 200 animals are reintroduced into the wild each year. Some 450 species can be found here, either in captivity or free to roam the grounds. Oddities include African lions and ostrich.
Tárcoles Bridge – 25 km south of Orotina, where the Costanera highway crosses the Tárcoles River
Lots of crocodiles bask under the sun in the shallow river waters under this bridge on the road to Jacó. It is good for birdlife, too, with herons, frigate birds and often scarlet macaws. Warning: The bridge walkway is narrow and trucks rumble close by, so keep children well under control. The best side to park is the north side, as it is a closer walk to view the crocs. Like it or not, people sometimes encourage them to hang around by feeding them raw chicken or meat.
If crocodiles are your thing, you can take a boat tour with Jungle Crocodile Safari, starting from nearby Tárcoles village. Four two-hour tours per day are offered with bilingual guides to explore the Tárcoles River and its reptilian populations (2637-0338, www.junglecrocodilesafari.com, $30 per person, bottled water or juice provided).
Carara National Park – Just past Tárcoles River on Costanera highway, 8383-9953, open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, last entry 3 p.m., entrance $10 adults, $1 kids under 12, $2 Costa Rican residents, registration at ranger station
This park features unique transition forest where Mesoamerican dry meets Amazonian humid rain forest, with an abundance of wildlife from both ecosystems. Three well-shaded short trails start at the main entrance, ideal for younger feet. Look for scarlet macaws and toucans, and spider, howler and capuchin monkeys. A fourth trail leaves from the road two kilometers north of the main entrance, to Laguna Meándrica and a lagoon viewpoint. Freelance guides will help you spot creatures for $20 per person. Restrooms, a picnic area and drinking water are available, but no food.
Jaguar Rescue Center – Playa Chiquita, 6 km south of Puerto Viejo on the southern Caribbean coast, 2750-0710, www.jaguarrescue.com, Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., entrance $15
Note: You will not see any jaguars here. In 2007, a baby jaguar whose mother had been killed was passed on to the center’s owners, primate expert Encar García and naturalist Sandro Alviani. Too traumatized and dehydrated, it didn’t survive, but they named the rescue center in its honor. Jaguar does rescue, care and reintroduction of monkeys, wildcats, sloths, raccoons, anteaters, marsupials, porcupine, deer, reptiles and owls. You can enter the baby howler monkey enclosure to get up close and personal.
Sloth Sanctuary – From Limón, 30 km south toward Cahuita, 2750-0775, www.slothsanctuary.com, open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, entrance $25 adults, $15 kids 5-11
This is the world’s first rescue, research and rehabilitation center for two- and three-toed sloths. Buttercup, the matriarch sloth, was rescued in 1991 and still rules at the center. Tours include a short introductory video, a visit to the sloth enclosures and a canoe trip to look for white-faced and howler monkeys. The Sloth Sanctuary can get busy with cruise ship tours, so check first.
Cahuita National Park – 43 km south of Limón, 2755-0461, open 6 a.m.-5 p.m., last entry 4 p.m., entrance for donation fee and registration at Kelly Creek station, or $10 from Puerto Vargas
The easy beach and forest trail here is about 9 km from the Kelly Creek station in Cahuita to the Puerto Vargas ranger station and back to the highway. Buses go past every hour to return to Cahuita. The Río Suárez has to be crossed and can reach 1 meter deep at high tide – you will get wet! There are beautiful white-sand beaches at each trailhead (others are protected turtle nesting areas) with snorkeling close to shore. Chances are excellent here to see howler and capuchin monkeys, iguanas, toucans, herons, ibis and, if you are early enough and quiet, agoutis, coatis, raccoons and sloths. Restrooms and drinks are available at the ranger station. Best time to visit is March-April or September-October for drier months.
Quetzal’s Paradise – Inter-American Highway, Km 70, southeast of San José, 2771-4582, www.quetzalsparadise.com, three-hour tours $10 per person
At 2,650 meters, hunting for the resplendent quetzal can be a bracing challenge, but if you want to spot this emblematic bird of Central America, this is the place. The best season to see the male sporting his ridiculously long tail feathers is April and May. Accommodations are available.