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Visiting Costa Rica’s Caño Negro National Park

May 29, 2021

Northern Costa Rica is home to the third most important wetland in the world, Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge. It is situated in a remote area close to the Nicaragua border, approximately 20 kilometers south of Los Chiles and near the village of Caño Negro in the province of Alajuela. In 2007, it was declared by UNESCO as part of the worldwide water and peace biosphere reserve.

Visiting Caño Negro National Park

Many people visit Costa Rica for its eco-tourism, and this refuge is truly the place to experience it and without the large crowds. There are many tours to the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge; however, many do not take you within, so it is important to inquire with your company the specifics of your tour.

You do not want to miss out on entering the refuge to experience the wildlife that has made this haven home. There are tours via riverboat with local guides that will take you through these protected wetlands and are the best way to have a true look at the amazing biodiversity.

These knowledgeable guides have the experience to recognize the caimans, snakes, and emerald basilisk that hide within. You will travel along the waterways, at times making your way into canals surrounded by the flora and fauna at arm’s length.

The effect of both the Caribbean Ocean and the Pacific is what encourages such diversity in the plant and animal species that flourish here. The peace and tranquility of moving through the water with only the sounds of pure nature around you is truly remarkable. With over 100 hectares of lagoons, the hiding places for wildlife are endless.

During the drier months tours still do run within the Rio Frio and are anywhere from 2 to 3 hours depending on your tour operator. Boats are usually covered to help protect you from the rains so you can still have the opportunity to enjoy your journey and search for wildlife.

The forests offer protection for three species of monkeys residing here — the howler, spider, and capuchins — which is crucial to maintaining their sustainability.  While traveling through, listen for the distinctive howls of the howler monkeys echoing above. Deer, sloths, anteaters, and the rarely seen ocelots, jaguars, and pumas are deep within the wildlife refuge.

Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland marsh and is in existence because of two rivers, Rio Frio and River Monica. The rainy season typically lasts from the months of May to November where these rivers begin to overflow and the marshes become full.  Within the refuge is the Caño Negro lagoon, which is approximately 3 meters deep.

During the rainy season you have the chance to silently float within the open lagoon in search of some of the beautiful birds and fish. Imagine knowing that you are floating above a living fossil, the Gaspar fish, a fish that has barely changed in its appearance for millions of years.

Caño Negro Tower

A special feature is the 18-meter Caño Negro tower, giving you a bird’s eye view of the Caño Negro lagoon.  You can climb to the top of this tower when the refuge is flooded but it is only accessible by boat. Your boat driver may maneuver their way over to the tower and if so, definitely take the opportunity to have a remarkable view.

You will see why this is the perfect habitat for birdwatching and why so many species feel safe to rest here.  However, if you are visiting during the dry season, most of this lagoon evaporates and cannot be accessed.

Nature and bird lovers will feel like they are in paradise while observing the lagoons. Storks, ibis, cormorants, and ospreys are only a small sample of the over 200 species of birds within the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge.  It is an important stopover for migratory birds making their way from Northern America to South America.

These protected wetlands provide a sanctuary for many species of birds to sustain their existence. You don’t need to be a bird expert to appreciate and be in awe of the many species using this stopover as a place for some rest on their long journey and to feed. Visitors may have the opportunity to admire such birds as the blue-winged teals, green-backed herons, roseate spoonbills, the rare Nicaraguan grackles, and tree ducks.

If you are wanting a more private and secluded experience, you are able to canoe and kayak within the wildlife refuge. Going at your own pace, exploring the different waterway channels, canoeing and kayaking give you a chance to get into the smaller spaces within the wetlands up along the banks.  These are the only two modes of exploration as there are no hiking trails.

The Northern Hemisphere summer months in Costa Rica are characterized by the rains, which is why it is also referred to here as the rainy season.  During these months it can make it difficult to reach the wildlife refuge, often at times making it impossible to reach.  When this occurs the only mode of transportation to reach this destination is by boat.  However, when the roads are dry you can make your way by land.

What to Know about Your Visit

Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge is $5 for foreigners and 800 colones for nationals.  The ranger station is available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and open every day of the week; however, the refuge itself does not have official hours.  There are restrooms available at the ranger station but not within.

When packing, ensure you bring plenty of bug repellant, sunscreen, closed-toe shoes, and of course binoculars as many say this is one of the best places in Costa Rica for bird watching.

It is recommended to visit during May to December when the lagoon is full and marshes fill up during mid-December to mid-February.  During this time, it will give any bird and nature lover the real essence of the wildlife refuge.

Spend the day at Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge and immerse yourself in Costa Rica’s true natural environment and wetland of international importance as declared in December 1991.

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