For birders and nature enthusiasts, a visit to Costa Rica is an opportunity to discover a natural paradise and enjoy a bit of Pura Vida. This small country offers natural wonders, from rainforests to volcanic landscapes, waterfalls, and vibrant coral reefs. In this article, we’ll introduce you to the world of nature and birding in Costa Rica, from colorful birds to extraordinary wildlife, and give you suggestions for maximizing your time in this beautiful land.
For residents of North America, Costa Rica is easy to get to and reasonably priced. We traveled to Costa Rica for our first international trip after the pandemic. We’d originally planned to combine a week of exploration with a cruise but ended up cancelling the cruise and extending our land journey. So pleased we did! There are so many diverse ecosystems to explore in Costa Rica that even two weeks wasn’t enough.
Costa Rica’s unique geographical location in Central America, bridging North and South America, and its commitment to sustainability, has made Costa Rica a must-visit destination for birdwatchers of all levels. Costa Rica prioritizes its natural spaces. In 2021 the Earthshot Prize was awarded to Costa Rica in recognition to the work the country has done to recover from deforestation.
Hotspots for nature and birding in Costa Rica
With so many parks and reserves to explore choosing where to travel in Costa Rica can be challenging. You can head to the tropical rainforests to try to spot jaguars, poison dart frogs, and spectacular birds. Or combine wildlife exploration with relaxing beach days by staying near the coast. That’ll also give you the opportunity to get out on the water. The marine life in Costa Rica’s waters is fabulous – sea turtles, dolphins, humpback whales, and aquatic birds.
Here are our recommendations for some of the best places to include on your Costa Rican itinerary:
Arenal Volcano National Park
Arenal is a paradise for birders interested in both forest and wetland species. Here, you might encounter the Sunbittern, Keel-billed Toucans, and various species of woodpeckers. The park’s dry forests offer a distinct birding experience, and you might even spot a White-tailed Emerald and Keel-billed Motmot if you’re out early enough.
The Arenal area is popular with families and adventure travelers. There are opportunities for hiking near the volcano, white water rafting, braving the hanging bridges, etc.
Where to Stay: Staying in the town of La Fortuna will give you the opportunity to enjoy a soak in natural hot springs, walk the Bogarin nature trail, or take a boat trip on the Peñas Blancas River.
- The Arenal Observatory Lodge is probably the best option in the area. It has received a CST rating for sustainability. The lodge is nestled in the shadow of the volcano, and features gardens and trails for exploration.
- We stayed in a guesthouse at Silencio del Campo. it was well-priced and a great location with a hot spring feed in the swimming pool.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Located in the highlands of Costa Rica, this reserve is famous for its diverse birdlife. The Resplendent Quetzal, one of the most coveted species in Central America, lives here. You may also spot various species of tanagers, and trogons. This reserve is also home to many mammals, including monkeys (howler, spider, and white-faced capuchin monkeys), sloths, coatis, kinkajous, agoutis, and a rich array of amphibians, reptiles, and insects.
A highlight of Monteverde cloud forest reserve is the hummingbird feeding station where 9 species of hummingbirds regularly visit. We could have stayed there all day!
A guided night walk in the reserve is highly recommended. This is a fun activity for kids too.
Where to Stay:
- Hotel Belmar, one of the first hotels to be CST rated for sustainability. This is a lovely spot with farm-to-table dining and a garden to explore. I shared photos and impressions in Instagram: Hotel Belmar
Corcovado National Park
On the Osa Peninsula, this park is known for its rugged terrain and is a home to several rare and endangered birds. Keep an eye out for the Harpy Eagle, the largest and one of the most impressive raptors in the world.
Corcovado is a lush wilderness that comes alive with a variety of species, including the striking Fiery-billed Aracari, Black Guan, and Howler Monkeys.
Where to Stay:
(As we did not get to the Osa Peninsula, I cannot recommend accommodations. Next trip!)
Tortuguero National Park
This park on the Caribbean coast is famous for its lush waterways and coastal areas. Birders can observe various species of herons, kingfishers, and the elusive Agami heron. During the nesting season, sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, adding an extra layer of excitement to your nature experience, especially in the early morning. In addition to the sea turtles, wildlife lovers might spot howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths, caimans, frogs, and snakes.
Where to Stay:
Aninga Lodge comes highly recommended by our niece. It’s rated 4-stars and offers many activities. We haven’t (yet!) had the opportunity to visit Tortuguero.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is rich in wildlife. Visitors often encounter squirrel monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and howler monkeys swinging through the trees. Additionally, sloths, coatis, agoutis, iguanas, and colorful red-eyed tree frogs are easily spotted (with a guide) within the park. Don’t overlook the many reptiles, amphibians, and insects that contribute to Manuel Antonio’s biodiversity.
Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s most highly visited park. Though it is small in comparison to other national parks, its exceptional wildlife and location near tourist areas on the Pacific Ocean make it a popular park. Visitors may be inundated with guiding offers while walking into the park. Contract with a guide ahead of your visit for a more pleasant experience.
There is a beach area that’s safe for swimming but be aware that anything left on the beach is fair game for the monkeys.
Where to Stay:
- As part of our extension, we chose to stay at La Mariposa. We had a two-room suite on the corner of the hotel, with floor to ceiling glass walls and wrap-around porch. Dave rates it as his favorite hotel ever. (1.18 miles from Manuel Antonio)
- Arenas Del Mar Beachfront & Rainforest Resort is a five-star, CST rated, resort. Pricey, but perhaps worth it for a true luxury resort.
- Hotel San Bada is a four-star hotel right next to the entrance to the park and has the Sustainable Tourism CST certification.
La Selva Biological Station
Located in the Caribbean lowlands, La Selva Biological Station offers fantastic bird watching, with different species thriving in the lush surroundings during both the wet and dry seasons. Keep an eye out for tanagers, antbirds, and the elusive Great Green Macaw.
Where to Stay:
- La Quinta Sarapiquí eco-lodge comes highly recommended and earned ‘5 leaves’ CST rating. It borders the land of La Selva and is also close to the small but worth visiting Dave and Dave’s Costa Rica Nature Park.
- The Selva Verde Lodge is CST accredited for sustainability. It’s rated as a budget eco-lodge but the gardens and proximity make up for the simple accommodation.
Carara National Park
Nestled between the wet Pacific rainforest and the dry tropical forest, Carara National Park is a hotspot for birding. The park is famous for its population of scarlet macaws and over 400 other bird species. You may also spot toucans, trogons, and the striking Fiery-billed Aracari.
Where to Stay:
There are a lot of towns along the coast between Carara NP and Manuel Antonio NP all of which offer good lodging options. And there are a lot of active things to do in this area. We took the Isla Damas mangrove boat tour from Jaco with Tucanos Tours. The naturalist on board was great. We saw a lot of birds and thoroughly enjoyed our morning excursion.
This is also the Pacific Coast area where you’ll see a lot of world class surfing. Enjoy watching the experts but be cautious before entering the ocean yourself. Your hotel can advise you on safe beaches for swimming.
- This was our first stop on our last-minute extension. It was a long travel day and we were happy to find a room at Los Sueños Marriott Ocean Resort in Jaco. We enjoyed three nights here, including one day of complete rest by the incredible pool. This opulent hotel has received a CST rating for sustainability.
Palo Verde National Park
Situated in the Tempisque River Basin, Palo Verde National Park is a wetland sanctuary and haven for waterfowl and wading birds. During the dry season (December to April), it attracts thousands of birds, including the Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck.
Where to Stay:
There are few hotels close to Palo Verde National Park. You might consider staying in the Guanacaste area.
Caño Negro Lake and Wildlife Refuge
Caño Negro national wildlife refuge is a sanctuary and wetland system located near the Nicaraguan border. Birdwatchers can explore the pristine waterways and observe a remarkable diversity of waterbirds, including herons, ibises, ducks, and anhingas. Wildlife lovers might also spot caimans, turtles, and other wildlife that thrives in the wetland ecosystem.
Costa Rica birds: by the numbers
Before we begin, a caveat, Dave and I are not professional photographers. We are sharing the photos for your guidance only. All photos are ours, unless indicated with photographer credit.
Birding in Costa Rica: the birds!
Costa Rica is home to approximately 850 bird species, making it one of the world’s best destinations for birders. This remarkable diversity of bird life is largely due to the country’s geography, which lies at the crossroads of North and South America. Birds from both continents migrate to and through Costa Rica. Whether you are a novice birdwatcher or an experienced ornithologist, this country has something to offer.
Trogons – This bird family (Trogonidae) includes trogons and quetzals. Trogons have broad bills and soft, colorful, and even iridescent feathers with distinctive male and female plumage. Found only in tropical woodlands, these birds feed on insects and fruit. Trogons are known for their unique nesting habits, often using tree cavities or abandoned termite nests.
Photo of Resplendent Quetzal by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash.
Toucans – Toucans have enormous, colorful bills which in some species amount to half their body length. Toucans use their bills for various purposes, including feeding and regulating body temperature. Their playful and inquisitive nature, along with their distinctive appearance, makes them a favorite among birdwatchers in Costa Rica.
Parrots and Macaws – These birds are some of the Costa Rica superstars.
Macaws are large, vibrant parrots known for their striking plumage and impressive vocalizations. Their brilliant colors and sociable behavior make them some of the most iconic birds in the rainforests of Costa Rica. Macaws breed for life and are almost always with their partner. It’s a treat to hear the vocal duets they sing with their mates to strengthen their bonds.
Guans, chachalacas, and curassows– these are very large birds, with dull plumage, but often interesting facial ornaments. The guans and curassows live in trees, but the smaller chachalacas perch in bushes or small trees.
Motmot – The motmots have colorful plumage and two elongated, racket-tipped, central tail feathers. They display by wagging their tail feathers back and forth. Both male and females have similar coloration. Motmots are frequently spotted in the rainforests of Costa Rica.
Photo: Broad-billed Motmot
Caracara – Part of the falcon family, these birds of prey kill with their beaks instead of their talons. These birds feed on carrion and other easy prey. The caracara will dominate vultures when feeding. The crested caracara below was with a group of vultures when we took this picture.
Herons and Egrets – Herons and egrets are medium to large wading birds with long necks and legs. Unlike other long-necked birds such as storks, ibises and spoonbills, these birds fly with their necks retracted.
Owls – solitary nocturnal birds of prey. They have large forward-facing eyes and ears, a hawk-like beak, and a conspicuous circle of feathers around each eye called a facial disk.
Photo: Black and White Owl
Hawks – These birds of prey have powerful talons, hooked beaks, and keen eyesight. In Costa Rica there are over 20 species of hawks and a dozen varieties of their relatives- the eagles and kites. If you’re lucky you’ll have an opportunity to see the Harpy Eagle in Corcovado National Park.
The birds we’ve featured so far are exceptional and memorable. But the smaller birds of Costa Rica are just as special, and you don’t have to go far to see some lovely birds. In the Arenal and La Fortuna area many hotels put out fruit feeders to attract birds for their guests to enjoy.
These birds below were all photographed on the feeders next to the dining area of Silencio del Campo. What a treat to watch these birds while we drank our coffee each morning.
And a few of our more unusual bird-watching images:
Two of our more unusual bird sightings would not have been remotely possible without a knowledgeable guide accompanying us.
Left: An Emerald Toucanet seen on our night tour in the Monteverde area.
Right: The Common Potoo showing off its camouflage skills
Costa Rica Hummingbirds
These birds deserve a category of their own. There are at least 50 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. They are like little jewels darting among the flowers, lovely to observe but difficult to photograph.
Some of the most sought-after hummingbirds include the resplendent Fiery-throated Hummingbird, the striking Violet Sabrewing, and the brilliant Green-crowned Brilliant. Observing these vibrant little birds in action, as they flit among the blossoms and engage in aerial displays, is a mesmerizing experience for bird enthusiasts and nature lovers.
We were able to capture a few pictures at the hummingbird feeders in Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve.
Fun Facts about special birds of Costa Rica
- Long-tailed Manakin: This striking bird, known for its iridescent plumage and intricate courtship dances, engages in a fascinating mating behavior. Male long-tailed manakins work together in pairs to attract females. They perform coordinated dance routines to woo potential mates.
- Montezuma Oropendola: This large, striking black bird with bright orange tail feathers creates elaborate, basket-like nests that dangle from trees. The nests serve both as a home and as a means of attracting females, as females choose mates based on the quality of the nests.
- Three-wattled Bellbird: The male three-wattled bellbird is known for its unusual vocalizations. It produces a series of loud, resonant calls that sound like a cross between a bell and a cowbell. The Bellbird is one of the loudest birds in the world. Their distinctive calls can be heard echoing through the cloud forests of Costa Rica during the breeding season.
- Resplendent Quetzal: Ancient civilizations, such as the Maya and Aztec revered this quetzal and it is still considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
Beyond Birds: exploring the wonders of nature in Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s commitment to conservation and eco-friendly tourism ensures that birds and wildlife continue to thrive in their natural habitats, making it a prime destination for nature lovers. While the birds may take center stage, the lush landscapes, pristine rainforests, and diverse ecosystems draw nature enthusiasts from all over the world. Costa Rica’s 28 national parks and reserves offer an opportunity to explore a tropical wilderness, where monkeys swing through the canopy, sloths cling to tree branches, and a kaleidoscope of insects and reptiles inhabit the undergrowth.
Sloths – In the slow-paced world of Costa Rica’s tropical rainforests, sloths reign. Costa Rica is home to two main species of sloths: the Three-toed Sloth and the Two-toed Sloth.
These cute and unhurried mammals are among the most iconic and cherished animals of Costa Rica. Just visit any tourist shop and you’ll find dozens of souvenirs featuring a smiling sloth. (I know, I bought the socks…)
While their sedate nature and perpetual smile make them appear carefree, sloths play a crucial role in the ecosystem by helping to disperse seeds and providing a nutritious food source for forest predators. They spend most of their lives hanging upside down in trees, using their remarkable grip and slow movements to conserve energy. This makes spotting sloths challenging, but a local wildlife guide will help out here.
Monkeys – Costa Rica is home to four different species of monkeys, each with unique characteristics and behaviors.
The most commonly spotted are the White-faced Capuchin and Mantled Howler monkeys, often seen swinging through the treetops or foraging on the forest floor. (Stay near one of the parks and you’ll likely hear the howler monkeys calling throughout the night. Creepy…)
Spider monkeys, with their long limbs and prehensile tails, offer an awe-inspiring spectacle as they navigate the canopy with incredible dexterity.
The rare Central American squirrel monkey (center above) lives in the canopy layer of Manuel Antonio National Park. Keep a lookout to spot the troops that travel en masse through the park.
Whether you’re hiking in the cloud forests, exploring the national parks, or simply relaxing by the beach, there’s a good chance you’ll see a few of these monkeys.
Bats – There are reported to be 240 mammal species in Costa Rica, of which 109 are bats!
From the fruit-eating bats like the very cute Honduran White Bat, known for its leaf-roosting habits, to the insectivorous species such as the fishing bats that skim the water’s surface to catch their prey, Costa Rica’s bats play vital roles in the country’s ecosystems. They contribute to pollination, seed dispersal, and insect control, making them essential to the health of the environment.
Insects – Costa Rica’s biodiversity is not limited to birds and mammals. The country is also teeming with an astonishing variety of insects. The high elevation rainforests, coastal mangrove forests, and wetlands offer habitat to well over 30,000 species of insects, many of which are still undocumented.
The country holds a world record for butterfly species density with over 1200 species. The extraordinary blue morpho butterfly lives in the tropical and humid forests of Costa Rica. We saw several in Manuel Antonio National Park and elsewhere throughout the county.
Reptiles and Amphibians – Though admittedly not my favorite animals, if you are intrigued by snakes, frogs, iguanas, etc. you will not be disappointed! With a remarkable array of habitats, the country hosts a diverse range of amphibian and reptilian species.
Most impressive to my grandchildren are Costa Rica’s 200 species of snakes. These include some extraordinary species like the Eyelash Viper, the Bushmaster, and the emerald basilisk. But the one my grandsons were most intrigued with was the fer-de-lance, ‘winner’ of 72 Dangerous Animals: Latin America mini-series. I was advised to stay far away from the fer-de-lance…
For those who stay in coastal regions, encounters with sea turtles, like the impressive Leatherback Turtle, nesting on the beaches are nothing short of awe-inspiring. (I do love turtles!)
Before our first trip to Costa Rica, I thought crocodiles were only in Europe, Africa, and Asia, with alligators the alpha reptile in the Americas. But the American crocodile is found in Costa Rica and parts of South America. These large reptiles inhabit various coastal regions and river systems (including the Tarcoles River and the Tamarindo Estuary), where they can often be observed basking in the sun or swimming in the water. While crocodiles are fascinating creatures to watch from a safe distance, it’s important for both human and crocodile safety to follow posted guidelines or warnings when in areas known for crocodile populations.
I’ve shared only a fraction of Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity based on what we’ve managed to see on our travel in Costa Rica. But there is much more wildlife of Costa Rica to discover. For example:
Big Cats: The country’s national parks, such as Corcovado and Manuel Antonio, provide a habitat for several big cat species, including jaguars, pumas, and ocelots. While these cats are elusive, sightings are possible.
Marine Life: Along its extensive coastlines, Costa Rica offers incredible marine life experiences. Several species of marine turtles, such as the Leatherback, Olive Ridley, and Hawksbill turtles, nest on Costa Rica’s beaches. Visiting the coastline offers opportunities to see these turtles, as well as dolphins, whales, and a variety of colorful reef fish.
Sharks: Costa Rica is a destination for shark enthusiasts, with the chance to encounter various species like hammerhead sharks, bull sharks, and nurse sharks during diving trips to Cocos Island and other locations.
And that’s not all! There are 240 mammal species, 225 species of reptiles and over 2000 species of butterflies.
Fun facts about the wildlife of Costa Rica
- Clever Capuchin Monkeys: White-faced capuchin monkeys, known for their intelligence and resourcefulness, have developed an interesting behavior in some regions of Costa Rica. They have learned to use rocks as tools to open nuts and fruits. This tool usage is relatively rare among non-human primates and showcases their adaptability in the wild.
- Agouti Seed Dispersers: Agoutis, small mammals resembling giant guinea pigs, play a significant role in the rainforests. They are voracious consumers of nuts and seeds and have an exceptional memory for burying them. In the process, they help scatter and plant a variety of tree species, making them essential contributors to the regeneration of the rainforest.
- Red-Eyed Tree Frogs’ Camouflage: The striking red-eyed tree frog is famous for its vibrant colors and distinctive red eyes. However, during the day, they take on a completely different appearance. They tuck their legs in, close their eyes, and shift from bright green to a dull, mottled brown to blend in with the surrounding foliage, effectively becoming masters of camouflage.
Preparing for your nature trip in Costa Rica
Preparing for any nature-based trip requires careful planning to make the most of your time at your destination. The basics are discussed in detail in the Nature Traveler: 20 tips for birdwatching and enjoying wildlife, but here are a few additional steps for a successful Costa Rican adventure:
- Research Your Target Species: Start by researching the species you’re most interested in seeing – their habitat, behavior, and best season.
- The dry season, December to April, is generally ideal, as it offers optimal birding conditions and easy access to various birding hotspots.
- Plan Your Itinerary: Costa Rica may seem to be a small country, but you will not be able to tour the whole country in one trip. Many natural areas are isolated and difficult to access. Consider how best to use your time on your trip and be prepared to adjust your plans based on local conditions.
- Note: some birding and nature hotspots, Monteverde and Arenal for example, are easy to combine on one trip and are easy to get to from San José. If you’re at a loss on what parts of Costa Rica to visit, look through travel companies tour itineraries to see how they divide up time in Costa Rica.
- Lodging and Transportation: Book accommodations and transportation in advance, especially if you plan to stay in remote natural areas.
- Look for accommodations with a Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) and locations that have earned a Blue Flag to support Costa Rica’s commitment to green travel.
- Arrange transportation and transfers between your locations if at all possible. Driving can be challenging…
- Learn Some Basic Spanish: While not essential, knowing a few Spanish phrases can be very helpful, especially in rural areas where English may not be widely spoken.
- Pack Your Bags! Your optics will take up a fair amount of room, so pack light, easy-care clothing. For suggestions, read Pack Light for Costa Rica.
And as with all international trips, make sure you have all necessary travel documents and check with your doctor for recommended vaccinations. Make copies of all your essential documents, email them to yourself and/or keep paper copies in a separate location from the originals. And make sure to try some of the local restaurants. (Support local businesses for sustainable travel.)
Ethical Wildlife Conservation
Costa Rica has a strong commitment to conservation and ecotourism. It’s important as visitors to this country that we follow ethical guidelines to protect the environment. This includes staying on designated trails, not disrupting nesting or feeding behaviors, and refraining from playing recorded bird calls to attract birds. Be conscious of what constitute an ethical wildlife encounter and stay away from anything questionable.
Guided Tours and Resources
For those new to birding or unfamiliar with the local species, guided tours are readily available throughout the country. Experienced guides can help you locate specific species, interpret wildlife behavior, and offer invaluable insights into the local ecosystem.
Consider hiring a local birding guide with expertise in the area. They can greatly enhance your birding experience by helping you locate species and understand their behavior and calls. We’ve been lucky in exploring with some renowned guides in Costa Rica: Karen Castillo in Manuel Antonio National Park and, the best of the best, Giovanni Bogarin in La Fortuna. (Read Giovanni’s story from the New York Times.)
Purchase, borrow, or download a nature guide. Websites and online field guides dedicated to Costa Rican birds can also provide information about their habits, calls, and range.
By taking these steps and preparing in advance, you will make the most of your adventure in Costa Rica and enjoy the incredible diversity of nature in this beautiful country.
Costa Rica offers an unparalleled nature experience in a relatively compact and accessible package. With its lush landscapes, rich biodiversity, and welcoming approach to ecotourism, a trip to Costa Rica is a chance to observe nature while also contributing to the preservation of the planet’s diverse and fragile ecosystems. So, pack your binoculars, hiking boots, and adventurous spirit, for a fantastic trip to see the marvels of nature and birding in Costa Rica.