Here’s looking at you from Costa Rica
The monkeys, birds, frogs and other tropical wildlife of Costa Rica are out there waiting for you to arrive and with a bit of luck you’ll come home with tons of great memories and even a few excellent photos.
The Best Ways to Spot Wildlife in Costa Rica
- Go where the wildlife is – Seems obvious but it’s easier said than done. If you’re not picky you’ll probably find monkeys, sloths and tons of tropical bird species at nearly any wildlife refuge, national park or reserve. However, if you have a particular species in mind like sea turtles or quetzals you’ll want local expertise while planning your trip so you end up visiting the right habitats. Quetzals are easiest to spot in the cloud forests where their favorite food the wild avocado grows and sea turtles arrive by the thousands in what’s called an arribada to nest at particular beaches.
- Get a guide – Even novices will see some birds and other animals while walking around on their own but local guides see with almost magical clarity through eyes that grew up spotting the creatures of the rainforest. They know whether to look down or up (and probably which variety of tree to search in) when something makes a noise, they understand signs like scat, tracks and markings on leaves and branches, and in this modern age they share location information for particularly interesting sightings via cell phone with fellow guides in the area. At least once on your trip take advantage of the services of a pro.
- Go while the wildlife is there – It’s tough to drag yourself out of bed before the crack of dawn but you’ll be rewarded with some spectacular sunrises and ten times more animals. It’s crazy hot and sultry at mid-day in the tropics and the wildlife is smart enough to know when to hunker down and take a siesta. The five hours after first light and before 10:00 am are prime time but if you absolutely can’t pry your eyes open that early then late afternoon and evening are second best. A guided night hike is the only way you’ll see many species that are purely nocturnal. Choosing the best time of year for your visit is also important because although it may seem like an endless summer in the tropics but there are actually huge seasonal variations correlated with snow up north and down south, rainfall patterns, tree flowering and fruiting and many more factors.
- Go to a Zoo – Sounds like a smart remark but I’m serious. There are dozens of places where you can see wildlife in enclosures, cages and terrariums and you can also learn a lot about their natural habits and habitats that will help you spot them later when you’re on the trail. These are also great opportunities to get photos and video from much closer range than you can ever hope for in the wild – even professional videographers get much of their footage in controlled environments. Most “zoos” in Costa Rica serve dual purposes of allowing visitors a close up look and rescuing and rehabilitating injured or displaced animals so by paying your entrance fee you’re supporting a good cause.
- Look down to see what’s up – Scat is hard to find and even harder to identify and interpret but any time you see healthy green leaves, displaced epiphytes, or even half eaten fruit on the ground it’s a good indication that a troop of white-throated Capuchin or flock of chestnut-mandible Toucans recently moved through the treetops.
- Take what you can get – It took 22 years for Sue and I to finally spot a tapir in the wild but we must have seen over a hundred other amazing species while visiting Corcovado, Los Quetzales, Chirripó and other National Parks that support tapir populations. Never pass up an opportunity to take a look through the spotting scope of the tour group ahead of you when invited and don’t be too proud to stop at the Tarcoles river bridge to check out the crocodiles alongside the dozens of other tourists surrounded by hawkers selling “I survived the Croc bridge” t-shirts. If you do have a bucket list species that you can’t live without seeing plan ahead to be in the right place at the right time, take a guide and a lot of luck and patience…or visit a wildlife rescue…
- Ask a local – Ticos take a great deal of pride in their ecological and conservation heritage but if you don’t ask it may never occur to them to point out the thimble sized humming bird nest hanging from the clothes line behind your lodge or the mot-mot tunnel in the bank alongside the driveway (yes, it’s a bird that nests in a hole in the wall which you might know if you read and heed number 4.) because to them it’s just an everyday part of life.
- Listen don’t look – Unless your eyes have been conditioned by years of filtering out the background to find the outline of a búho camouflaged on its perch your ears may be a better tool for searching out wildlife. Howler monkeys are very vocal and make one of the most distinctive and downright loud calls of any animal but little rustlings in the leaves in the trees or on the ground provide clues to where to focus your eyes to see frogs, snakes, insects or maybe even a tapir if you’re fantastically lucky.
- Lug around binoculars – The best look I ever got at an endangered king vulture was last week as we were getting in the car after a long day in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest Reserve when my hiking partner spotted a white dot against the skyline in a treetop on a ridgeline about a half kilometer away. Without the binoculars it would have never been anything but a mysterious white dot. Also see number 6. “Take what you can get.” Just because you saw it from the parking lot doesn’t mean it doesn’t count! – the same goes for bars, buses, shopping malls and hotel room windows.
- Sit still – One of the hardest “activities” in wildlife watching is just doing nothing. Even when you think you’re walking stealthily to sharp ears you’re making a heck of a racket that freezes the wildlife in their tracks. While you’re still is a great time to scan around with the binoculars for things invisible to the naked eye while you wait for the animals nearby to resume their normal activity and make a tiny sound that you can notice once your heavy breathing and leaf crunching isn’t interfering.
Nearly everyone returns from Costa Rica with a wonderful list of remarkable things they spotted and even after 22 years of trekking the remotest trails we still see something new almost every time we go. Last night we returned from a visit that included sighting our first tapir, a mi casera snake and a pair of margay cats along with a dozen new birds and hundreds of butterflies, beetles, seeds, orchids that we didn’t know before.