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Wildlife watching in Costa Rica

Lonely PlanetLonely Planet author

For a good number of travelers, a trip to Costa Rica is synonymous with wildlife watching. When some of the world’s rarest neotropical animals can be spotted with relative ease, it’s easy to see why you should touch down in Costa Rica with a pair of binoculars in hand.

The rare Central American Squirrel Monkey is a Costa Rican resident. Image by Stan Rawrysz / CC BY-SA 2.0

The rare Central American Squirrel Monkey is a Costa Rican resident. Image by Stan Rawrysz / CC BY-SA 2.0

Scarlet Macaw

Few canopy dwellers are as majestic as these monogamous birds, whose distinctive calls are a quick indicator to stop and look up. To maximize your chances of spotting scarlet against a backdrop of verdant green, head to Parque Nacional Carara, a famous refuge for these winged beauties.

Squirrel Monkey

Regarded as one of the country’s most spectacular destinations, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is typified by rain-forest clad mountains sweeping down to the sea. With a little luck (and patience), you might experience a face-to-face encounter with its most famous inhabitant, the increasingly rare Central American squirrel monkey.

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Costa Rica is one of the few places in the world where leatherback sea turtles routinely nest. One place where you can watch these denizens of the deep roost is Playa Grande, particularly when there’s a full moon above the horizon. Pacific leatherbacks have laid their eggs at Playa Grande for thousands of years.


Seasoned wilderness guides spend entire lifetimes in the rain forests and jungles of Costa Rica without ever so much as catching a glimpse of this elusive feline. However, if you’re keen to follow the trail of spoors and footprints left by this top predator, there’s no better place than the remote and rugged Parque Internacional La Amistad.

Humpback Whale

Topping the must-see list of marine animals, humpback whales are famous for their incredible breaching displays, which are very photogenic and impossible to forget. To catch a glimpse of these gentle giants on their annual migration path add Parque Nacional Marino Ballena to your itinerary.

Baird’s Tapir

Something akin to a river rhinoceros, these lumbering beasts are one of the most distinctive animals in the rain forest. Although they are highly endangered due to habitat loss and illegal poaching, they are commonly sighted at the famed Sirena ranger station in Parque Nacional Corcovado.

Dive into the Costa Rica wildlife section for more info and fantastic photos. Or, see what our community of travelers on the Thorn Tree have to say about wildlife watching and visiting a sloth sanctuary.

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