Around 3 million years ago, Costa Rica rose up from the ocean (thanks to the numerous volcanoes) and began to form the land bridge between North and South America. As time went on, the species in these two very different landmasses started to mingle and mix, right around where Costa Rica would eventually be. Thanks to millions of years of history, this country is perfectly placed for prime wildlife adventures.
The rainforests and jungles of Costa Rica contain more than 230 species of mammals. When venturing into the wilderness, don’t expect to find the large wild cats of your childhood films! (Unless you’re one lucky visitor!) See monkeys swinging from the branches, sloths lounging in the crooks of trees, brightly colored tree frogs, coatis, jaguars, and tapirs peering out from forested corners.
If you’re looking for turtles, Costa Rica is the place. Several species of turtles return every year to the exact same beaches along both coasts to nest in a grand procession termed arribada. The leatherback sea turtle and hawksbill sea turtle can be found on both the Caribbean Coast and Pacific Coast. Ostional Beach, Tortuguero National Park, and Playa Grande are all well-known beaches for turtle nesting. Make sure you book your trip during the nesting season but keep in mind that it an arribada is never guaranteed.
Related Article: Best Costa Rica Sea Turtle Nesting Sites: Where To Go When
Cost Rica has the longest whale watching season in the world! Humpback whales, pilot whales, blue whales, and Pseudo-Orca whales have all been seen off the Costa Rican coasts. The most popular of these is the humpback whale which can be seen nearly year-round. From December to early April, the Northern Hemisphere California Humpback Whales come to the Pacific Coast to breed, and from late to July to November, the Southern Hemisphere Antarctic Humpback Whales come to the Pacific. Whales can be seen all along the Pacific Coast, but are found in the largest concentrations along the Southern Coast and Osa Peninsula.
Related Article: Costa Rica Whale Watching Guide: Where To Go When
The vibrant red color of the scarlet macaw makes it a stand-out among rainforest birds. These beautiful birds are most commonly seen in pairs as they mate for life. Their diet consists mostly of fruit, seeds, and vegetation. The best places to see scarlet macaws are in Carara National Park on the Central Pacific coast and on the Osa Peninsula.
There are four monkey species in Costa Rica: white-faced capuchin, mantled howler, squirrel monkey, and the spider monkey. These guys travel in troops. So if you see one, you’ll probably see the whole gang! Monkeys can be found up and down both coasts, but are much less common in the central valley and interior highlands. All four species can be found on the Osa Peninsula on the South Pacific coast. Perhaps one of the most well-known destinations for monkey sightings is Manuel Antonio National Park. Manuel Antonio monkeys are nearly tame but can be almost aggressive if you have food as a result of travelers feeding them. Please do not feed the monkeys, and hold tight to your snacks!
If Costa Rica had a mascot, it would be the tree frog. There are many different species, but the most famous the red-eyed tree frog. Its bright red eyes and orange feet protect it from predators who perceive the frog to be poisonous. As their name suggests, you’ll need to look in the trees to see a red-eyed tree frog. They rarely ever can be found on or near the forest floor. Fun fact: the red-eyed tree frog only lives about four to five years.
Costa Rica is also home to the giant blue morpho butterfly and contains more butterfly species than the whole continent of Africa. At 615 species of flora and fauna per 10,000 square kilometers, Costa Rica makes the USA with 104 seem paltry!
How could we forget the sloth? These curious creatures are on nearly every wildlife enthusiast’s bucket list. There are two types of sloth species in Costa Rica: the two-toed sloth and the three-toed sloth. You are more likely to see a three-toed sloth as they are out and about during the day. The toe-toed sloth is nocturnal. To see a toe-toed sloth, we suggest booking a night hike and keeping your eyes and ears open for any canopy rustling.
Related Article: Sloth Sanctuary Rising Starlet: Buttercup
Who hasn’t always wanted to see a toucan? Thank you, Toucan Sam, for piquing our curiosity at a young age. There are six toucan species in Costa Rica. The most popular of which are the Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan and the Keel-Billed Toucan. The Keel-Billed Toucan has a brightly colored yellow neck and a multitude of green, blue, orange, and red on his bill, while the Chesnut-Mandibled Toucan’s bill is bright yellow and deep red. Toucans are also frugivorous which means they feed exclusively on fruit (not Froot Loops).
Okay, so the Wildcats of Costa Rica are not exactly on the must-see list. In fact, you would be one of the lucky few if you saw an endangered Wildcat in its native habitat. There are six species of Wildcats in Costa Rica: Oncilla, Margay, Puma, Jaguar, Jaguarundi, and the Ocelot. Wildcats are primarily live in Corcovado National Park, but can sometimes be seen in wildlife rescue sanctuaries.
Animals After Dark
Out and about after dark? Don’t forget to keep an eye on the skies! Costa Rica is one of the only countries in the world where the number of bats out numbers rodents. Costa Rican bats feed on everything: nectar, fish, and insects. You’ll have to have sharp eyes to spot the tiny Honduran white bat – these little flyers look like balls of fluff.
Browse our Nature Vacations page for trips that include the best places to spot wildlife.
Related Article: Big Five Animals of Costa Rica