5 wild animals you've got a good chance to see in Costa Rica

A scarlet macaw on a branch in Costa Rica

It’s no exaggeration to say that Costa Rica is one of the best places in the world for wildlife-watching.

More than a quarter of Costa Rica falls within a national park, preserve, or other protected area, and ecotourism is a huge part of the economy. The country is home to incredible biodiversity, including more than 800 species of birds, 400-plus species of reptiles and amphibians, and better than 200 species of mammals. 

Not every wild animal is easy to find, though. Many species are elusive, nocturnal, well-camouflaged, or all 3. We round up 5 native Costa Rican animals you've got a good chance of seeing during your visit.

A howler monkey in the jungle in Costa Rica

1. Mantled howler monkey

Spend much time in Costa Rica and you'll likely hear the roaring of the mantled howler—a defining sound in the country, especially in the morning and evening. These big, dark-haired monkeys, among the heaviest in Central America, have major sets of pipes: The deep-throated calls of the male howlers can be heard from several miles away. 

Mantled howlers travel in large groups and feed mostly on foliage. Navigating the rainforest canopy with grippy hands and feet and prehensile tails, they also spend hours just lounging around. 

Keep your ears and eyes peeled for mantled howlers just about anywhere in Costa Rica, including national parks such as Guanacaste, Barra Honda, and Arenal Volcano.

A red-eyed tree frog on a leaf in Costa Rica

2. Red-eyed tree frog

Costa Rica is home to an enormous variety of tree-dwelling frogs, including colorful poison dart frogs and translucent glass frogs. Maybe none are more famous than the red-eyed tree frog—its neon colors and charismatic face make it a de facto mascot for Central American rainforests. Those red eyes aren't just for show, either: frogs flash them at predators to startle them and buy time to escape. 

Red-eyed tree frogs are common across Costa Rica wherever the climate is moist enough for them, including Manuel Antonio, Corcovado, and Tortuguero national parks, as well as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. While they're nocturnal, it's possible to find them during the day by looking closely for their well-camouflaged green bodies on foliage (they cover their more colorful parts while sleeping during the day). The truly intrepid can seek them out at night!

An American crocodile in a river in Costa Rica

3. American crocodile

Along with the smaller spectacled caiman, the American crocodile is 1 of 2 crocodilian species native to Costa Rica. Tolerant of salt water, American crocs range from rivers and marshes to coastal lagoons, mangrove swamps, and even nearshore ocean waters. Some can reach a whopping 20 feet or so in length, though most aren’t as big. 

Feeding on everything from crabs and fish to sea turtles and large mammals, American crocs are lightning fast on the hunt, but spend most of the time basking and (watchfully) floating.

Often seen in such national parks as Tortuguero and Santa Rosa, these huge reptiles are most famously on view at the Tarcoles River Bridge on the Pacific coast. Here, a dozen or more crocs are generally always visible.

Two scarlet macaws in Costa Rica

4. Macaws

Costa Rica hosts some of the most spectacular birds in the world, including the keel-billed toucan and the elusive quetzal. Among these are the country’s macaws, huge, colorful parrots with massive bills and long tails. 

Costa Rica is home to 2 macaws, the scarlet and the great green. Both nearly vanished from the country, but conservation efforts have helped bring them back. The red, blue, and yellow-plumaged scarlet macaw is found along the Pacific coast, readily seen in Corcovado and other protected forests.

The great green macaw—one of the biggest macaws (and parrots) in the world—is a rarer resident of the Caribbean side of the country, with Tortuguero National Park and Maquenque Wildlife Refuge good places to look.

A humpback whale tail breach the ocean's surface

5. Humpback whale

Costa Rican wildlife isn’t just restricted to land. From sea turtles to sharks, there’s a lot to see offshore as well. Of numerous species of marine mammals, the most celebrated is the humpback whale.

Costa Rica is one of the best places to see these acrobatic giants. Not 1, but 2 entirely separate populations—1 summering in the Northern Hemisphere, 1 in the Southern—spend their respective winters off Central America’s Pacific coast, many in Costa Rican waters.

From about July to October, humpbacks from the Antarctic enjoy their Costa Rican residency. Between December and April, North Pacific humpbacks that summer along the western coast of North America as far north as Alaska hang out here.

Most of the year, in other words, humpbacks are cruising, spy-hopping, and breaching off Costa Rica’s Pacific shores, delighting whale watchers (A smaller number of humpbacks also winter off the Caribbean coast).

A jaguar seen through foliage in Costa Rica

Bonus: Jaguar

OK, so the chances are slim you’ll see a jaguar in Costa Rica. The biggest wild cat of the Americas—males may weigh more than 300 pounds—is elusive, and does much of its prowling under cover of darkness. But you’ll at least have a shot catching a glimpse of this great spotted feline (or seeing its imposing tracks) in places such as Corcovado National Park.

Jaguars are powerful carnivores, boasting the strongest jaws for their size among the big cats, which comes in handy cracking open turtle shells or tearing into armored caimans. Top predators in Costa Rica (and wherever they’re found), jaguars also hunt peccaries, tapirs, armadillos, monkeys, and just about anything else they can catch.

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