Costa Rica: Wildlife

If there’s one place on earth that’s destined to turn you into a David-Attenborough-in-training, it’s Costa Rica. The Central American country is home to a variety of climates and habitats, and some four per cent of the world’s species call the country home.

As a result you can barely move in this magnificent country without coming across one spectacular creature or another. From venomous snakes to noisy howler monkeys, shy armadillos, sleeping toucans and hairy tarantulas, Costa Rica is a wildlife lover’s dream.

Here are some of the many incredible creatures I was lucky enough to meet during my trip…


A howler monkey walks across some cables

Costa Rica is home to four species of monkey – spider, capuchin, howler and squirrel. I studied primatology as part of my anthropology degree and it’s been one of my lifelong dreams to meet a primate in the wild.

Despite coming super close to seeing monkeys while kayaking in Vietnam, it wasn’t until I went to Costa Rica that I really encountered them.

Rather aptly given their name, I heard howler monkeys before I saw them. I was walking around Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park just before dusk when the monkeys began (very!) loudly marking their territory.

While I didn’t see any that day, I was certainly aware of their presence – howler monkeys have the loudest call of any monkey.

They’re also the biggest primate in Costa Rica and can be found throughout the country, so I didn’t have long to wait until I laid eyes upon them. The next day we found a large troop (above) outside a roadside café near the shore of Lake Arenal.

There were quite a few of them moving through the trees and along the telephone wires, and while they briefly stopped to look at the humans who’d congregated below, they soon went back to ignoring us.

It was amazing seeing so many of them all at once and I couldn’t believe my luck. My first time seeing monkeys in the wild was a moment I’ll never forget.

A capuchin monkey in a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

The other monkey I was lucky enough to encounter was the capuchin monkey (above). I first spied the creatures high in the trees in a national park in Monteverde, but when I was hiking around Manuel Antonio National Park I got to see them up close when they ran past my feet and perched on branches within touching distance.

I had to be really careful not to smile in their presence, which was easier said than done, as baring your teeth to them is a sign of aggression.

I couldn’t believe I’d come so close to these wonderful creatures and spent most of the day with a huge grin on my face.


A sloth hangs upside down from a tree

These sleepy, slow-moving creatures are the animal I most associate with Costa Rica as I came across them all over the country, usually super high in the trees so you needed someone with good eye sight (not me!) to spot them.

There are two types of sloth – the three-toed and the two-toed. The two-toed sloth is the bigger of the two, while the three-toed sloth can turn its head a terrifying 360°.

Sloths are super cute, but a nightmare to photograph (they just love to camouflage themselves among the trees) – the photo above was one of the best I could manage, despite countless attempts.


A beautiful white and pink roseate spoonbill wading in the Tarcoles River

Some 800 species of bird call Costa Rica home at some point during the year, and as a result, it’s a paradise for ornithologists.

I saw a wide variety of birds during my trip, from pretty plumed song birds to scarlet macaws and long-legged wading birds. Not to mention lots of toucans, with their spectacular distinctive beaks, both asleep and awake in the trees.

I spotted a number of wading birds while on a safari down the Tárcoles River, including the magnificent roseate spoonbill (above), great egrets, the yellow crowned night heron and little blue heron.


A viper curled on a tree trunk in Arenal National Park

There are lots of snakes in Costa Rica, some 135 different species in all, but for those of you who aren’t fans of the slithering reptiles, don’t worry they tend to keep themselves hidden, usually on tree branches.

My guides spotted all the snakes I encountered, including this cute viper above.

Most of Costa Rica’s snakes are harmless but there are a few venomous ones, including one that a guide told me has such a strong jaw it can bite through a helmet into your skull and inject you with venom.

I wasn’t sure if that was entirely accurate, but I nevertheless kept a safe distance, and when I was on a night-time safari through the cloud forest in Monteverde, made sure to keep a look out for any snakes hanging off tree branches just in case.


As a mild arachnophobe, I was less keen on some of the country’s spiders and did run past a fair number of massive spiders’ webs to make sure I kept a respectable distance between myself and their inhabitants.

I also met a few tarantulas on various hikes – the good news is, they were mostly tucked away in their nests on the sides of the hiking trails, so I could have a quick peak without disturbing them. Terrifying, but magnificent.


A teeny frog sits in between two leaves

I love frogs. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because I find them so adorable – just look at this gorgeous specimen above, is it not the cutest thing you’ve ever seen!?!

Luckily, frogs are ubiquitous in Costa Rica and I was fortunate enough to see quite a few during my trip.

A small green frog on a large leaf at night

My first encounter with the bug-eyed amphibians was on a night-time frog hunt near Arenal Volcano, where we made our way along a pitch-black trail through the jungle to a pond, guided only by our torches. Once we reached the pond, our guide spotted a number of frogs on the leaves surrounding us.

I don’t have the best photos of the frogs as I didn’t want to use my flash and scare them, but one of the frogs we found was this delightful little green creature above.

It was incredible seeing these fabulous amphibians in their natural habitat and we all turned into excited, awe-struck children on seeing them. So beautiful!

Armadillos and raccoons

A raccoon walks across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

The crab-eating raccoon, above, is one of 212 species of mammal in Costa Rica and despite looking all kinds of adorable, they’re actually quite crafty critters.

I came across three of the creatures, despite being nocturnal, on a morning hike on one of the beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park, where they were brazenly trying to rifle through the bags of unsuspecting tourists looking for food.

It was incredible to see the raccoons in the flesh, but I was also sad that we’ve had such an impact on their habitat that they’re no longer living in their natural nocturnal state.

The other nocturnal animal I saw during my trip was an armadillo. I was on a night-time safari through a park in Monteverde and one of the women in our group was really keen to see an armadillo.

All through the hike we kept our eyes peeled, and at one point thought we saw one, only for it to turn out to be a different mammal.

But then at the end of the hike, we saw one shyly shuffling beside a bush. The encounter only lasted a few seconds as it quickly ran off when it realised we’d spotted it, but it was such a treat and we were all elated we’d seen it.

Crocodiles and iguanas

A crocodile lies on a river bank in Costa Rica

Never smile at a crocodile, at least that’s the advice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan, but it’s pretty hard not to when they’re this magnificent. I came across a whole host of these majestic creatures while on a jungle crocodile safari on the Tárcoles River.

The crocodiles were casually chilling on the sandy river banks or swimming in the river, surrounded by tons of wading birds and cows, their laid-back demeanour belying the threat they pose. It was wonderful to see these enormous olive-green beasts up close.

An iguana in Costa Rica

Crocodiles weren’t the only reptiles I encountered, I also came across a bright green basilisk lizard and some iguanas. The iguanas were roaming around a patch of land opposite a roadside café – the largest of which was bright orange.

Male green iguanas turn orange during the mating season to attract a mate and I have to say he looked pretty fetching as he casually sauntered across the ground, ignoring his human onlookers.

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