WITH 5% OF THE ENTIRE planet’s biodiversity contained within its borders, there’s no shortage of incredible creatures that call Costa Rica home. Some are endemic, meaning you’ll see them here and nowhere else; others are endangered and incredibly rare. Whatever the reason for your visit to Costa Rica, seeing its animals in their natural habitat is something you shouldn’t miss.

There’s something indescribably potent about coming into contact with animals in the wild. It refreshes us, it reconnects us with a world we often forget about, as city dwellers in a technological age. In a time when fewer and fewer people are allowed paid time off, and the rest fail to use what little time they’re given, Costa Rica offers a sanctuary, a chance to connect with that wildness again.



You can see two different types of sloth (two-toed and three-toed) in Costa Rica, although they're often hard to spot, as their dark fur provides good camouflage in their arboreal habitats. National parks and reserves afford the best chance of observing them in the wild—Corcovado National Park, Santa Rosa National Park, and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are good bets. Rather than searching for them on a hike by yourself, consider a nature tour, such as the ones offered at Corcovado, allowing you to safely and ethically see these creatures in their natural environment.
Photo: Jerry Kirkhart


Red-eyed tree frog

Even without the name, it's the eyes you notice first on seeing this rainforest frog species. Most of the rest of their bodies is colored for camouflage, though the orange underside is used to startle predators. Find them in Tortuguero, Manuel Antonio, and Arenal Volcano National Parks, as well as Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. However, even with its bright coloration, your best chance of seeing one is with a trained naturalist guide, such as on one of the guided night tours around Arenal, since this species of frog is nocturnal.
Photo: Steve Corey


Humpback whale

While more than 20 different whale species pass through Costa Rica's waters, humpbacks are the most abundant, largely because two distinct populations make their way here, resulting in one of the world's longest whale-watching seasons. You can see humpback whales from August through March, first migrating up from Antarctica, and later in the season a different group traveling from the north. They're visible all along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica—go with a tour operator for a chance to see these incredible animals up close.
Photo: Whit Welles


White-headed capuchin

The white-headed capuchin monkey is easily recognized by its fluffy white head contrasting with predominantly black fur. It's also one of the most common mammals in Costa Rica and is quite social, traveling in packs. Corcovado and Barra Honda National Parks are good places to see them going about their business in the wild. Even better, though, is any nature reserve with a major water source, such as Palo Verde National Park, where you'll see them as you cruise down the Río Tempisque.
Photo: kansasphoto


Scarlet macaw

The scarlet macaw is found throughout South and Central America and makes its home in certain sections of Costa Rican rainforest. They're one of the easiest creatures to identify, thanks to their long tail (typically over two feet) and bright red, yellow, and blue coloration. Your best bet for seeing a scarlet macaw is in one of the national parks along the Pacific coast—try Palo Verde, Corcovado, or Carara.
Photo: Linda Martin



The ocelot is a smaller version of a leopard, and is similarly covered in dark spots all over its light fur. It's the most likely cat to be seen in Costa Rica, as it primarily lives on the ground rather than in trees. Still, they're relatively rare, and if you do spot one it'll likely be in the dense forests of places like Corcovado National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, or Santa Rosa National Park. They can also be viewed at the Jaguar Rescue Center and La Ceiba Natural Reserve in Puerto Viejo, which offers guided tours at scheduled times every day but Sunday.
Photo: Tony Hisgett


Sea turtle

While many beach destinations around the world have sea turtle populations, Costa Rica is special in that it's visited by five of the world's seven sea turtle species. This includes the biggest, the leatherback, a species that's enjoying significant conservation efforts in Costa Rica. The green sea turtle, like the one shown above, is another species you can see here. Costa Rica is home to critical nesting grounds for these endangered creatures, on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, most prominently in Tortuguero National Park. Because of the fragility of the turtles' nesting and hatching processes, it’s highly recommended to view them under the guidance of a conservation organization such as the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Photo: Visit Costa Rica


Roseate spoonbill

You'll know the roseate spoonbill by its rose-colored feathers and its bill that looks like a flat spoon, which helps it to snap shut on any prey. The bird stands about three feet tall and typically lingers around shallow waters, often solo but sometimes in small flocks. One of the greatest concentrations in Costa Rica is in Palo Verde National Park, where they can be viewed via boat on the Río Tempisque.
Photo: Jerry Kirkhart


Spotted eagle ray

The spotted eagle ray is distinguished by the large number of white, circular spots all over its back. A common tropical ray, it prefers warm and shallow waters, often in bays or around reefs, and it’s not unlikely that you’ll see one while snorkeling in Costa Rica. They inhabit both the Pacific and the Caribbean, but your best bet is in and around some of the more popular diving areas, such as Playas del Coco, Caño Island, and Cocos Island.
Photo: Tam Warner Minton


Keel-billed toucan

The keel-billed toucan is another easy-to-recognize bird in Costa Rica, with its large and colorful bill that can measure up to half a foot long (nearly a third of its total length). The toucan is typically found on the Caribbean side of the country, though some do reside on the Pacific—Carara and Manuel Antonio National Parks are good places to see them. There's also the Toucan Rescue Ranch, which rescues, rehabilitates, and cares for keel-billed toucans, as well as other species.
Photo: Visit Costa Rica


Black howler monkey

Howler monkeys are more likely to be heard than seen—their distinctive cries carry as far as three miles. Their physical features include long, thick, dark hair, and they're most active at dawn and dusk. Howler monkeys often travel in packs and cover a lot of ground, and represent well over half (69%) of the primate biomass in Costa Rica. Their howls might sound vicious, but these guys are vegetarian and rarely come down from the treetops. You'll most likely see (or hear) them in or around your accommodations in the rainforests of Costa Rica.
Photo: Tambako The Jaguar



Similar in appearance to a leopard but larger in size, the jaguar's range spans from Argentina to Texas. Yet they're endangered, shy, and camouflage well, making the likelihood of seeing one in Costa Rica quite low. Still, there have been recorded sightings in national parks like Corcovado and La Amistad. In addition to a paw print, you may know one is nearby if you see deep scratches on a tree trunk. The best chance of catching a glimpse is at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo.
Photo: Marco Zanferrari


Resplendent quetzal

Although much smaller than other Costa Rican birds on this list, the resplendent quetzal has a tail that's anything but—it makes up nearly two-thirds of the creature's total length. Thanks to its vibrant plumage and storied place in the mythologies of Central America, it's a highly sought species by birdwatchers. While the quetzal's habitat may be shrinking, it can be seen in many protected areas of Costa Rica, especially those with cloud forests, such as Monteverde and Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserves.
Photo: vil.sandi


Spectacled caiman

With a name that's Spanish for “crocodile,” caimans are crocodilians native to Central and South America. The “spectacled” moniker for this species comes from the distinguishing horizontal ridge just in front of the eyes. Caimans are much smaller than the American crocodile (also found in Costa Rica) and not a particular threat to humans. They're typically found in the Costa Rica lowlands, around rivers, streams, and marshes with high rainfall. The best and safest chance of seeing one is in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, which can only be explored by boat.
Photo: Ben Haeringer


Baird's tapir

The tapir is easily one of the most recognizable animals in Costa Rica, largely due to its unique head that looks something like a cross between a pig and an anteater. Native to Central America, tapirs have short, black hair, though it typically lightens around the face, and thick skin. While abundant at one time, the tapir population has dwindled and the species is considered endangered. Tapirs can be seen in a variety of different habitats, including numerous national parks around Costa Rica—the largest populations are in Corcovado and Santa Rosa National Parks.
Photo: Eric Kilby