The world’s trailblazer in eco-tourism, more protected areas than any other country, earth’s most biodiverse country: Costa Rica should be on the first line of every nature-lover’s list of places to visit.
The variety of ecosystems within this little pocket of the Central American isthmus is staggering, from cloud-shrouded uplands to crispy dry Pacific woodlands to lush, steamy tropical rainforest. And in each area, each national park, it’s not travel hyperbole to state that visitors find a sort of Eden: virgin forests full of extravagantly beautiful plant- and animal-life, flashes of colour courtesy of countless butterflies and birds, all accompanied by an orchestral arrangement of birds and frogs, cicadas and monkeys.
And it’s those birds that are perhaps most thrilling of all. 900 or so species make their home in Costa Rica – the greatest density of bird species of any American country. Their variety, numbers and beauty have been known to make twitchers out of even the most hardened city-dwellers – here’s our guide on where to see what.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Cool and calming, Monterverde lies in the country’s northwest highlands. The area may be roughly 10,000 acres, but you don’t have to venture far to find vivid examples of the forest’s stunning wealth of wildlife. In particular, Monteverde is hummingbird heaven - over 30 species flit among the trees, vines and mosses here, their feathers sparkling brightly like jewels. Choosing a favourite is like asking to select your favourite child, but for many visitors, the iridescent purple of the violet sabrewing hummingbird takes some beating. Head to the Hummingbird Gallery for close-ups of these incredible creatures before setting off on the Skywalk in search of the resplendent quetzal, a bird with near-mythic status around these parts. Sacred to the ancient Mayans and Aztec people, the feathers of its gorgeous red breast and green crest were worn by ancient priests during ceremonies.
Other birds to look out for in Monteverde (and there are about, ooh, another 350 species here) include the curious looking bare-necked umbrellabird and the distinctive three-wattled bellbird.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is home to a dazzling variety of bird life – its tropical wet and dry forests offer a unique haven for the 270 species that make their home there. Expect forest walks to be accompanied by busy hummingbirds, majestic toucans and screeching flocks of parakeets, and be sure to stop at fruiting trees to watch feeding euphonias (blue-grey and golden-hooded are both commonly spotted) and a variety of tanager.
The park has an abundance of large birds too: head to the beautiful beaches, where pelicans and frigatebirds are often seen plunging into the water or gliding overhead. Herons too can be spotted here – look out for the bare-throated tiger heron and boat-billed heron – as well as many types of hawk and falcon.
Tortuguero National Park
In the hot, humid rainforests of Tortuguero National Park, the top wildlife experiences are spotting nesting green and leatherback turtles, and searching among the rivulets and channels for manatee. Many visitors may come for one or both of those pursuits, but more often than not they leave raving about the birdlife, which abounds here. The breaks in the forest canopy afforded by the many channels means that viewing at Tortuguero can often be exceptional – among the 300 bird species here, look out for tropical icons such as macaws and toucans in the trees, and hawks and vultures patrolling above the treeline. In coastal waters meanwhile, the red-footed booby is a spectacular sight, whether you’re catching its elaborate greeting rituals or watching it plunge from great heights headlong into the water.
When to go
Costa Rica can be visited all year round. The dry season runs from December to April and is the busiest time of year. The wet season, which runs from May to November, is less crowded. It’s worth noting that rain comes all year round –the lush lowlands still receive a good deal of rain during the dry season, while during the wet season, mornings remain (relatively) reliably dry.
There’s never a bad time to be bird-spotting in Costa Rica. The best season to spot the resplendent quetzal is between November and April. Spring (March through May) and autumn (September through November) are good times to watch migratory species. Turtle season on the Caribbean coast is from late-February to October, with the peak season for leatherbacks in April and May and for green turtles in August and September.
We run three tours to Costa Rica. For the complete, no-stone-unturned adventure, the 14-day Rainforest Adventure is hard to beat – it takes in the three outstanding areas mentioned above as well as various sites. Turtles & Beaches spends 8 days focussing on Tortuguero, as well as visiting the sensational Caribbean beaches of Puerto Viejo and the Bri Bri indigenous people. The 9-day Amazing Costa Rica trip heads west, taking in Manuel Antonio and Monteverde – perfect for a full fix of Pacific birdlife and beaches.