Touring Costa Rica without viewing the wildlife is like touring France without tasting the wine. Stitch together the following animal-rich national parks, reserves, and eco-facilities, and you’re guaranteed to see a menagerie to please Noah. Costa Rica is replete with superb naturalist guides with eagle eyes. Be sure to hire one if you want to maximize wildlife viewing.
Begin in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica with a visit to Zoo Ave: The nation’s best zoo gives a taste for what you might see in the wild. Nearby, the Botanical Orchid Garden delights the eye. Next, head up Poás Volcano to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, an alfresco “theme park” with educational butterfly exhibits, hummingbird garden, and big cats.
Crest the continental divide and drop into the Northern Lowlands to visit Selva Verde and/or La Selva Biological Station—both offering superb rainforest hiking on the fringe of dauntingly rugged Braulio Carrillo National Park. A half-day spent whitewater rafting on the Río Sarapiquí will add to your wildlife tally. Neotropical otters. Sunbitterns. Peccaries. Who knows what you’ll see! You might extend another day to explore Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge—a wetland teeming with caimans and waterfowl.
Head west to La Fortuna. This farming town is a base for exploring Arenal Volcano National Park, laced with hiking trails that you’ll share with all manner of critters. Armadillos? White deer? Monkeys, for sure. Maybe even a jaguarundi or—whoo-hoo!—an ocelot. Rancho Margot, an ecological activity center on the southern shore of Lake Arenal, teaches what self-sustainability is all about; it’s also a great place to dine and overnight.
Circle Lake Arenal westward via Tilarán to reach Monteverde, where you can count on two hands all the eco-adventures. Start with a de rigueur early morning hike in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Quetzals are the easily-seen Holy Grail. Captive critters can be seen at the educationally themed Serpentarium, the Ranario, and Monteverde Butterfly Farm.
Now move on to the Pacific Northwest, where Hacienda Lodge Guachipelín is a fantastic base for exploring Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Fumaroles, mud pots, and a crater lagoon frequented by tapirs. Wow! Cool! Storks, spoonbills, and waterfowl flock to nearby Palo Verde National Park, perhaps best seen by boat ride from Rancho Humo or El Viejo Wildlife Refuge and Wetlands.
Time for the turtles… so head to Nicoya and Playa Grande (leatherback turtles) or Ostional National Wildlife Refuge (Ridley turtles). Further south at Punta Islita you can volunteer at The Ara Project, where endangered green and scarlet macaws are bred for release to the wild.
Take your pick. Either head south for a crocodile safari on the Río Tárcoles and hikes in Carara National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park, which also boasts superb beaches. Or fly to the Osa Peninsula for adventure hikes in Corcovado National Park and more sedate exploration at Casa Orquideas. Or fly to the Caribbean to explore watery Tortuguero National Park; and visits, along the southern shore, to the Sloth Sanctuary and Jaguar Rescue Center, where irresistibly endearing critters—sloths, howler monkeys, even ocelots—can be held in your arms.