There are many reasons to take your kids to Costa Rica, but number one has to be the opportunity to get up close our furry, feathered, scaled, and slimy friends. The animals of Costa Rica are one of the biggest attractions in a country rich with nature’s bounty, and the more you know about the wildlife of Costa Rica before you go, the better chance you have of seeing that creature you’ve been dying to see. To that end, I have deployed my wildlife-obsessed husband Todd Iverson to share his knowledge gleaned from bookshelves filled with field guides in our home. Here’s Todd’s guide to the animals you are likely to see and where to find them in Costa Rica.
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Many of the animals in Costa Rica are found throughout Central America, and finding them is the same no matter where you go: the closer you are to the jungle and the beaches, the more likely you will be to get up close and personal with the wildlife of Costa Rica. Use all of your senses, especially your ears, as the rustling of dry leaves and squeaks and trills and howls will let you know that animals are nearby — then you can begin the hunt with your binoculars.
Identifying all the creatures you see is much easier if you have a good guide on hand. The Costa Rica Wildlife Guide is compact and easy to carry around. If you’re serious about birds, you’ll need a detailed bird guide, too. If you have young kids, check out this adorable pop-up book that will prepare them for the exotic animals they will see in Costa Rica.
Monkeys of Costa Rica
Easily the most identifiable and kid-pleasing animals in Costa Rica, monkeys (mono in Spanish) are not hard to find. They usually announce their presence as they jump from tree to tree, or in the case of howler monkeys, their barking in the pre-dawn hours. Watch for the commotion in trees in the morning or late in the afternoon, find a good spot, and then threaten the kids that if they don’t behave you will leave them with the troop. If you act like a monkey, you may as well stay with them!
There are four species of monkeys in Costa Rica: the white-faced capuchin, howler, spider, and squirrel monkeys (also called titi). Spider monkeys and howler monkeys are both larger than white faced capuchins. The smallest of the four is the squirrel monkey.
White-faced capuchins and howler monkeys are the most common, but with very different personalities. Capuchins are tamer and sometimes even mischievous, and you may catch them snatching your unattended fruit, but howlers will try to keep a safe distance. Howlers are slightly larger than white-faced capuchins, with a dark brown/black coat, and lack the white face of the white-faced capuchins. Beware of howler monkeys, as they can be aggressive. Usually they will respect your space — if you respect theirs.
Spider monkeys have a reddish-brown coat and very long arms, and are the most elusive. They prefer deeper jungles but are often found near Corcovado Park. (Corcovado National Park is the only park in Costa Rica that is home to all four species).
Squirrel monkeys are found around Manuel Antonio National Park and also on the Osa Peninsula. Like all the other species, they like places with lots of fruit trees, usually in forests and preserves where troops can easily move from tree to tree.
Sloths don’t move much. They make little noise and they don’t lend themselves to compelling videos to post on social media. And still everybody loves the sloth, and not just because of Zootopia (although being featured in a Disney cartoon never hurts.)
There are two species of sloths: two-toed and three-toed, most easily distinguishable by either two or three claws on their front paws (both species actually have three toes; the difference is in their forelimbs). They are found throughout Costa Rica in forests, usually on trees trying to blend in, but sometimes you can see them on the side of the road.
Pro tip: The best way to find sloths is to first spot tourists with a guide staring at something up in a tree, and then join them. If your Costa Rican trip will not be complete without seeing a sloth in the wild, head to Manuel Antonio Park with a guide and some binoculars. However, sloths can be found throughout the country. Sloths blend in well and it takes a little luck and/or a good guide to find them, but don’t worry — if you spot one you’ll have plenty of time to gather your tribe and show them something.
Other Land Mammals
Coatis are larger cousins of raccoons. They can be found throughout Central America, sometimes alone, and other times in large groups. They are often found within the boundaries of national parks, but sometimes you’ll see them just wandering around.
Agouti are timid, rabbit-sized rodents common throughout the country.
Tamandua is the common anteater. They are often seen as roadkill on the side of the road, but occasionally you find one in the forest in search of termites. They are not as shy as other mammals, so you can get relatively close to these cute guys.
Deer, kinkajous, tayra, tapirs, peccaries, crab-eating raccoons, and other small mammals are also plentiful in Costa Rica, but most are nocturnal and rarely seen outside of national parks and protected areas.
Pro tip: You will probably never see the nocturnal kinkajou in the day, but if you hear a lot of rustling at twilight, break out your flashlight and look for them in the trees above your cabin. They often return to the same tree to nest and commence their nightly fun around the same time each evening.
There are six species of wild cats in Costa Rica, including the jaguar (don’t worry, you won’t see one up close), puma (the same species as the North American cougar, but smaller), jaguarundi, and ocelot. You’re very unlikely to see a wild cat. In my many trips to Costa Rica, I’ve only glimpsed a jaguarundi in a field on the Osa Peninsula, but I did see jaguar tracks outside of Corcovado National Park. Serious cat hunters will need to spend days hiking the in the deep jungle of Corcovado for a chance to spot these guys.
By far the most numerous mammal in terms of numbers and species are bats. Costa Rica has lots of them, including vampire bats. But there’s no need to panic and rebook your vacation to someplace less intimidating, like Disney World or Mt. Everest. Vampire bats don’t actively attack people, and the overwhelmingly majority don’t carry rabies. To see bats, just wait for night to fall and look up in the twilight to see them in flight. During the day, check under roof eaves, in the crooks of large trees, and sometimes even under large banana leaves for resting bats.
Pro tip: If you are near a quiet bay, watch for the bulldog bat, which uses echolocation to find and catch fish. They are fun to watch, and it’s even more fun to confuse the hell out of your traveling companions when you point out that it’s a bat and not a bird. This fishing bat is one of the wonders that you can see in Costa Rica with a little time, patience and adventure.
Birds in Costa Rica
Entire travel itineraries are built around birding in Costa Rica. It’s easy to spot birders — they’re the people with binoculars, spotting scopes, and field guides, sometimes found jumping up and down in excitement about checking another feathery friend off their list. You’ll realize they may be on to something when you learn that 924 species of birds have been recorded in Costa Rica, which is twice as many species of birds than are found in United States and Canada — combined! Maybe you should get your own spotting scope…
The two bird biggies are the macaw and toucan, and if you use your ears as much as your eyes, you’ll find them. There are two species of macaws in Costa Rica, the rare green macaw found on the Atlantic slope and more common scarlet macaw. The scarlet macaw is a rare treat on the Nicoya Peninsula, but on the Osa Peninsula they are common — and quite loud, especially when they find an almond tree to their liking. When you hear a loud shriek and lots of squawking in Puerto Jimenez, there is a good chance it’s a scarlet macaw.
There are four species of toucans and aracaris common in Costa Rica. Like the macaws, these massively billed birds are easy to find if you listen for their distinctive call. They often sit in a tree calling for a mate to join them. Key in on that sound and you’ll likely find a toucan or two.
Besides macaws and toucans, there are plenty of other birds in Costa Rica, from hummingbirds the size of your palm to vultures circling in the skies. Pelicans and frigate birds fly along the coast and colorful tanagers, parrots, and motmots are around, too. If you want to see the resplendent quetzal, you’ll have to head up to the high mountains, but with 900 other species out there, you still have plenty to check off. Gardens and river beds are great places to see a variety of birds.
Pro tip: If you want to stimulate a great discussion about evolution and adaptation, get your little ones to look closely at the beaks of the different birds you see. Why is the toucan’s beak so big? How do they differ from hawks and eagles? How does a shorebird use that long, curved beak?
Costa Rica’s Many Snakes
There are two types of people in the world: those that are terrified of snakes and a few odd sorts that go looking for them. I’m the latter, and have been known to go out at night in search of Costa Rica’s 130-plus species of snakes. If the thought of over 130 species of snakes (including at least 22 of which are venomous) scares you, then listen to the guy who goes looking for them — you probably won’t ever see a snake while visiting Costa Rica.
For the most part, snakes are nocturnal, extremely wary of humans, and are deep, deep in the jungle, usually near water. Stick to the trail, and your paths will probably never cross. Many of them are arboreal (live in trees), most are quite small, and they are all remarkably fast, so if you blink you might miss them. Plus, many are camouflage experts so you probably won’t even see them.
I talk to my kids about snakes before every trip to Costa Rica, and make them swear that if they see one they will immediately go get Daddy. They know they should NEVER touch a snake in Costa Rica without me. In three trips with the boys, we have yet to see anything but a harmless snake, all less than a foot long.
Pro tip: You should be aware that, in theory, the highly venomous fer-de-lance could be lurking. Fer-de-lances are Costa Rica’s number one offender for venomous snake bites and are very dangerous because they blend in so well, often looking like a river rock or a pile of dried leaves. Their favorite habitat is a pile of dried leaves on a river bed. Especially at the height of dry season, have your little ones walk on bare rock or in streams if you are out exploring, and/or go with a local guide, as fer-de-lance bites can be fatal.
Butterfly nets are always on our packing list for Costa Rica, mainly so the little ones can catch lizards. There are the big ones, like iguanas and ctenosaurs, that are intimidating but harmless. There are basilisks, which are often found near streams and rivers, nicknamed Jesus Christ lizard for their ability to walk on water.
Various types of anoles are abundant throughout the country. At night when you hear a chirping noise, that is coming from the common house anole (sometimes called chameleons, which they are not) you will often see on ceilings and walls. Out in the jungle, there are dozens of other species of anoles and geckos to keep the kids occupied.
Pro tip: If you need to occupy the kids for a bit in the evening so you can enjoy that adult beverage, offer them 100 colones for each lizard they catch.
Oh no, another thing that can kill you! Again, before you book a trip to Omaha, you are probably more likely to die from food poisoning from Applebee’s than suffering a crocodile attack. There are plenty of American crocodiles in Costa Rica and most of them steer far clear of humans. Crocodiles like salt water and are most fond of rivers and estuaries. It’s not impossible to see them on the beach…but it’s extremely rare.
The bridge over the Tarcoles River near Jaco is a famous spot for crocodile viewing. Park your car near the bridge (lock the door and watch your valuables here) and simply walk out on the bridge. Down below are dozens of very large crocodiles. However, outside of a few specific estuaries, seeing a crocodile is a rare experience, and most of them are on the smaller side, usually less than six feet long (except for those in Tarcoles).
The shyer spectacled caiman can be throughout the country. They are often much smaller than crocodiles and prefer fresh water. Look for them in ponds and rivers, especially at night.
Pro tip: Shine a red light into rivers and ponds and night to look for crocodiles and caiman.
During my first dozen trips to Costa Rica, I spent hours searching for my own poison dart frog in the wild, without any luck. Sure, I’ve found dozens of frogs and toads and a myriad of other critters, but never the infamous poison dart frog. Then, on his first jungle hike, my then four-year-old son spotted and caught a green-and-black poison dart frog like it was nothing.
All the Costa Rica guide books are going to show you pictures of colorful poison dart frogs and the gaudy red-eyed tree frog and dazzling glass frogs, but what they don’t tell you is that most of them live really deep in the jungle, mostly on the less-visited Atlantic slope, and they can really only be found at night during the rainy season. So don’t bet on finding these sought-after frogs on your first walk around the hotel grounds.
That being said, there are lots of frogs if you know where to look. Frogs like water. In the dry season, you’ll have to look around ponds and streams. Sometimes the best place to check is near an outside faucet (and your toilet). But if there’s a healthy rain, frogs will come out everywhere like some biblical plague.
The best frog hunting in many parts of Costa Rica is for the cane toad (bufo marinus) right after dark. They are larger than a bullfrog and have a reputation for eating mice. They tend to just sit still, waiting for something to come by that they can eat, which makes them pretty easy to catch. They may try to pee on you, but just wash your hands after handling them.
Tree frogs are our favorite. Many of the places we stay seem to have them appear magically at night, often on the walls waiting for flies to land nearby. Suzi was scared to death by one in the bathroom one night; that was the highlight of our trip, of course.
Pro tip: Except for the cane toads, you won’t find frogs at the beach. Frog hunting is all about wet environments. This is the number one reason I insist that we stay in the jungle!
Insects and Bugs
Yes, Costa Rica is home to beetles and spiders the size of your hand. Yes, there are locusts, katydids, and cicadas of unusually large size. Yes, at times and in certain places the mosquitos and sandflies (no-see-ums) can be painfully annoying. However, with 1,200 species of butterflies, 8,000 species of moths, and some of the most amazing dragonflies you’ll ever see, Costa Rica is a great place to set the kids loose on an insect hunt (we always pack a bug net in our suitcase!)
With an estimated 300,000 insects, you are likely to find your share, especially the closer and deeper to the jungle you get. One of my favorite memories is sitting on the deck of a cabin I had near Carate, outside Corcovado National Park, and watching an epic show of lightning bugs filling up the valley below me. The concert of insect sounds in the evening is a great way to fall into a tropical slumber.
Pro tip: Forget to turn off that outside porch light at night if you are staying in a jungle cabin, then check your outside wall in the morning. You may collect some really cool visitors like giant walking sticks or stag beetles.
When scientists make claims that there are approximately 10,000 trillion ants on Earth, it seems like an unlikely number until you spend some time in the jungle. Now all those zeroes seem more plausible. Look closely and you will find ants on just about every tree in the forest or the jungle floor.
Leaf-cutter ants are fascinating for kids of all ages with their long, elaborate highways and tireless work ethic. If you are lucky to find a rampaging colony of army ants, you will be blown away by the sheer number of ants and struck with empathy for whatever gets in their path (don’t worry, they are not interested in you).
If you are lucky, you might find the large bullet ant that has the most painful bite in the insect kingdom. Sometimes, though, it’s not the size that matters as tiny little fire ants have given me quite a little sting. However, like all ants if you don’t disturb them, they won’t bite you.
Pro Tip: Kids who are used to the harmless sugar ants in North America may be surprised to find tiny black ants stinging them. Teach them to avoid ants and to wear shoes. Also, don’t leave swim trunks on the ground to dry, as they may be filled with tiny stinging ants when you put them back on your toddler. (We learned that one the hard way.)
Dolphins and Whales
This post cannot cover all the sea creatures in Costa Rica, too, or it would go on forever. However, if you are visiting one of Costa Rica’s numerous beaches, you’ll have easy access to boat tours that will take you around to look for dolphins or whales.
The Golfo Dulce in southwest Costa Rica is one of the best places to see both. We took a dolphin tour there and were thrilled to spend half an hour in the company of pantropical spotted dolphins. Humpback whales winter in the warm waters around Costa Rica, and December to April is the best time to see them. They can often be spotted with a calf roaming around the Golfo Dulce and other areas close to shore.
Four species of sea turtles call Costa Rica home, and with a little luck you will see one. At certain times of year, you can witness adult sea turtles making their way up on the beach, but year round you can actually find them swimming in the water not far from shore, while snorkeling or during a boat ride. Nesting turtles can be seen on various beaches throughout Costa Rica. If you want to be sure to see some, you’ll need to coordinate your destination with nesting seasons.
Take a snorkeling tour if you want to see gorgeous tropical fish (or, say, a moray eel, which we spotted on our last trip). The most famous spot in Costa Rica for snorkeling and diving is in the protected waters around Cano Island, near Drake Bay, but there are a multitude of other snorkeling options as well.
If you are looking to catch and/or eat fish, you’ll also find lots of options for sport fishing charters in Costa Rica. Serious sport fishing tours are expensive, but you can also hire small local boats to take you around closer to shore, or just fish off the beach on your own. For more information, check out our guide to fishing with kids in Costa Rica.