Beautiful Costa Rica is well known for its amazing wildlife. This relatively small country in Central America has twenty-three national parks, three of which are UNESCO sites. We took a trip from the east coast to the west, visiting many wildlife parks. The tourism infrastructure is really well developed with easy transportation between locations and many tour operators that can offer trips to various attractions. Having enjoyed Tortuguero, where we had been lucky to see a greenback turtle nesting, we moved onto La Fortuna de San Carlos, close the Arenal volcano, in the middle of the country. It is an ideal location to use as a base to explore this region and there are loads of exciting activities to undertake in the area, from caving to wildlife viewing.
One of the trips we enjoyed was to the Caño Negro wildlife sanctuary. As with most tours in Costa Rica, there are companies in La Fortuna that can arrange the trip and will pick you up from your hotel or guest house. It’ll take a couple of hours to get there from La Fortuna. Our guide was a naturalist who was not only knowledgeable about the local wildlife but was also really keen to tell us all about the fruit that grows in the region as well.
The Caño Negro, close to the Nicaraguan border, is a Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary which has the status of a national park, a Ramsar wetland of international importance, and one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country.
Boat Trip on the Río Frío
Once at the Caño Negro you can board a boat and enjoy a fascinating cruise up and down the Río Frío.
Wildlife viewings are pretty much guaranteed. Good guides will be able to spot plenty of birds, reptiles and mammals and, importantly, be able to point them out so that you can take pictures. Of course, you may not get to see the more elusive residents: the cougars, jaguars and ocelots, but there were plenty of monkeys, iguana, caiman, beautiful birds and, of course, sloths to see.
Howler monkeys are the loudest monkeys in the area. Their calls can travel 5km! They use the vocalisation to communicate with each other and establish territory.
White faced monkeys, also known as capuchin monkeys, look adorable but are very naughty. They are regarded as the most intelligent of the monkeys in the region but can be quite vicious, fighting over the fruit in the trees and stealing from each other.
This beautiful kingfisher got lucky catching a fishy snack.
And this egret was having a good wade searching for food.
And there were plentiful iguana hanging around in trees and on the surrounding fields.
The anhinga is also known as the snake bird because when it swims in the water you can only see its elongated neck, which has the appearance of a snake gliding through the river.
The Jesus lizard, or to give it its correct name, basilisk lizard, derives its moniker from being able to run across the water on its rear legs. It is possible for the species to do this because they have little scales on their back toes which form webs that trap water and air bubbles underneath them. If they run quickly enough the bubbles underneath these webs prevent them from sinking into the water. The lizards are able to swim if they go too slow.
We sailed past a nonchalant caiman.
Sloths are probably the creature that most visitors to Costa Rica definitely want to see. On this excursion we saw a Two-Toed sloth, hanging around in the tree, which is what sloths do best.
There are two species of sloth in Costa Rica: Two-Toed and Three-Toed. (We did see the Three-Toed Sloth, but on the Pacific coast, not on this river trip.) They are absolutely fascinating creatures – they appear to be incredibly lazy but this is largely because they have a very slow metabolism and most of their time is spent in the tree canopies. They have a multi-chambered stomach that is capable of digesting tough leaves but the digestion process takes a very long time. Once they are up a tree they will stay there for several days, only coming down for a poo, which happens once week. Pretty much everything else happens in the trees – eating, sleeping, mating, even giving birth.
They are often covered in green algae, with which they have a symbiotic relationship, the algae providing them with some nutrition. In turn, the sloth’s fur, which retains water well, is an idea environment for the algae to thrive. It also helps provide camouflage – the sloth’s natural predators include ocelot and jaguar.
The species have been around for 65 million years, so there’s probably something to be said for taking things easy in life!
The river trip was hugely enjoyable but as we were travelling in the mid-season in June/July (it is rainy but not hurricane weather) we did experience something of a downpour. When it rains in Costa Rica, it rains! (Some areas we visited receive around 5000mm annually.) The showers at this time of year are extremely heavy but usually short-lived, lasting no more than twenty minutes to half an hour. The boat had a roof and our captain kindly rescued some kayakers who were enjoying their gentle paddle on the river until they got a complete soaking! They were hugely relieved when we picked them up and they stepped aboard looking somewhat bedraggled. We always recommend bringing wet weather gear if travelling at this time of year.
After the boat trip through the wildlife sanctuary, lunch was provided. It was quite common at the end of most excursions we enjoyed in the country. We were treated to a fruit feast.
One of the wonderful things about Costa Rica is the utter deliciousness of the fruit. Around the Arenal Volcano area the soil is incredibly fertile and on our way to Caño Negro we saw vast plantations growing all sorts of fruit. In fact, the tour guide stopped the minibus a couple of times to buy some fruit from local sellers, so that he could offer us a taste. He also provided a running commentary throughout the journey telling us about the fruit industry in Costa Rica.
The pineapples were a revelation. Even the freshest pineapples we’ve ever eaten in the UK (often from Costa Rica!) were nothing compared to the organic local fruit. Most pineapples that are grown for export are treated chemically where they are stored (they can last up to a year) and ripened after they have arrived at their destination. It is such a shame that so many pineapples are grown this way – it isn’t good for the environment and the fruit’s flavour isn’t as good as it could be. Compare that to an organic pineapple and the taste is completely different. The local fruit had a really rich vibrant flavour, both sweet and tart.
The pineapple is actually a flowering plant. Only one flower grows each year per plant and it is only possible to gain a pineapple in three successive years. The first year’s is the biggest and these are the ones that are usually exported overseas. The second year’s pineapple is smaller and would generally be used for the local market or taken to a processing factory where it would likely end up in a tin. The third year’s fruit will be very small and will become juice.
There’s a perception in many western countries that oranges should actually be orange. But many oranges aren’t as luridly orange as those classic fruit from Seville. The oranges in Costa Rica might not look the part but taste just fine. Bananas are another fruity staple of Costa Rica and plantations can be seen all over the country.
Many of the fruits grown in the country are familiar as they are exported around the world. However, there are some more unusual offerings which we were delighted to discover. Rambutan, also known as Mamon Chino, which apparently translates to Chinese Sucker, is a bizarre looking tropical fruit. You have to peel the pretty and colourful soft spikes to reveal the clear coloured flesh. They look similar to grapes or lychees and have a comparable texture although the flavour is very different, sweet and slightly sour, and nowhere near as perfumed as a lychee. There’s a seed inside that you need to be aware of – don’t bite too hard!
Noni is smelly and tastes bitter but apparently has health benefits. It’s not a fruit you would eat for pleasure. Some people mix it with other fruits in smoothies to disguise its flavour.
In Costa Rica you are guaranteed to enjoy at least ten of your ‘five a day’.
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Oh wow the tour was incredible and you got to see so much local wildlife. It would have been a highlight for me, too to see Sloths. I also enjoyed your part on explaining Costa Rica’s fruit obsession. The Noni reminds me a bit of a caterpillar or the Australian vomit fruit. I would stay away from it. The rambutan does look like a lychee (not the biggest fan here) so I’m intrigued by its slightly soury taste.
Carolin | Solo Travel Story
Thanks so much for your comment. It really was a wonderful tour and we were very lucky to see so much wildlife. The sloths are amazing! We really enjoyed the fruit, although your right, the noni was a bit of a challenge. The rambutan was good to eat.
WOW, 23 National Parks! That beats the UK hands down.
Looks like you scored a winner with your guide who was so informative and helpful. I’m always asking loads of questions to guides so am pleased when they actually know the answers. The numbers of animals your saw is admirable and all that fruit. I adore fruit platters so I can see me enjoying Costa Rica when I do eventually get there. Sounds like you had a great rip on the adventure.
We found that all the guides in Costa Rica were excellent. Many were naturalists/biologists and had so much information to impart. We are sure you will love Costa Rica – it’s a wonderful place to visit.
It’s always crazy to think how many national parks there are in Costa Rica considering how small of a country it is. We’ve been talking about going for awhile now. We need to finally go!
We definitely recommend booking that trip! Costa Rica is a truly wonderful place to visit. You’re right, it is very small – we managed to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. And the wildlife was just spectacular! Hope you get to make that visit!