Top 10 animals in Costa Rica

Boasting both Caribbean and Pacific shorelines, Costa Rica has become as well known for its gorgeous white beaches as it has for its verdant volcanic interiors. However, it’s what lies within these tropical habitats that often causes the most excitement. Costa Rica wildlife tours take you from San José, the capital, to Manuel Antonio National Park and Monteverde Cloud Forest with time spent in the national parks of Tortuguero and Arenal Volcano, adding to the excitement of experiencing animals in their absolute natural element.

Here are our top 10 animals to see on a Costa Rica wildlife holiday with everything from coatis and crocs to toucans and turtles ensuring your first glimpse of Central America is never to be forgotten.


Keep an ear out for the chirps and grunts amongst the rainforest and grasslands of Manual Antonio, Cahuita and Arenal Volcano National Parks; this is the best way to gauge how receptive a Costa Rican coati will be to inquisitive intruders. Not overtly aggressive, unless provoked, these badger-like critters have super strong canines to accompany their super sensitive snout, and have been known to beg for food around campsites – so keep picnic baskets safely secured.


There’s no way you can visit Costa Rica without seeing a croc. The gigantic American crocodile – which can grow to almost 5m – is abundant within the country’s mangrove swamps, fresh water rivers and saltwater river mouths. Listen to your guide and keep a safe distance even when visiting popular viewing points, like the so-called “Croc Bridge” just north of the Pacific beach town of Jacó. And feeding crocodiles for selfie ops? Don’t even think about it.


The most common type of iguana that you'll find in Costa Rica is the black, or spiny-tailed, iguana. These are the fastest lizards on the planet and spend the majority of their time at ground level although they can climb trees with relative ease, especially young ones looking to evade predators. Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the best places to see iguanas in Costa Rica, with springtime providing quite a spectacle as males try to woo females with head bobbing courtship rituals.


Despite being the largest carnivore in Central America, jaguars are endangered and extremely elusive. You'll be extremely lucky to spot one in Costa Rica, although they do exist amongst the more remote mangroves, forests and low lying savannah regions of nature reserves and national parks, including Tortuguero, Corcovado and Monteverde Cloud Forest. The best chance of seeing one is in the thick rainforests lining the banks of the Pacuare River.


You'll never be far from monkeys in Costa Rica. Four species – squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, mantled howler monkeys and white-headed capuchins – are all to be found swinging through the canopies of Piedras Blancas and Corcovado and hanging out around the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park. Mainly found in troupes of 40 or more, monkeys are one of the most commonly seen creatures in Costa Rica with an abundance of tropical fruit and rainforest habitat ensuring they're completely in their element and absolutely fascinating, and fun, to watch.

Strawberry poison dart frogs

Strawberry poison dart frogs are one of Costa Rica's poster boy amphibians and definitely worth keeping an eye out for if you're heading into the humid wetlands on the Caribbean coast, including the lowland forests of Tortuguero. Although teeny, these colourful critters still pack a poisonous punch – mainly due to a diet of toxic ants. They have a distinctive territorial call to warn off potential predators, so keep an ear out.


Although double the size of domesticated cats, ocelots are incredibly lean and sleek. The remote forest habitats of Corcovado, Monteverde and Santa Rosa provide ample low hanging boughs and burrows for ocelots to rest during the day, as well as dense foliage for nocturnal hunting. Despite the constant threat from development, ocelots in Costa Rica are making a real resurgence and often feature within cultural tales and locally-created artwork and souvenirs.
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Although the majority of Costa Rica's wildlife displays a variety of physical attributes to remain safe from detection, three-toed sloths haven't been quite so blessed and, as such, a hike in Manuel Antonio, Corcovado or Piedras Blancas national parks will nearly always result in sloth sighting success. Super long claws quash any thoughts of getting too close, however, while guided tours around the Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary provide every opportunity to find out more from a safe distance.


Despite their slightly scary appearance, toucans, especially the gigantic chestnut-mandibled variety – the largest in Central America – are completely harmless and enjoy nothing more than tropical fruit picking in the wetland forests of both Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Keep your ears open for the distinctive ‘yipping’ call on a guided walk through Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, where canopy tours provide sightings from a whole new perspective.


There are six species of turtle in Costa Rica, and peak nesting season takes place around the first phase of the moon between August and October when beaches are at their darkest. The beaches of Tortuguero National Park are the best place to observe Atlantic green, leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbills, while olive ridley and Pacific green turtles favour the shores of Santa Rosa National Park. Turtles won’t nest if beaches are overcrowded with people, beach furniture, or are brightly lit – so always visit nesting sites with a naturalist guide to ensure you don’t impede this already perilous process.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Chris J Walker] [Coati: Jan Hazevoet] [Jaguar: Ashley Lee] [Sloth: Marissa Strniste]