Tortuguero National Park

This steamy rain forest, sometimes called Costa Rica’s Amazon, interlaced with waterways is home of crocodiles, sloths, river otters, ocelots, pumas, manatees, and raucous green macaws, and one of the most important sea turtle nesting areas in the world.

Every year up to 3,000 female green sea turtles up to four feet (1.2 m) long weighing up to 440 pounds (200 kg) clamber up the tranquil, palm-lined beaches—often the same ones where they were hatched—and scour out sandy depressions. There, weeping, they lay 100 or so rubbery eggs from which two months later tiny replicas tumble out and down toward the moonlit sea.

It is a mystery-filled natural sight like no other, which also occurs in smaller numbers here for three species: hawksbills with beautiful shells plundered for jewelry; loggerheads, named for outsized heads; and great leatherbacks, up to six feet (2 m) long, weighing almost a ton.

That all survive to nest here is due largely to the efforts of one man. Dr. Archie Carr drew attention to their plight and pushed for these reserves when cruel exploitation for food, decoration, and even reputed aphrodisiacs brought them to the brink of extinction. The gentle greens used to be de-shelled alive, edible layers cut from their bodies, the creatures left to die agonizingly on beaches there. First discovered by Dutch explorers in 1539, turtle populations had remained stable until relentless exploitation in the mid 20th century.

Tortuguero is no less important for endangered West Indian manatees, half-ton marine mammals so mild-mannered and slow they are easy victims of hunters and boats’ sharp propeller blades. They were thought extinct here until this population was discovered, and their survival is still in question.

Three-toed sloths, even slower, hang from trees, cuddling babies, descending once a month to defecate on the ground.

Spider, white-faced, and howler monkeys swing through trees, sometimes with prehensiletailed kinkajous which behave almost like kin. Giant anteaters, tapirs, peccaries, and wary jaguars make a living in the understory.

Basilisk “Jesus Christ” lizards resembling yard-long (1 m) dinosaurs dash across water surfaces aided by skin flaps on large rear toes. Thumbnail-sized red and-blue-black “poison arrow” frogs are smallest of 60 amphibians here.

Great habitat variety contributes to wide diversity among the more than 300 bird species— magnificent frigate birds and royal terns among oceanics; plovers and sandpipers among shorebirds; jacanas and green-and-rufous kingfishers along rivers; brilliant hummingbirds and melodious manakins in forests inland. Stately herons, including beautiful uncommon chestnut- bellied and bare-throated tiger-herons, fish along waterways. Colorful macaws almost a yard (79 cm) long congregate around ripe fruit of almendro trees. Chestnut Montezuma oropendulas with blue and pink faces and orange-tipped bills weave long nest pouches in dense treetop colonies. In spring and fall North American migrants come through in large numbers— orioles, warblers, and Swainson’s hawks.

Best times to visit are February–March and September. There is no real dry season here, so bring plenty of rain gear and insect repellent. Peak turtle nestings are June–September for greens and hawksbills, March–May for leatherbacks and loggerheads (best go with guide, and never use camera flash or lights which can endanger turtles’ nesting success).

Threats include encroachment by loggers, ranchers, resort developers, banana and oil palm plantations, whose pesticides have caused fish kills and which continue to push for road linkage with the rest of the country, a proposal voted down by local residents.

Good related reading includes The Windward Road (A.A. Knopf, NY, 1956 and Florida State University Press, Gainesville, 1979), also So Excellent A Fishe (Natural History Press, NY, 1967) both by Archie Carr, Jr., who more than anyone else was responsible for parks and movement to save sea turtles from extinction.


Braulio Carrillo National Park, 184 square miles (478 km2) of cloud and rain forest, some of it still unexplored, with monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, resplendent quetzals (135 mammal species, 500-plus birds), bisected by a major highway just 19 miles (39 km) north of San José. Common or abundant birds, many rare elsewhere, including tinamous, swallow-tailed kites, crested guans, squirrel cuckoos, swifts, parrots, and the glittering quetzal are here. A foothill corridor and wildlife migration path on the north connects with La Selva Biological Station where among other rarities are bare-necked umbrella birds, named for males’ umbrella-like crest and scarlet skin patch expanded during courtship. Lodging is nearby and at the station. There are several trails. Adjacent to Quebada Gonzalez Ranger Station is a private reserve with an aerial tram through the rain forest canopy, an engineering marvel.

Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge is a wilderness in mid-north-central Costa Rica with huge numbers of resident and migratory water-oriented birds—kingfishers, roseate spoonbills, jacanas, jabiru and wood storks, herons, egrets, dizzying crowds of ducks, and the country’s largest nesting colony of olivaceous cormorants. They are attracted to seasonally-filled Lake Cano Negro whose remoteness brings mammals in numbers as well—jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, monkeys, sloths, otters, tayras, and others which congregate at water holes in dry seasons. See by boat. Tours arranged at nearby hotels.

Isla del Coco National Park is a spectacular island with unique flora and fauna and, by legend, more buried pirates’ treasure than anyplace else in the world, 30 square miles (78 km2 ) some 300 miles (500 km) offshore. Waterfalls plunge into the Pacific where gigantic hammerhead, whale, and white-tipped sharks swim and coral reefs teem with colorful fish. Three of the 97 bird species exist nowhere else. Colonies of nesting seabirds include two species of frigate birds, three of boobies, four of gulls, six kinds of storm petrels, and lovely little “espiritusanto” or holy spirit terns, which hover unafraid a few feet above visitors’ heads.

Heavy rainfall—275 inches (700 cm) annually—early attracted sailors to its freshwater supply and coconuts, including the Pirate Benito “Bloody Sword” Bonito. Among his booty was said to be a life-size gold statue of the Virgin Mary and child. Despite searches, only a few doubloons have ever been found. Serious threats are posed by exotic animals and plants (pigs,cats) which upset natural ecosystems, and illegal fishing which disrupts nesting birds’ food supplies. Permission is required for entry. There are trails but no lodging; overnight visitors stay on boats. A park station has mainland radio contact.

Monte Verde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a beautiful cloud forest high on the continental divide is most famous as home of one of the world’s most beautiful and endangered birds, the emerald-and-crimson resplendent quetzal. Here as well is the three-wattled bellbird—its “bong” resounding through the canopy—as well as howler monkeys, golden translucent and blue morphobutterflies, Baird’s tapirs, ocelots, nine-banded armadillos, and collared peccaries—altogether 100 mammal species, 400 kinds of birds, 490 butterflies, 120 reptiles and amphibians.

Monte Verde was founded by U.S. Quakers, who came after Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948, and was protected subsequently by scientists George and Harriet Powell and a Swedish  schoolteacher who marshaled young contributors for the “children’s rain forest reserve.” The 41-square-mile (105-km2) reserve is 110 miles (180 km)  from San José by bus. Driving, 4WD is advisable. So is rain gear. Lodging is nearby. Tours can be arranged. Santa Elena Reserve nearby has similar wildlife; both have trails. A private group can arrange visits on forest canopy platforms (not for the height-sensitive).

Palo Verde National Park in the breathtaking Tempisque River valley northwest is one of the last places on the Pacific coast where scarlet macaws and rare giant jabirus, world’s largest storks, stillbreed. Its 72 square miles (186 km2) augmented just to the north by Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve is a mosaic of diverse moist habitats providing places which attract tens of thousands of herons, egrets, grebes, ducks, and jacanas, both resident and migrant, in some of the largest concentrations in Central America. Crowds of scissortailed flycatchers dive through insect swarms. Great curassows, laughing falcons, gray hawks, and wintering warblers and orioles are in nearby forests—some 300 bird species altogether, plus 177 mammals—howler and white-faced monkeys, jaguarundis, coatimundis, white-tailed deer—and in the river, crocodiles up to 16 feet (5 m) long. “Cracker” butterflies can concentrate in magnificent old trees, snapping their wings aggressively and audibly in territorial display. Best time is dry season December–March before flooding. Isla de los Pajaros can be covered with roseate spoonbills and other nesting birds including the country’s largest black-crowned night-heron colony, visible either from the trail or by arranging a boat (don’t go ashore—it’s forbidden, also home to boa constrictors). Camping can be arranged; also lodging at Organization for Tropical Studies research station.

Lomas Barbudal is famous also for abundance and variety of insects, including a large number of bee species (unfortunately some are the Africanized “killer” variety).


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Braulio Carrillo National Park

La Selva Biological Station

Quebada Gonzalez Ranger Station

Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Isla del Coco National Park

Monte Verde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

Santa Elena Reserve

Palo Verde National Park

Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve

Isla de los Pajaros

Lomas Barbudal