By Ashley Harrell
September 29, 2014
Credit: David Kukin

Living in Costa Rica, I sometimes don’t even need to leave the house to encounter exotic species (specifically, oversized but mostly harmless spiders and scorpions). One time a couple of mating red-eyed tree frogs appeared on a friend’s dinner table on the Osa Peninsula. Indeed, with .05 percent of the world’s biodiversity thriving on our tiny isthmus, you better believe Costa Rica is an amazing destination for wildlife spotting.

In some areas here, exotic and rare birds are commonly spotted on the side of the road. Four kinds of monkeys swing through the trees, sloths dangle ubiquitously, and in some national parks, fascinating creatures like tapirs, anteaters, and coatimundis scurry by with alarming regularity. Additionally, the coastlines are famous for nesting turtles along with visits from migrating whales and playful dolphins, which can also be found offshore in pods numbering in the thousands. Don’t forget to pack a headlamp as well—the “nightlife” is also worth a peek.

Corcovado National Park

Perhaps the least tame wilderness in all of Central America, this protected rainforest area is braved only by the most intrepid travelers and nature aficionados. When I was there, I saw every kind of Costa Rican monkey in the span of just a few feet. I also spotted the famous crocodiles and bull sharks that make the park’s rivers terrifying to cross, particularly at high tide.

Tortugero National Park

In the far northeastern corner of the country, this park is accessible only by plane or boat, and is home to many amphibians and birds that exist nowhere else in the country. It’s also one of the world’s foremost turtle nesting beaches, with Olive Ridleys and leatherbacks regularly coming ashore to lay their eggs.

Cerro Chirripó

Summiting Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica’s tallest peak, is a national rite of passage. The 12,533-foot-tall mountain promises serious adventurers stunning views over the misty cloud forest.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Wandering the lush reserves near the mountain town of Santa Elena, guests are often struck by the abundance of life and greenery. Here, large swaths of protected land are home here to monkeys, sloths, anteaters, and coatimundi. This is also a prime viewing spot for frogs, snakes, and other amphibians.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Although this is the smallest national park in the country, it contains a preponderance of wildlife that can be easily viewed by guests (particularly with a guide to point it all out). Sloths are common, as are monkeys. And all kinds of fascinating creatures can be seen in the ocean that borders the park.