Costa Rica fosters around 4% of the entire world’s biodiversity, a figure so astonishing that researchers, nature lovers, and tourists alike flock to this small country to experience the beauty first-hand. This incredible natural diversity is made possible by the 12 unique microclimates making up the country’s geography. From beaches to cloudy mountains, rocky volcanic land, and lowland mangroves, Costa Rica’s got it all. While both the flora and the fauna are prevalent and diverse among all microclimates, it’s the rainforests and jungles of Costa Rica which take the prize for nurturing the most varied species of both plants and animals. Most short-term tourists to the area usually choose to focus their trips around beach time, but those who come for a longer stay quickly learn the wonders of the jungle. And the best part is, these jungles are spread throughout the entire country, from coast to coast, and are typically very accessible. What’s more, Costa Rica has pledged to protect its biodiversity and has sponsored wildlife and nature reserves in almost each of the 7 provinces. These reserves and national parks give visitors not only a first-hand experience in the jungles, but also education on what they’re seeing, how these wonders naturally occur, and what we can do to protect them. Visiting a jungle will usually be active work, as you’ll need to hike, climb, or even paddle through the thickly forested trails. While some national parks may offer motorized rides, those who choose to go by foot will probably experience much more wildlife at closer distances. As the most well researched visitor is always the visitor who gets the most out of a trip, learning about the jungles of Costa Rica will help you enjoy your time in this small yet diverse country.
What is a jungle?
The word “jungle” is often used interchangeably with the word “rainforest,” and while the two have much in common, their differences are very important. The long, thin trees towering above the skyline with sweeping vines are indicative of a rainforest. In these areas, the canopy above grows so dense that up to 100% of sunlight is blocked from the ground below. Without sun, the ground is usually barren and home to only nocturnal animals. Where the trees break and sunlight comes through, the ground layer grows thick and fertile plant life, fostering animal and insect diversity in incredible proportions; these are your jungles. Jungles often occur on the outskirts of rainforests or where the rainforest has experienced a natural disaster, like a fire or tree damage from an earthquake. A jungle has thick undergrowth and provides natural habitats to many types of animals, from those who live ground-level to those which stay in the trees, even bird species who nest above the canopy. These areas can be more difficult to navigate as the undergrowth and naturally occurring mangroves are obstacles to a hiker, but those who dare to make the journey will have the experience of a lifetime.
As Costa Rica is home to many types of rainforests, there are many different types of jungles. This gives a visitor the luxury of choosing between several nearby options depending on the priorities of the hike. Some will choose a well-maintained, guided hike focusing on tropical flowers and birds, while others may venture into the more forested part of the jungle, needing to rely on difficult trails and kayaks to reach their goal. Fortunately for the visitors to Costa Rica, you’ll most likely find both options within a couple hours’ drive of where you are planning to stay.
Corcovado National Park
Located on the southwestern edge of the Osa Penninsula, the Corcovado National Park is the largest low-lands rainforest in Central America, and it provides the backpacking experience of a lifetime. Through thick and usually wet trails, your Corcovado adventure will include older growth from the Pacific coast and head inland toward 13 unique ecosystems. This park is much too large to see completely, so you’ll need to talk to a guide to decide between lowland rainforests, highland cloud forests, palm forests, mangroves, and coastal beach areas. More likely than not, your trek will take you through a number of these ecosystems. As this reserve is located in the lowlands, be prepared to pack water. Your hike will be hot and humid, and as many parts of the hike are in exposed areas, you may be getting some direct sunlight. Hats, sunscreen, and sunglasses are a must for this excursion.
Corcovado, being so large, will offer a huge amount of natural diversity in both flora and fauna. If you have specific goals for your hike, a guide will be able to help you find the right trail. Depending on where you go, you may spot any of Costa Rica’s 4 monkey species or any of the 6 feline species, including jaguars. You will without a doubt find yourself surrounded by tropical birds, including macaws and eagles, and may even spot a tapir or two. Frogs, sometimes poisonous, and snakes, including the boa, will be common in the darker parts of the trails. They come along with bees, mosquitos, and other pests, so repellant and a small first aid kit may be to your advantage.
On the beach side of your trip, you may find some time to relax in the sands or cool off under the waterfalls. In this area, you will see sea turtles and other common marine life. Although there has never been a reported attack, swimmers should be aware of shark schools and crocodiles in these waters.
There are hiking trails for every member of the family, but the more experienced hiking groups may wish to plan an over-night stay. Corcovado has a number of ranger stations, two with camping areas, potable water, and a radio or telephone for outside contact. This is recommended for only the more experienced hikers. The rest of the family should enjoy the trails but find a nearby hotel for a shower and bed before nightfall. These trails will be a unique and educational experiences for any visitor, and if you find yourself in the area, you should mark off a day or two to explore. The trails are open year-round, but if you choose to visit from August to November, you can be confident you’ll get a downpour or two during your trip.
The Tarcoles River is the convergence of the Virilla and Grande de San Ramon rivers, which runs through Costa Rica’s Central Pacific region before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. This watery area is outside of the Manuel Antonio Reserve and offers an exclusive view of the swamp regions and marine life of the greater jungle. While there are trails along the river, most visitors to the Tarcoles are thrill seekers looking for a close-up glimpse of the Costa Rican crocodiles. For the best (and safest) views, boating tours are popular. While swampy and wet, your tour will take place in rather high temperatures, from the lower 70’s to upper 80’s, and the reflection of the sun upon the water can cause some serious sunburns and dehydration. You’ll want to be well prepared for this trek, with sun protection, fluids, and bug repellent.
This swampy river has been badly polluted in the last decades, a devastating loss for the 60% of Costa Ricans who live along the basins. While efforts are being made to clean the river, swimming will be out of the question for adventure seekers as the water is teeming with wildlife, most prominently the American crocodile. This protected area is in fact home to the highest population of crocodiles in the entire world, with around 25 crocodiles per square kilometer. The beauty and risk-filled excitement of seeing these crocodiles up close is what attracts the majority of boating adventurers to this area, and as the boat is not only the best but the safest way to observe these species, members of all ages and abilities can join your excursion. These crocodiles are massive, the males reaching around 20 feet in length and weighing in at up to a ton. They are crawling all over this region, and many tour companies confidently promise guaranteed sightings on their tours. The crocodiles will be swimming in the river or sunbathing on the shores, but have never found reason to attack or come too close to a boating crew.
Apart from crocodile viewing, you will experience up to 50 species of migratory tropical birds during your trip, including rare sightings such as the crested caracas or the roseate spoonbills. You will see fish, iguanas, different types of lizards, and other common swamp habitat dwellers. While this crocodile-focused tour will take place within the safety of a boat, outside the swamp and into the jungle will provide opportunities for horseback riding, ziplines, and nature walks.
Manzanillo-Gandoca Wildlife Refuge
For those who venture to the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, the Manzanillo-Gandoca wildlife refuge is a must-see. In terms of natural beauty, this wildlife refuge takes the prize. Once entering the protected area, you will be stunned by the natural beauty of the plants and the geography itself, with rare tropical animals easy to spot. This jungle is complete with an interior lowland rainforest, white sand beaches, wetland habitat, and the only intact mangrove swamp in the Atlantic, hosting its own coral reef. This makes it an extremely important area from an ecological perspective as well as from a cultural perspective as several indigenous tribes live in sections of the park, living off the wealth of the jungle and income from ecotourism.
This excursion will prove to be a wet and muddy hike, but the animals you will see with only a couple hours of tour will last a lifetime. With over 360 species of tropical birds, including elusive eagle species, you’ll be surrounded by wildlife during each and every step of your hike. Once entering the watery areas leading to the corral reef, you’ll have a chance to see manatees, dolphins, sea fans, tropical fish, caimans, crocodiles, and several turtle species. While the presence of tourists and indigenous communities make this a difficult area for turtle nesting, the local community is making efforts to encourage the local turtle populations.
As is true with all Caribbean jungles, the Gandoca-Manzanillo is especially rainy. The best time to visit is in March and April, and again in September and October. If you find yourself in the region outside of these months, you may want to call the nature center before visiting to confirm that the park is open and trails are navigable.
Tortuguero National Park
Staying in the Limon province on the northern Caribbean Coast, another hot and steamy jungle awaits you. The Tortuguero National Park is famous for its turtles, as the name applies, and offers incredible peaks of several turtle species in their natural habitat as well as views of the egg laying and hatching process. This will be another multi-athletic feat as to fully experience the area you will need a combination of hiking, boating, and paddling canoes or kayaks. While there is a marked trail for those who want to stay near the beaches as well as a motorized boat tour option for the less athletically inclined, those who choose to engage in all modes of travel will have the best experience.
The Tortuguero National Park is truly a sight to be seen. Heavy rain falls and nutritionally dense soil cause sand build-ups near the river, making ideal nesting beaches for many species of turtles. These same environmental factors cause canals, lagoons, and swap lands hosting an exceptional amount of biodiversity. These are ideal conditions for undergrowth, and while you may have come to observe the turtles, you will be awed at the intricate map of waterways. This maze of rivers and streams create the perfect opportunity for a jungle kayak excursion.
This natural reserve serves as a protected base for Green Sea Turtles, Leatherback Turtles, and Hawksbill Turtles. While every turtle needs protected land to lay eggs and hatch their young, the Green Sea Turtles are given special protection in this park. This species is native to Central America and nearing extinction after centuries of being hunted for meat and eggs. They are an easy prey as the egg laying process is so intimate and easily accessible to beach hunters. As this species is vital to the ecosystem and under serious duress, your guide will talk to you extensively about respectful touring and viewing practices. This includes not only when the adult females come together on the beaches to lay their eggs, but also the hatching process when young turtles break out of their shells and race to the sea. This is a very intimate and important process, but also the experience of a lifetime to observe. It is possible to see both laying and hatching during the day, but the majority of this will take place during the night. After 6 pm you will not be allowed on the beaches without a guide, but paying for a tour and learning how to responsibly observe these marine species is worth your money.
On your excursion, you will see a lot more than turtles and jungle undergrowth. Many adventurers observe caiman, river otters, manatees, crustaceans, a dozen species of birds, and up to 3 species of monkeys. There also 59 species of freshwater tropical fish in the area, and while fishing is prohibited in the reserve, the sea and rivers outside of the park have designated fishing zones.
Learning of rare and endangered animals during one of the most intimate natural processes is truly an educational and beautiful experience. This park is rather off the beaten path, but if you plan on visiting the Caribbean coast, you may want to consider a visit. Because of the exceptionally heavy rainfall, you’ll want to contact the park center before a trip to ensure the trails are open.
The rest of Costa Rica
Creating a list of recommendable jungle excursions is an especially difficult task as this small country has countless jungle reserves, each with a unique twist on Costa Rican wildlife and natural biodiversity. Along with the 4 jungles listed above, we recommend researching the Diquis Delta, Punta Mona, and the Damas Island Estuary. Regardless of where you plan to stay in Costa Rica, there is most likely a jungle reserve within a couple hours driving distance. Taking a break from your beach vacation or business trip to explore the jungles of Costa Rica will change your trip dramatically for the better.