Exploring Costa Rica's Wild Side

When I look out the window of my bedroom in California I see pigeons, seagulls, and the occasional crow.  As my house is located near a zoo, I can frequently hear the chirps and howls of monkeys in the morning. When I looked out the window of any of the hotels I stayed in during my trip to Costa Rica, I saw geckos, iguanas and the occasional toucan. I could still hear the chirps and howls of monkeys in the morning —but because they were swinging from branches nearby, not in captivity at a zoo.

In addition to lizards, toucans and monkeys, Costa Rica is home to over 500,000 species of both animals and plants, making it a country with the one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity. The many different types of ecosystems within Costa Rica – rainforests, deciduous forests, the coast – make it possible to sustain an astonishing number of plants and animals.

Protecting the extraordinary biodiversity

The first national parks in Costa Rica were established in the 1960s in order to provide an easy way for people to observe and appreciate the diverse wildlife and plant population of the country. Because of the many species of both plants and animals that call Costa Rica home, environmental education and preservation is highly valued in the country. Despite its vast amount of wildlife and variety of ecosystems, 60% of Costa Rica’s forests have been wiped out in the past 400 years, entirely due to human activity. Therefore, hunting animals of any kind for any reason is now illegal, although many of the country’s species have already gone extinct because of hunting and deforestation.

Costa Rican Cloud forest

Visiting one of the Costa Rica’s many national parks will allow you to observe some of the country’s animals and plants up close. Additionally, if you go with a guide, you will be able to learn about the different species and most likely see many more of them. Personally, guided tours aren’t really my thing, but without a guide on my hikes through Costa Rica, I would not have seen nearly as many animals as I did, because I wouldn’t have known where to look.

Hiking through the clouds

On a peaceful hike in Monteverde’s Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, so called because the condensation on the mountain creates an almost constant cloud covering over the forest, our guide did a special bird call to help us find the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala and one of the most difficult birds to see. Some people apparently visit Costa Rica with the sole goal of seeing the quetzal, as it is thought to be one of the most beautiful species of bird in the world. With our guide’s help, we were able to see one, but without our guide, we wouldn’t have known where to look and may not have recognized it if we had seen it. In addition to the quetzal, the reserve has more than 400 different species of birds, more than 100 species of mammals and thousands of plant species. Set at 4,662 feet above sea level, the air is much cleaner, and you can tell the difference just from taking a breath. Coming from a city, it felt weird to inhale and not taste smog and smoke.

Toucan

Another nearby hiking site is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. In addition to the usual daytime hikes, guided night hikes are also available. With the help of our guide and his flashlight, on our night hike we saw frogs, a scorpion, lizards, a tarantula, an owl, wild turkeys, an opossum and an armadillo.

Another recommended hike is through Poas Volcano National Park in the Central Highlands. Although more of a nature stroll than a hike, the hour-long trail leads to a lookout point where visitors can view the main crater of the Poas Volcano, one of the largest volcanoes that is still active today. Although there hasn’t been an eruption since the early 1900s, the smoke rising from the crater reminds you that you are in fact looking at an active volcano. Despite the fog that is constantly surrounding the crater, visitors who wait long enough may be lucky enough to see the exposed crater without mist in the way, which is a truly beautiful sight.

Seeing the scenery from above

If you tire of  hikes and want to see the forest from a different perspective, go on a ‘canopy tour’, otherwise known as zip-lining. There are multiple national parks all over Costa Rica that offer canopy tours. The tour we went on was at Aventura Adventure Center in Monteverde, which boasts what is apparently the highest zipline in Latin America, at 1590 meters—that’s roughly a mile above the ground. Although being that high above the ground – or really any distance above the ground when you are dangling from a cord with only a harness to support you – when you’re suddenly gliding over the tops of the trees with the forest below you, fear quickly turns to exhilaration.

Zip-lining in Costa Rica

In addition to its many rainforests, Costa Rica is known for its vast, beautiful beaches. Located in Guanacaste, Playa Hermosa – the name of which literally means “beautiful beach” – is no exception with its clear blue (and warm!) water and stretches of blank volcanic sand crawling with crabs, iguanas and toads. Although the waves look inviting, the current is rough and riptides are common, making it a perilous swimming location, but great for surfing as long as you know what you’re doing.

The waves are much calmer at Manuel Antonio National Park in Puntarenas. There is a path in the forest leading to the beach, which takes roughly 45 minutes to walk to and is heavily populated by iguanas, sloths and squirrel monkeys. The beach itself is swarmed with white-faced capuchin monkeys, which to the locals and beach guards are as commonplace and pesky as a rodent snooping around your garbage. Anyone walking on the beach or any of the nearby trails can easily observe monkeys swinging from branches, cuddling with or grooming each other, and stealing sandwiches or bags of chips from unsuspecting passers-by.

Playa Hermosa

Final thoughts

All of the guides we had throughout our trip were bilingual, but many of the staff in the hotels where we stayed and restaurants where we ate at were not. Brush up on your Spanish before you go – even just knowing how to say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” should be enough to get by comfortably, especially paired with facial expressions and pointing to objects.

My trip to Costa Rica taught me that the ocean is actually warm in some places, that zip-lining is more fun than scary, and that monkeys exist in other locations aside from the zoo. Costa Rica’s dedication to water conservation, habitat preservation and the protection of the animals who call it home is something we can all learn from.