Costa Rica has a well-deserved reputation as a dream wildlife-watching destination. A quarter of the country is protected land (national park or reserve) and these wildernesses shelter many endangered or threatened animal and bird species, including the rare resplendent quetzal.
It’s not the only country in Central America for wildlife encounters. Whale enthusiasts should head to Mexico to observe grey whales at close quarters. Anyone interested in marine life will find much to enthral them in the reefs off Belize’s coast. And did you know that Nicaragua – as well as Costa Rica – has remote, untouched rainforest brimming with a motley cast of fauna and bidlife? The only difference: fewer visitors.
Here, in no particular order, are six suggestions for an immersive wildlife trip in Central America.
Visit the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
In a country that ordinarily crawls with phantasmagorical wildlife, the Osa Peninsula still manages to excel for its concentration of biodiversity.
This limb of land trailing into the Pacific from Costa Rica’s southwest coast is refreshingly off the grid, a mass of lowland rainforest, isolated beaches, mangrove swamps, waterfalls and spring-fed rivers. Its remoteness, and the richness of its unspoiled ecosystems, have led to an incredible density of wildlife. Endangered creatures – such as the Baird’s tapir – survive here, rooting through the underbrush.
The best way to experience it all is by staying in a wilderness lodge. Some are so far flung you’ll need to fly then travel by boat or by 4×4 on dirt tracks to reach them. From your lodge, you can explore the forest trails by day and night with astoundingly knowledgeable naturalist guides. In addition to tapirs, we’ve seen four species of monkey (howler, capuchin, squirrel and spider) in the Osa Peninsula, as well as lots of coatimundi (small racoon-like mammals), ocelots and even jaguars. At certain times of year, you can take trips to spot pilot and humpback whales in the Golfo Dulce.
Birders are well catered for, too: the Osa is home to healthy numbers of dazzlingly bright scarlet macaws, among other species, and some lodges have their own canopy observation towers.
Get within touching distance of whales in Baja California, Mexico
Baja California’s dunes and desolate expanses of desert peppered with giant cacti give no hint of the marine life teeming in the surrounding Sea of Cortez and the Pacific.
Between January and March, grey whales migrate from Alaska to give birth to their young in the warm, sheltered lagoons of Baja California’s Pacific coast. At the same time, humpback whales can be seen frolicking, fluking and breaching in the seas around the peninsula’s southern tip, while blue whales gather at the deeper southern end of the Sea of Cortez. Out on Espíritu Santo Island, sea lions drape themselves over rocks and bottlenose dolphins play in the bow waves of visiting boats.
You could spend weeks observing all these marine creatures, but we think the grey whales are the most compelling. Naturally inquisitive and playful, they’ll swim right up to your Panga boat, sometimes nudging it. You’re able to look them right in the eye as they surface alongside the boat and turn their tapered, barnacle-caked heads to check you out in turn. Be prepared to get wet from the spray of their blowholes, spurting out inches away from you. In terms of proximity, it’s whale watching as you have never experienced it before.
Snorkel and dive in Ambergris Caye, Belize
A thin strip of an island off mainland Belize covered in coconut trees and windswept beaches – it’s difficult not to rhapsodize about Ambergris Caye being a tropical idyll. But as inviting as the honey-hued beaches are, the real beauty lies underwater. The planet’s second-largest barrier reef, the Mesoamerican, lies just offshore.
Hol Chan (‘little channel’ in the Maya tongue) is a cut in the reef and lies to the south of Ambergris Caye. It’s celebrated for the sheer diversity of corals and marine creatures that flourish here. Divers can swim through the channel’s near-vertical sides, its ledges encrusted with live corals, but snorkeling here is just as rewarding.
Beneath you sprawl sponges, boulder corals and queen conches. Tiny fish thread their way between the outstretched fingers of elkhorn corals and sprays of sea fans. You won’t know where to look next, as all kinds of species skim past – kaleidoscopic angelfish and rainbow parrot fish; sinuous green moray eels; huge bloated-looking black groupers; various types of snapper, and possibly some loggerhead turtles. In one area of the reserve, Shark Ray Alley, you can even snorkel alongside nurse sharks and southern stingrays.
See the resplendent quetzal in Costa Rica
San Gerardo de Dota is a sleepy farming village in the middle of a heavily forested valley, high up in the mountains that lie a few hours south of San Jose. Enveloped in cloudforest, the air is cool here; the nights crisp. This off-the-beaten-track area of cloudforest is a great place for hiking, with trails passing over wooden bridges as you walk through dense vegetation. You’ll see gullies of ferns, bromeliads and orchids growing by rivers and streams, and clusters of endemic oak trees only found in this corner of the world.
Keen ornithologists flock to San Gerardo de Dota for one main reason. The resplendent quetzal can be sighted here year-round, with April and May offering the best chance of seeing one. And your chances are very good indeed – the guides here know all the birds’ haunts, and will take you on early morning walks on the various trails that criss-cross the village, stopping at blackberry and almond trees (the quetzal’s food source of choice).
Catching sight of the quetzal’s iridescent teal, emerald and red plumage is always exciting, and more so during mating season (April to June) when males grow their pair of flamboyantly long tail feathers.
Spot wildlife far from the crowds in San Juan, Nicaragua
This area makes our list because it offers the same kind of wildlife experience, and access to the same pristine ecosystems, as Costa Rica. But it’s much quieter and relatively undiscovered.
Getting there is an adventure in itself. It involves a boat journey down the San Juan River until you reach the town of El Castillo, which is overlooked by an 18th-century Spanish colonial fort. Base yourself at Luna del Rio, a rustic lodge that’s part of an initiative to provide work and livelihoods for the local community. A stay here includes several guided trips to explore the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, a 15 minute boat trip downstream.
The reserve is a haven for wildlife and tropical birds. They’ve been able to thrive here, given that the area sees so few visitors. It’s a great place to see mammals as well as birds. Sloths, wild boar, ocelots, pacas (a small dappled rodent), many species of monkey and the unusual fish-eating bulldog bat are all residents.
You can see these creatures on guide-led rainforest hiking trails, or by kayaking to remote inlets where manatees sometimes congregate. There’s also a caiman-spotting night tour – but caimans are unlikely to be the only wildlife you’ll see on it.
Watch the monarch butterfly migration in Mexico
Every year, the oyamel fir forests of the Valle de Bravo, under three hours by car from Mexico City, host a phenomenon that remains little understood.
Swarms of delicate orange and brown monarch butterflies touch down on boughs in several forests in the area – always the same six sites – around October and November, leaving again the following March. They’re protected by law in Mexico: killing one incurs fines.
Given the timing of their arrival – roughly coinciding with Mexico’s Day of the Dead – Mexicans believe that the butterflies are the souls of their ancestors returning to visit their families. The Aztecs, after all, believed that the soul becomes a butterfly after death.
Nothing can prepare you for seeing these clouds of butterflies en masse, in the same place. If you walk the trails of the valley’s El Rosario Sanctuary at the right time of year, you’ll see that the fir trees are often obscured completely by the numbers of insects dripping from their pines.
Dramatic as this sight is, watch out for ‘explosions’ when the butterflies, suddenly warmed collectively by the sun, simultaneously erupt into flight. The butterflies may land on you, and you’ll see males and females entangled mid-air as they mate.
Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of Audley Travel.