As we researched Costa Rica, we quickly decided a visit to Corcovado National Park was a must because it is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. It exceeded our already high expectations. We saw more wildlife than we’d ever expected, from a huge tapir to tiny leaf-cutter ants. While we enjoyed the super touristic beaches, volcanoes, and cloud forests of north-western Costa Rica, the highlight of our trip was unquestionably a visit to Corcovado National Park, located at the southern tip of the country on the Pacific coast. We stayed in Drake Bay and did a day-trip into the park, travelling by boat to Sirena, one of four ranger stations in the park.
As the boat pulled up to a beach lined by thick rain forest, the smell of blooming flowers was intoxicating. We couldn’t wait to get into the forest to start spotting animals!
We quickly headed into the park for a day of hiking that far exceeded our expectations. This is a very remote and protected rain forest with infinite hiding places for the animals that call it home. On our own, we would have had a tough time spotting all but the noisiest and most active animals. Luckily, we had an incredible guide who was amazing at spotting wildlife and did so with the enthusiasm of someone spotting each animal for the first time. He also carried a spotting scope that was invaluable for getting a good look at many of the well-hidden birds and mammals up in the treetops.
As we walked through the forest and our guide pointed out a new creature at every turn, we started to feel like we were experiencing a National Geographic special firsthand. We took hundreds of photos, Before we even entered the forest we saw a black iguana basking in the sun on a log on the beach.
After heading into the forest, another guide rushed up to us and excitedly yelled something to our guide. He told us to follow him and rushed off down a trail. He set up his spotting scope to look high up into a tree and we soon saw why he was so excited. There was an anteater sleeping on a branch high up in the tree. He said that after a rainy night anteaters often climb trees so they can reach the sun’s rays to dry off. Until then, I didn’t even know anteaters could climb trees!
In the rain forest, we quickly noticed that we were surrounded by sounds of life. We could hear that there were animals, and birds in particular, hiding amongst the thick vegetation that lined the paths, but actually spotting the source of the noise was a much harder challenge. We were taken off-guard when the typical rain forest chatter was interrupted by what can only be described as a maniacal laugh. Our guide excitedly pointed up at a tree, where we spotted the aptly laughing falcon.
Adding to the symphony of bird songs were the tell-tale deep cries of howler monkeys. We spotted many different troupes of monkeys throughout our hike, including squirrel monkeys, the one type of Costa Rican monkey we had yet to see during our trip. Unlike other monkeys, a squirrel monkey’s tail is not prehensile and look more like a fluffy squirrel tail.
Of course, our wildlife sightings were not limited to mammals and birds. After an exciting night-tour in Drake Bay, we knew that the forests of Costa Rica were teaming with insects and spiders. We saw quite a few spiders, including a beautiful (from a distance!) Golden Orb spider on a huge golden web.
One of the most impressive animals we saw was a tapir grazing near the Sirena Ranger Station where we stopped to eat our lunch. It walked right past us across a the field that serves as an airplane landing strip. As it walked, its long nose swayed from side to side and its smooth skin glistened under the bright midday sun.
Equally impressive were leaf-cutter ants, which we spotted throughout our travels in Costa Rica. These amazing ants carry giant leaves in relation to their body size. Seemingly infinite numbers of the ants follow one another in a line along the same path so frequently that these tiny creatures have created visible deep paths on the forest floor. What happens next is even more amazing. The ants bring the leaves back to their nests where they are chewed up and used to feed huge gardens of fungus that they eat.
We also spotted several groups of spider monkeys. They move incredibly quickly, jumping between the tiniest branches at the tops of the trees. Luckily the monkeys finally slowed down to feast on orange fruits.
Another exciting bird spotting was a crested owl that blended in perfectly with dead leaves and was virtually invisible to our naked eyes. The spotting scope saved the day again and gave us a detailed look at this beautiful bird.
Another well-camouflaged critter was a caiman basking in the sun beside a small river. From afar it looks frighteningly similar to its larger relative, the crocodile, which can also be found in the coastal rivers of Costa Rica. Luckily we didn’t spot either when we went for a swim in a river down the coast a day earlier! Yikes!
When we spotted a nearly perfectly camouflaged insect on a leaf, we were reminded again of how many creatures were probably right next to us throughout our hike, invisible to our inexperienced eyes.
One of the most awww-inducing moment on the hike was spotting several baby spider monkeys riding on their mothers’ backs as they calmly jumped from branch to branch at frightening heights.
As we stared into a river trying to see a crocodile, we saw a little green head bobbing up and down in the water. It was a green iguana, swimming amazingly quickly through the water until it reached a sunny beach where it could dry off in the sun.
While I make this hike sound like it was all fun and games, we also had a healthy amount of fear as we made our way through the forest. With high levels of biodiversity come species of all kinds, including highly venomous and dangerous. Costa Rica is home to many species of venomous snakes, as well as a far higher number of harmless snakes. As we hiked through the forest craning our necks up at the forest canopy, we were also careful to look down at our feet to make sure we weren’t accidentally angering any snakes lying in our path. It wasn’t until we were nearly done our hike that we finally spotted a snake. Actually, our whole group walked right over it! The snake was lying along a root across the path and none of us saw it until the Swiss girl at the end of our group yelled out “snail!” Luckily her snake-snail mix-up didn’t happen in a life-threatening situation! Our guide was very excited to see it and after taking a closer look, told us that it was not venomous, although it did closely resemble a venomous snake. Again, I wondered how many snakes, maybe even venomous ones, we’d walked over on our treks through the forests of Costa Rica. Maybe I’ll wear rubber boots next time I hike in Costa Rica!
At the end of our hike we were greeted with one final surprise. A whole family of coatis, relatives of the raccoon, crossed a creek. The tiny babies were very tentative and the parents needed to backtrack several times to coax the young ones across. It was ridiculously cute and very entertaining to hear the other hikers encouraging the babies as they mustered up the courage to cross in a mix of French, German, and English!
As we rode in the boat on the way home discussing all the amazing wildlife we’d seen, a group of dolphins leapt out of the water in front of the boat, reminding us that there are literally animals everywhere in Costa Rica!
We’ve already decided that we have to come back to Corcovado National Park someday. It’s that amazing. We want to stay for longer next time, either trekking through the park with a guide or staying overnight at a ranger station so we can spend a few days in one area. Maybe next time, we’ll finally spot the elusive sloth, one of the symbols of Costa Rica that we only got to see on tourist t-shirts and mugs!