Caño Negro Wetlands National Wildlife Refuge

Bikes in a boat Cano Negro
The first time we visited Cano Negro we biked to Los Chiles loaded our bicycles in a boat, got a tour of the wetlands and continued our bike ride from Cano Negro village

Caño Negro is off the beaten path, but worth the effort.

Most visits start out at Los Chiles where you board a boat and glide up the Río Frío through canyons of green towards the everglade like Lago Caño Negro.

Spectacled Caiman Cano Negro
Spectacled Caiman

Hundreds of tourists from the Arenal Volcano region bus in every day to tour “Caño Negro” but many of these tours never actually enter the wildlife refuge because the boundary is some distance from Los Chiles and the wildlife watching is excellent along the Río Frío outside the refuge.

Migration plays a big role in the population of the waterways; you may see a bull shark’s fin slice the surface; this area is the end of their annual trip up the Río Nicaragua from the sea, but most people come to spot migratory birds.

During the green (rainy) season from May to October, water from the mountains is plentiful and the Río Frío overflows its banks to form Lago Caño Negro positioned smack in the middle of the flyway for migrant North and South American birds. Millions of birds arrive here to winter over during the dry season beginning in December. The water level falls continuously for the next three to four months until all that is left is the main channel of the Río Frío and the migrants depart.

Wildlife

Southern Rough-winged Swallows Cano Negro
Southern Rough-winged Swallows

Birds – Among the many birds found in Caño Negro are: glossy Ibis, black-necked stilt, neotropical cormorants, American anhinga, northern jacana, American widgeon, wood stork, white Ibis, black-bellied tree duck, northern shoveler, snail kite, green backed heron, roseate spoonbill, and blue-winged teal. This is one of the best places to see the Nicaraguan grackle, whose only Costa Rican habitat is Caño Negro and other marshy areas just south of Lake Nicaragua.

Animals – spider, capuchin and howler monkeys, spectacled caiman, crocodile, jaguar, cougar, tayra, ocelot, tapir, white-tailed deer, jesus-christ lizard, black river turtle, green iguan

Fish – Snook, guapote, alligator gar, drum fish, tarpon, and bull sharks

Sue in a sit on top kayak Caño Negro
Kayak Caño Negro

The Río Frío has good fishing for snook, guapote, alligator gar, drum, and huge tarpon (fish stories claim up to 100 kg or 220 lbs). Fishing is allowed in the reserve from July 1 to March 31, license $US 45 from the ranger station in Caño Negro village. There are no established high profile fishing guide outfits currently operating, but if you are willing to round up a boat and provide most of your own tackle, Caño Negro is a well kept fishing secret.

Nearby

East of Los Chiles, the Río Medio Queso spreads into a shallow wetlands when rainfall is plentiful. The region near the border is officially protected by the Corredor Fronterízo National Wildlife Refuge, but the whole area is excellent for wildlife viewing.

Wetlands and mud flats at Cano Negro
Wetlands and mud flats at Cano Negro

Caño Negro isn’t particularly near anything. When we visited, we embarked on a small boat at Los Chiles with our bicycles stacked to one side spent the cay on the river and lake then disembarked at Caño Negro village, where we continued west and south. If you are traveling by bus, your only option is back towards La Fortuna Arenal and San José. If you are driving, there is no bridge over the Río Frío at Los Chiles, you have to turn west off the main road about 6 miles (10 km) south to reach the nearest bridge at San Emilio to drive to Caño Negro village and on to Upala (4WD recommended in the rainy season).

When to visit

This area has some of the lowest rainfall totals for Costa Rica. Even during the rainy season when the rivers are overflowing their banks, most to the rain is falling farther south then running into this region.

There are advantages to visiting any time of year.   Many migratory birds arrive in December when the snow flies up north and depart in May.  The dry season runs January through April and it’s driest towards the end of this period.  Average of 98 inches (2,500 mm) rainfall per year, and 5 hours of sunshine per day.


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Use the drop down menu to see weather patterns and other seasonal information for the month you are thinking about visiting Cano Negro.

Getting There

Most people visit on tours from the Arenal region.

Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge Location
Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge Location

Driving – From San José there are several routes to the northern lowlands. The main route follows the Pan American Highway west out of San José towards Naranjo (and San Ramón, but don’t go all the way there), after ~32 km turn right (north) on 141 to Naranjo followed by a 22 km climb to Zarcero that pays off when you get out and stretch your legs in the amazing topiary garden surrounding the whitewashed church (on your right in the center of town, you can’t miss it). Continue on 141 another 20 km to Quesada (known as San Carlos to all but map makers), then 8 km to Florencia where you turn right (north) on 35 which takes you the final 84 km to Los Chiles. (No 4WD required)
To get to the ranger station at Caño Negro village you have to turn west off of 35 onto a dirt road about 10 km before (south of) Los Chiles (there is no bridge at Los Chiles) to cross the Río Frío at San Emilio. You can continue from Caño Negro village to Colonia Puntarenas (4WD recommended year round and required in the rainy season) where you can catch the paved road to Upala.
Bus  – 1229 Los Chiles y Caño Negro
Express departures daily from San José, Terminal Atlántico Norte, 5:30, 15:30, 217 km, 5 hours. Atlántico Norte company. Telephone (506) 256-8963
Air  – There are no regularly scheduled flights, but there is an airstrip and charters are available.

Visiting

Entrance fees – There is no cost to enter the reserve, however if you are planning on fishing, you need a license, $US 50 from the ranger station in Caño Negro village.
Hours – The reserve is open to visitors around the clock. The Ramsar ranger station in Caño Negro village is open 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Hiking trails – There are no established hiking trails in Caño Negro. Travel is almost exclusively by boat.
Camping – Camping is allowed, but there are no facilities or official campsites.

Quick Facts

Size – 24,620 acres (9,969 hectares, 38 square miles, 29 times the size of central park NYC, 1/10th the size of Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado)
Elevations – from 100 to 330 feet (30-100 meters)
Habitats – Tropical lowland wet forest (rain forest), pasture, fresh water marsh, river, lake (some compare it to the Florida Everglades)
Inhabitants
Birds Glossy Ibis, black-necked stilt, neotropical cormorants, American anhinga, northern jacana, American widgeon, wood stork, white Ibis, black-bellied tree duck, cattle egret, northern shoveler, snail kite, green backed heron, Nicaraguan grackle, roseate spoonbill, and blue-winged teal
Animals Spider, capuchin and howler monkeys, spectacled caiman, crocodile, jaguar, cougar, tayra, ocelot, tapir, white-tailed deer, jesus-christ lizard, black river turtle, iguana,
Fish Snook, guapote, alligator gar, drum fish, tarpon, and bull sharks