It’s not as exotic as the end of a muddy trail through the remotest rain forest but the trees along the highways and roads are one of the easiest places to see sloth and monkeys especially if you’re riding with a guide or local driver. Of course national parks and wildlife refuges provide opportunities as well and we’ve described the best in each region of Costa Rica.
Looking for monkeys and sloths in Costa Rica is a bit like searching for a needle in a needle stack – they’re everywhere.
A couple of years ago we were traveling friends on their first visit – two other couples and their five pre-teens. We spent a few days at the Volcano where we saw mono congos every morning.
In the pre-dawn light when the monkeys started calling from the trees bordering Arenal Springs Resort I’d round up the kids and we’d take a 100 meter expedition into the forest following the sound until someone spotted movement. It was nearly impossible to drag the kids away for breakfast so I had to rely on the monkeys’ tendency to move off in search of forage for their own morning meal.
No one really wanted to leave, but everyone did want to go to the beach so we loaded into a busetta, rounded the lake, crossed the continental divide and headed down the big hill from Tilarán to the hot, dry plains of Guanacaste – destination Playa Hermosa.
Because Sue and I spend so much time surrounded by wildlife it’s hard to remember what our guests have seen and what they haven’t so I was a bit surprised when I heard one of the girls tell the driver, “the monkeys are fun but I really want to see a sloth. We haven’t seen a sloth.”
I was even more surprised and a little concerned when I heard the driver reply, “oh don’t worry we’ll see one soon.”
If he had made the promise an hour earlier while we were in the lush Caribbean rainforest along the shores of lake Arenal I would have figured “no problem,” but here we were in the middle of hundreds of square miles of grassy pasture. The skyline was broken only by the live fence posts and an occasional cluster of trees along a small quebrada.
I know better than to doubt the keen eyes of the locals but with nearly no habitat around I thought the driver had bitten off more than he could chew.
I could hardly believe it when he slowed the bus, pulled over to the shoulder, opened the doors and pointed about ten feet up the branches of a Gliricidia sepium (living fence post tree) and said “there, right there!” Sure enough, a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus).
I’d never seen a sloth around there before and have never seen one since even though I look really hard now and I frequently pass that way. The photo above was taken on another day in Manuel Antonio because I was so surprised that afternoon at Tilarán that I never got my camera out.
Best Places to See Monkeys and Sloths
In the trees of course. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, but that brings up another piece of advice that’s nearly as obvious and not at all facetious.
It would be hard to travel for a week in Costa Rica without seeing monkeys or sloths in the wild but it does happen. If you want absolutely no chance of heading home disappointed visit a wildlife rescue. You’ll get up close with the animals and be doing a very good deed as well since these worthy causes are normally supported by admission fees.
The southern half of the Caribbean has great trails for wildlife watching and is dotted with tiny deserted beaches
Jaguar Rescue, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the southern Caribbean coast is part of the La Ceiba wildlife refuge and works to rehabilitate and reintroduce injured animals. [odds – 100% guaranteed]
Gandoca Manzanillo wildlife refuge protects the last 20 km of Caribbean coastline starting near Puerto Viejo and extending to the southern border with Panama. The northern half of the refuge is slit by the road and actually includes dozens of little bungalows, hotels and restaurants along Playas Cocles, Chiquita and punta Uva that were built before its designation. There’s a good chance you’ll see sloths or monkeys while staying or eating at any of them but if you get a local guide and hit the trails of the unpopulated southern half of the refuge it’s almost certain. [odds – 95% with a guide, 70% without a guide]
Sloth Sanctuary (aka Aviarios del Carib), north of Cahuita started out as a wildlife refuge mainly designated to protect bird habitat but as you’ll learn when you visit an injured sloth changed all of that. Now one of the premier sloth research and rehab centers in the world. [odds – sloths 100% guaranteed, monkeys 90%]
NOTE: In mid 2016 a blog post reported that the Aviarios del Carib sloth sanctuary was not providing appropriate care and not releasing rehabilitated animals. We can’t verify or refute the article because it’s been a few years since we visited. What we can say is that when we did the “behind the scenes tour” for journalists and scientists we didn’t see evidence of abuse but were told several times that “sloths were very difficult or impossible to reintroduce into the wild and would probably be kept in cages permanently” – the main complaint in the blog post.
Aviarios del Carib has done amazing things over decades of rescue efforts but much of what’s written in the article quoting former veterinarian employees rings true. It’s possible the rescue has been overwhelmed and is failing in the challenge to benefit the animals. Whether discontinuing visits and thus effectively eliminating financial support is the proper response is not clear. We’ll be visiting again in a couple of months to judge for ourselves.
Manuel Antonio National Park is perhaps Costa Rica’s most famous wildlife viewing destination and rightly so. There are dozens of qualified guides who know every inch of the trails and also communicate with each other about the location of sleepy sloths (they rarely move very far during the day) and troops of monkeys. If you want the very best odds of seeing sloths or monkeys in the wild include Manuel Antonio in your vacation. [odds – 99% with a guide, 90% without a guide]
Jacó is a surprise entry on this list. When we first visited over twenty years ago Jacó was seedy little beach town catering mainly to San José weekend getaway debauchery with legal prostitution and dark smokey bars. It’s cleaned up its act and targets surfers and tourists now but when you see all the high rise condo towers you’ll probably still wonder if we made a mistake including it on a wildlife list. Nope.
Heading inland from the south end of town there’s a dirt road leading up to the communication towers on Fila Chiclera where you can continue on the road or choose one of several unmarked trails down and south towards Calle Hermosa. The birdwatching is excellent (mot-mots, toucans, macaws) and we nearly always see monkeys when we walk here, though sloths are rare. [odds – 75%]
Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge is one of our favorite spots on earth and one of the best places in Costa Rica to see wildlife. Whenever we have guests it’s near the top of our list of places we want to spend a few days, staying in the simple cabins, walking the trails and enjoying the miles long nearly deserted beach. There are several resident troops of white faced Capuchin monkeys and often you’ll see a spotting scope set up next to the restaurant pointed at a sloth in the top of the gallery forest that surrounds the compound. [odds – 95% with a guide, 80% without a guide]
Corcovado National Park is without a doubt the best overall place to see wildlife in the wild. Both species of sloths and all four species of monkeys native to Costa Rica are common in Corcovado and best seen on a day hike or multi-night trek accompanied by a naturalist guide. Since 2013 changes to the way park permits are issued have made it increasingly difficult to enter Corcovado on your own and by our most recent visit in 2015 every visitor we met was on a tour arranged through their lodge or other outfitter. [odds – 95% with a guide, 80% without a guide]
Fundacion Santuario Silvestre de Osa like everything in the remotest part of Costa Rica the sanctuary takes some effort to reach. Not many tourists make it to the boat in location on the Golfo Dulce coast in the middle of Piedras Blancas National Park but the ones that do are rewarded with an inside look at one of the most successful rehabilitation programs for spider monkeys anywhere.
Monkeys aren’t the only inhabitants though, on our first visit back in ’08 all of the humans had been ejected from the open sided rancho style house because a pair of rescued Scarlet Macaws had built a nest in the toilet bowl and would attack anyone who came within 50 yards of their eggs. [odds – 100% guaranteed, but the residents do vary depending on recent arrivals and re-introductions]
Proyecto Asis Wildlife Rescue Center near Arenal Volcano (10.37815, -84.543183) is a wonderful community oriented project that offers much more immersive experience than most rescues. Individuals and families with kids age 9 and over can spend the night with a local family and days working at the rescue helping with food prep, habitat maintenance, whatever needs done.
They also offer more standard tours of an hour and a half or a full day that includes some volunteer time. Just don’t forget change for the toll road if the director ever offers you a ride home from a meeting in San José or you might not get back (just kidding Alvaro). [odds – 100% guaranteed, but the residents do vary depending on recent arrivals and re-introductions]
La Paz Waterfall Gardens on the slopes of Poás Volcano has a very successful cat rescue as well as an excellent butterfly pavilion, snake and reptile terrariums, a frog house, aviary, humming bird garden and both wild sloths and monkeys along the waterfall trails and the occasional rescue. Highly recommended as a day trip from San José or for the lucky few that can get reservations a stay in the Peace Lodge right on the grounds. [odds – 50% for sloths and monkeys but you’re sure to see lots of other wildlife]
On the road from Arenal Volcano to the beaches (just kidding, sort of…did you read the story above?) [odds of sloths – 10% with a guide, 0% without a guide. odds of monkeys – 70%]
Tortuguero National Park is a bit like the Corcovado of the Caribbean. Remote, harder to reach and oh so wild and rewarding. It took us a dozen years of traveling around Costa Rica before we finally visited Tortuguero and now we can’t figure out why we waited so long. Motor launches full of photographers ply the banks of the Río and Laguna but we really enjoyed the senderos acuaticos – the water trails.
Narrow slow moving streams wind through canyons formed by massive tropical lowland Atlantic forest (a type of rain forest). Gliding along in a canoe or on a sit on top kayak you’re nearly certain to see at least one species of sloth and monkey and quite possibly more. [odds – 95% with a guide, 90% without a guide]
Sue looking up (probably at a monkey or sloth..I can’t remember) in Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge
The wetlands of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge expand and contract with the seasonal variation of water levels in the Río Frío. The river runs through the middle of the swamps and small lakes and is open to tour boats, canoes and kayaks all year round. The gallery forest along the riverbanks provide perfect habitat and we’ve spotted both species of sloths plus spider, howler and white faced monkeys all in the same day (squirrel monkeys have been hunted out except in Manuel Antonio and Corcovado).
Motorized, canopied safari boats can cover a lot of ground and their guides know the trees favored by different species. Even kayaks are quite a bit faster than hiking on steep rainforest trails so you’ll see a lot in a day improving your chances of spotting the species you’re most interested in. [odds – 95% with a guide, 80% without a guide]
Reprinted by the Authors and with permission from CostaRicaTop10 where this article first appeared.