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With more than 850 species of resident and migrant birds identified throughout the country, Costa Rica abounds with great bird-watching sites. Lodges with the best bird-watching include Savegre Hotel ★ in Cerro de la Muerte, off the road to San Isidro de El General (quetzal sightings are almost guaranteed); La Paloma Lodge ★★★ in Drake Bay, where you can sit on the porch of your cabin as the avian parade goes by; Arenal Observatory Lodge ★★ on the flanks of Arenal Volcano; La Selva Biological Station ★★ in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí; Aviarios del Caribe and Selva Bananito Lodge, both just north of Cahuita; Lapa Ríos ★★ and Bosque del Cabo ★★★, on the Osa Peninsula; Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge ★★★, along the Golfo Dulce; La Laguna del Lagarto Lodge ★★, up by the Nicaraguan border; and Tiskita Lodge ★★★, down by the Panamanian border.

Some of the best parks and preserves for serious birders are Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve (for Resplendent Quetzals and hummingbirds); Corcovado National Park (for scarlet macaws); Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (for wading birds, including jabiru storks); Wilson Botanical Gardens and the Las Cruces Biological Station, near San Vito (the thousands of flowering plants here are bird magnets); Guayabo, Negritos, and Pájaros Islands biological reserves in the Gulf of Nicoya (for magnificent frigate birds and brown boobies); Palo Verde National Park (for ibises, jacanas, storks, and roseate spoonbills); Tortuguero National Park (for great green macaws); and Rincón de la Vieja National Park (for parakeets and curassows). Rafting trips down the Corobicí and Bebedero rivers near Liberia, boat trips to or at Tortuguero National Park, and hikes in any cloud forest also provide good bird-watching opportunities.

In San José, your best bets are to head toward the lush grounds and gardens of the University of Costa Rica, or to Parque del Este, a little farther east in the foothills just outside of town.

Costa Rican Tour Agencies

Costa Rica Expeditions ★★ ((tel) 2221-6099; www.costaricaexpeditions.com) and Costa Rica Sun Tours ★ ((tel) 866/271-6263 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2296-7757 in Costa Rica; www.crsuntours.com) are well-established companies with very competent and experienced guides who offer a variety of tours to some of the better birding spots in Costa Rica.

International Tour Operators

Costa Rican Bird Route ★★ ((tel) 608/698-3448 in the U.S.; www.costaricanbirdroute.com) is a bird-watching and conservation effort that has created several bird-watching specific itineraries, which they offer up as guided tours, or self-guided adventures.

Field Guides ★ ((tel) 800/728-4953 in the U.S. and Canada; www.fieldguides.com) is a specialty bird-watching travel operator. Its 16-day tour of Costa Rica covers a lot of ground, and group size is limited to 14 participants.

Tropical Birding ★ (tel. 800/348-5941 in the U.S. and Canada; www.tropicalbirding.com) specializing in birding tours around the world, is based in Ecuador but periodically brings small groups and highly skilled guides to Costa Rica. 

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours ★★ (tel. 800/328-8368 in the U.S. and Canada; www.ventbird.com) is a well-respected, longstanding small-group tour operator specializing in bird-watching trips in Latin America.

WINGS ★ (tel. 888/293-6443 in the U.S. and Canada; www.wingsbirds.com) is a specialty bird-watching travel operator with more than 30 years of field experience. Group size is usually between 4 and 16.

Where to See the Resplendent Quetzal

Revered by pre-Columbian cultures throughout Central America, the Resplendent Quetzal has been called the most beautiful bird on earth. Ancient Aztec and Maya Indians believed that the robin-size quetzal protected them in battle. The males of this species have brilliant red breasts; iridescent emerald green heads, backs, and wings; and white tail feathers complemented by a pair of iridescent green tail feathers that are more than .5m (1 3/4 ft.) long.

The belief that these endangered birds live only in the dense cloud forests cloaking the higher slopes of Central America's mountains was instrumental in bringing many areas of cloud forest under protection as quetzal habitats. (Since then, researchers have discovered that the birds do not, in fact, spend their entire lives here.) After nesting between March and July, Resplendent Quetzals migrate down to lower slopes in search of food. These lower slopes have not been preserved in most cases, and now conservationists are trying to salvage enough lower-elevation forests to help the quetzals survive.

Although for many years Monteverde Cloud Forest was the place to see quetzals, the “crowd forest” that has thronged to visit makes sightings less frequent. Other places where you can see quetzals are in the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve near San Ramón, in Tapantí National Wildlife Refuge, and in Chirripó National Park. Perhaps the best place to spot a quetzal is at one of the specialized lodges located along the Cerro de la Muerte between San José and San Isidro de El General.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.