Costa Rica’s rainforests are classic tropical jungles. Some receive more than 7m (23 ft.) of rainfall a year, and their climate is typically hot and humid, especially in the lowland forests. Trees grow tall and fast, fighting for sunlight in the upper reaches. Life and foliage on the forest floor are surprisingly sparse. The main level of the rainforest is in the canopy, around 30m (100 ft.) high, where the vast majority of animals live, in towering trees festooned with vines and bromeliads.
Among the most interesting of these trees is the parasitic strangler fig, the matapalo (“tree killer”), which grows on other trees until it envelopes and suffocates them, and then remains standing as a tree in its own right, with a hollow interior after the original tree rots away.
Mammals that call the Costa Rican rainforests home include the jaguar, three-toed sloth, two-toed sloth, four monkey species, and the Baird’s tapir. Some of the prettiest birds you are likely to spot are the scarlet macaws and the many-colored toucans.
You can find these lowland rainforests along the southern Pacific coast and Osa Peninsula, as well as along the Caribbean coast. Corcovado, Cahuita, and Manuel Antonio national parks, as well as the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, are fine examples of lowland rainforests. Examples of mid-elevation rainforests include the Braulio Carillo National Park and the forests around La Selva and the Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí region, and those around the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal area.
Tropical Dry Forests
In a few protected areas of Guanacaste, you will still find examples of the otherwise vanishing tropical dry forest. During the long and pronounced dry season (late Nov to late Apr), no rain relieves the unabated heat. In an effort to conserve precious water, the trees drop their leaves but bloom in a riot of color: Purple jacaranda, scarlet poró, and brilliant orange flame-of-the-forest are just a few examples. During the rainy season, this deciduous forest is transformed into a lush and verdant landscape.
Other common dry forest trees include the guanacaste, with its broad shade canopy, and distinctive pochote, its trunk covered in thick, broad thorns.
Because the foliage is less dense, dry forests are excellent places to view wildlife. Howler monkeys are commonly seen in the trees, and coatis, pumas, and coyotes roam the ground. Some of Costa Rica’s best dry forests are found in Santa Rosa, Guanacaste, Rincón de la Vieja, and Palo Verde national parks.
At higher altitudes, you’ll find Costa Rica’s famed cloud forests. Here the steady flow of moist air meets the mountains and creates a nearly constant mist. Epiphytes—resourceful plants that live cooperatively on the branches and trunks of other trees—grow abundantly in the cloud forests, where they extract moisture and nutrients from the air. Because cloud forests are found in generally steep, mountainous terrain, the canopy here is lower and less uniform than in lowland rainforests, providing better chances for viewing elusive fauna.
The remarkable resplendent quetzal is perhaps the most famous and sought-after eye candy in Costa Rica’s cloud forests, but there’s an immense variety of flora and fauna here, including multiple hummingbird species, wildcats, monkeys, reptiles, amphibians, and bats. Orchids, many of them epiphytic, thrive in cloud forests, as do mosses, ferns, and a host of other plants, many of which are exported as houseplants.
Costa Rica’s most spectacular cloud forest is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, followed closely by its neighbor the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Much closer to San José, you can also visit the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve.
Mangroves & Wetlands
Along the coasts, primarily where river mouths meet the ocean, you will find extensive mangrove forests, wetlands, and swamps. Mangroves, in particular, are an immensely important ecological phenomenon. Around the intricate tangle of mangrove roots exists one of the most diverse and rich ecosystems on the planet. All sorts of fish and crustaceans live in the brackish tidal waters. Many larger saltwater and open-ocean fish species begin life in the nutrient-rich and relatively safe environment of a mangrove swamp.
Mangrove swamps are havens for and home to scores of water birds: cormorants, magnificent frigate birds, pelicans, kingfishers, egrets, ibises, and herons. The larger birds tend to nest up high in the canopy, while the smaller ones nestle in the underbrush. And in the waters, caimans and crocodiles cruise the maze of rivers and canals.
Mangrove forests, swamps, and wetlands exist all along both of Costa Rica’s coasts. Some of the prime areas that can be explored include the areas around the Sierpe river mouth and Diquís delta near Drake Bay (p. ###), the Golfo Dulce (p. ###) in the Southern Zone, Palo Verde National Park and the Tempisque River basin in Guanacaste, and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge on the Caribbean coast.
At the highest reaches, the cloud forests give way to elfin forests and páramos. More commonly associated with the South American Andes, a páramo is characterized by tundra-like shrubs and grasses, with a scattering of twisted, windblown trees. Reptiles, rodents, and raptors are the most common residents here, and because the vegetation is so sparse, they’re often easier to spot. Mount Chirripó, Chirripó National Park, and the Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death; p. ###) are the principal areas to find páramo in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a land of high volcanic and seismic activity. The country has three major volcanic mountain ranges, and many of the volcanoes are still active, allowing visitors to experience the awe-inspiring sight of steaming fumaroles, if not sky-lighting eruptions. In ecological terms, cooled-off lava flows are fascinating laboratories, where you can watch pioneering lichen and mosses eventually give way to plants, shrubs, trees, and forests.
Arenal Volcano used to be a top spot for volcanic activity, but it went dark in 2010. One reliable place to view mud pots, fumaroles, and hot springs is Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Closer to San José, the Poás and Irazú volcanoes are both currently active. Turrialba, meanwhile, has been huffing and puffing so much that it shut down the international airport a few times and forced the closure of Turrialba Volcano National Park until it stops acting up.
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.