Costa Rica occupies a central spot in the isthmus that joins North and South America. For millennia, this land bridge served as a migratory thoroughfare and mating ground for species native to the once-separate continents. It was also where the Mesoamerican and Andean pre-Columbian indigenous cultures met.
In any one spot in Costa Rica, temperatures remain relatively constant year-round. However, they vary dramatically according to altitude, from tropically hot and steamy along the coasts to below freezing at the highest elevations. These variations in altitude, temperature, and precipitation give rise to a wide range of ecosystems and habitats, which are described in “Costa Rica’s Ecosystems,” below.
For its part, the wide variety of ecosystems and habitats has blessed the country with a unique biological bounty. More than 10,000 identified species of plants; 880 species of birds; 9,000 species of butterflies and moths; and 500 species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are found here. For detailed info on some of the more common or evocative representatives of Costa Rica’s flora and fauna, see "Costa Rica, A Nature Guide."
Thankfully, for both visitors and the local flora and fauna alike, nearly one-quarter of Costa Rica’s entire landmass is protected either as part of a national park or private nature reserve. This chapter includes descriptions of the most important national parks and bioreserves in the country.
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 much-needed 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. Then 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, whose trunk is covered with thick, broad thorns.
Because the foliage is less dense than that found in cloud forests and rainforests, dry forests are excellent places to view a variety of wildlife. Howler monkeys are commonly seen in the trees, and coatimundi, puma, and coyote roam the ground. Costa Rica's remaining dry forests are most prominently 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 must 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 Respendent Quetzal is perhaps the most famous and sought-after denizen of Costa Rica's cloud forests, but you'll also find a broad and immense variety of flora and fauna, including a dozen or more hummingbird species, wild cats, monkeys, reptiles, and amphibians. Orchids, many of them epiphytic, thrive in cloud forests, as do mosses, ferns, and a host of other plants, many of which are cultivated and sold as common household plants throughout the rest of the world.
Costa Rica's most spectacular cloud forest is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, but you can also explore Monteverde's neighbor, the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, or, much closer to San José, 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 salt water and open-ocean fish species begin life in the nutrient rich, and relatively safe and protected environment of a mangrove swamp.
Mangrove swamps and wetlands 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 unmarked canals.
Mangrove forests, swamps, and wetlands exist all along both of Costa Rica's coasts. Some of the prime areas that can be explored by tourists include the areas around the Sierpe river mouth and Diquis delta near Drake Bay, the Golfo Dulce in the southern zone, Palo Verde National Park and the Tempisque river basin in Guanacaste, and the Manzanillo-Gandoca 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 a variety of tundralike shrubs and grasses, with a scattering of twisted, windblown trees. Reptiles, rodents, and raptors are the most common residents here, and since 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) 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, sky-lighting eruptions, and intense lava flows during their stay. In ecological terms, cooled-off lava flows are fascinating laboratories, where you can watch pioneering lichen and mosses eventually give way to plants and shrubs, and eventually 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 (temporarily closed) 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.