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In Search of Turtles

Few places in the world have as many sea-turtle nesting sites as Costa Rica. Along both coasts, five species of these huge marine reptiles come ashore at specific times of the year to dig nests in the sand and lay their eggs. Sea turtles are endangered throughout the world because of hunting, accidental deaths in fishing nets, development on beaches that once served as nesting areas, and the collection and sale of their eggs. International trade in sea-turtle products is prohibited by most countries, but sea-turtle numbers continue to dwindle.

Among the species of sea turtles that nest on Costa Rica’s beaches are the olive ridley (known for mass egg-laying migrations, or arribadas), leatherback, hawksbill, green, and Pacific green turtle. Excursions to see nesting turtles have become common, and they are fascinating, but please make sure that you do not disturb the turtles. Any light source other than red-tinted flashlights can confuse the turtles and cause them to return to the sea without laying their eggs. As more development takes place on the Costa Rican coast, hotel lighting may cause the number of nesting turtles to drop. Luckily, many of the nesting beaches have been protected as national parks.

Here are the main places to see nesting sea turtles: Santa Rosa National Park (near Liberia, olive ridleys nest here from July–Dec, and to a lesser extent from Jan–June), Las Baulas National Marine Park (near Tamarindo, leatherbacks nest here early Oct to mid-Feb), Ostional National Wildlife Refuge (near Playa Nosara, olive ridleys nest July–Dec, and to a lesser extent Jan–June), and Tortuguero National Park (on the northern Caribbean coast, green turtles nest here July to mid-Oct, with Aug–Sept their peak period. In lesser numbers, leatherback turtles nest here Feb–June, peaking Mar–Apr).

Monkey Business

You should insist on at least one monkey sighting while you’re in Costa Rica, and there are four species to choose from.

The most gregarious and commonly spotted is the white-faced or capuchin monkey (mono cara blanca), said to be among the most intelligent of all monkeys. It’s no secret to them that tourists carry food, and like the coati they have learned to beg—or like the raccoon, to steal. Capuchins are agile, medium-size monkeys that make good use of their long, prehensile tails. They inhabit a diverse collection of habitats, ranging from the high-altitude cloud forests of the central region to the lowland mangroves of the Osa Peninsula. It’s almost impossible not to spot capuchins at Manuel Antonio, but watch your food, and remember how many times you should feed wild animals in Costa Rica: never.

Howler monkeys (mono congo) are sometimes said to have the loudest call in the animal kingdom after the blue whale. Howlers have a unique hyoid bone in their throats that lets them emit alarmingly loud howls, growls, and grunts of warning to other howler troops in the area, advising them to keep their distance. This is remarkably effective at conservation of energy, because the other congo troops answer with the same howls, and the troops stay apart and don’t fight. These large monkeys, dark-brown to black, often gaze down tamely from the treetops when in the presence of humans. Howlers are easy to spot in the dry tropical forests of coastal Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula (see chapter 8). If a couple of weeks go by and you never hear one, check and make sure you’re in the right country.

The spider monkey (mono araña), Costa Rica’s largest and strongest, is distinguished by the fact that it has four fingers but no thumb—apparently the thumb was selected out by evolution because it only got in the way while swinging through the trees. These long, slender monkeys are dark brown to black and prefer the high canopies of primary rainforests, though you can often see them swinging between lower branches as well. Spider monkeys have good prehensile tails but travel through the canopy with a hand-over-hand motion frequently imitated by their less graceful human cousins on playground monkey bars around the world. Spider monkeys are usually easy to find in Corcovado and Tortuguero.

The rarest and cutest of Costa Rica’s monkeys is the little squirrel monkey (mono titi), with its small brown body, dark eyes with white rings, white ears, white chest, and very long tail. Abundant in and around Manuel Antonio and Corcovado, these fruit-eating acrobats usually travel in large bands, so if you see one, you’ll probably see a lot more.

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.