Imagine a land that represents only 1% of the Earth’s surface but more than 8% of its total biodiversity. Imagine a place that traverses biomes as varied as wave-battered beaches and humid cloud forests. It’s Central America in a nutshell; a place where you can spot gigantic whales in the Pacific, spy stalking jaguars in the jungle, and swim in the coral reefs of the Caribbean.
In recent years, the region has entered the forefront of global conservation. There are serious and difficult challenges underway, including deforestation and habitat destruction in the face of climate change. But there has also been a strong drive to establish contiguous nature reserves that nurture and rebuild ecosystems to support the menagerie of species that live there.
This list of the best places to see wildlife in Central America touches just a few of the highlights from Costa Rica’s lazy coast to the impenetrable Panamanian sierras.
Ideal for border environments: Parque Nacional Darién in Panama
It’s a wild, wild land. A mere mention of Darien’s name is usually enough to conjure up images of intrepid explorers making their way through an impenetrable rainforest. The same goes for the few groups of wandering hikers who venture there.
You are looking at 5,790 square kilometers of land in Panama, touching the Pacific at one end and the Serrania del Darien mountains on the Colombian border at the other. No roads pass and the only real towns are abandoned mining settlements dating back to colonial times.
The best area for wildlife viewing is around the long-unused ranger station below Cerro Pirre. A few trails branch off from there into the denser parts of the jungle. Nobody really knows what lives in this forest, but there are regular reports of mantled howler monkeys, sloths, Baird’s tapirs and even jaguars. Pack accordingly. It’s the border.
Best for Bird Watchers: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica
Monteverde is a magnet for wildlife lovers. This jewel of the province of Puntarenas is famous for its lush cloud forest habitats, which exist at elevations between 4,600 and 5,900 feet on the peaks of the Cordillera de Tilaran. It covers more ecological zones than you could count on one hand and is 90% virgin rainforest. Some stats, huh?
The flora and fauna, as you might expect, are pretty darn amazing. Let’s start with the birds, which run the gamut from the resplendent teal-feathered quetzal to the brazenly daring purple swordsman hummingbird. Large mammals include white-faced capuchins and elusive ocelots. Plants range from vivid bromeliads to the biggest ferns you will ever see.
All of this is fantastically linked by a series of well-marked paths that sometimes cross canopied bridges suspended above the woods. Binoculars are essential for peering through the vegetation for birds and any others you manage to spot. The same goes for raincoats, as cloud forests are known to be humid. Generally speaking, however, Monteverde has some of the most accessible wildlife viewing in Costa Rica.
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Best for Snorkeling and Diving: Ambergris Caye in Belize
Talc beaches and five-star resorts have turned this Eastern Central American barrier island into a true R&R escape. But there’s no reason you can’t break up a session in the pool for a trip to the Belize Barrier Reef, which encompasses 30 percent of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, the second largest on Earth.
The main place to go is Hol Chan Marine Reserve, southwest of Ambergris Caye. It consists of four areas, ranging from the rich seagrass beds that support marine life to the multicolored underwater gardens that boast over 50 different species of coral. Area D is colloquially referred to as Shark Ray Alley. There it is possible to swim with nurse sharks, stingrays and even the occasional whale shark.
Most tours offer snorkeling and diving equipment as part of the package. Strict no-fishing policies are also in place throughout much of the park.
Ideal for an arribada turtle: Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor in Nicaragua
One creature steals the show: olive ridley sea turtles. Thirty thousand of them to be exact. They flood this cinnamon-tinged stretch of sand just south of the surf town from July to January, with the biggest crowds in mid-autumn. It’s the best time to come because it’s the best time to see a arrivedwhen multitudes of olive ridley turtles clamber onto the beach all at once.
Most releases of hatchling turtles and sightings of adult mothers laying eggs at La Flor occur in the dark of night. You will need good insect repellent to survive the onslaught of mosquitoes that emerge during the Nicaraguan rainy season. The closest hotels are in Playa El Coco just to the north. The beach is completely prohibited during the nesting period if you do not have a qualified guide.
Best for Diversity: Parque Nacional Corcovado in Costa Rica
It has been called “the most biologically intense place on Earth”. It’s easy to see why. Three hiking routes converge here – one on the coast, two inland. They are each a ticket for an animal montage so rich that one would think dreaming.
Through the jungle on the El Tigre trail and across from Estacion Sirena, you can see howler monkeys, spider monkeys, silky anteaters and sloths, as well as endangered Baird’s tapirs if they choose to. emerge by day. On shore, caimans meet bull sharks in the rivers, so watch where you step, while humpback whales patrol the wave-battered bays.
As you’d expect, Corcovado is one of the hardest-to-reach corners of Pura Vida country. Access and planning is usually done in the nearby town of Puerto Jiménez. Strict new conservation measures mean you can only enter for one or two days maximum, and all groups require a certified guide. The trails are tough here too, so put on sturdy walking boots, bring gnarly bug spray, and proper hiking gear.
Best for the rainforest: Reserva de Biosfera Bosawás in Nicaragua
Matched only by the mighty Amazon, Reserva de Biosfera Bosawás (Bosawas Biosphere Reserve) covers the second largest expanse of tropical rainforest in the Americas. It is estimated to be around 20,000 square kilometers in total, home to ecosystems for a quarter of a million insects to apex predators like the mysterious jaguar.
You will need to do some legwork to get here. First, get permission to enter the park at the office in Siuna, Nicaragua. They can also help arrange a guide, which is mandatory – expect to pay USD 20-30 per day. Then it’s a bus to one of the entry points or departure points. Options include an attempt at the rugged heights of Cerro Saslaya or the jungle walks of Peñas Blancas.
It will not be a walk in the park. Like Darien further south, the Bosawás is an undeveloped jungle. It’s for those with a bit of survival training and a willingness to share undergrowth beds with snakes and golden frogs. Ask your guide for a list of gear before leaving Siuna. It is likely to be extended.
Best for seeing jaguars: Selva Maya in Belize
The Selva Maya spans 40 million acres across Central America, crossing Guatemala and Mexico. But it’s the part that spills into Belize’s west that’s getting all the attention right now, largely thanks to an ambitious land purchase in 2021 that added nearly 100,000 hectares to the country’s protected landscape.
The goal was to halt ever-encroaching agricultural development and protect a seriously biodiverse part of the planet. The new reserve joins the Rio Bravo Conservation Area to connect forests that are home to more jaguars per square mile than anywhere in the region, four other big cats and around 350 bird species.
Chan Chich Lodge is the only lodging option located in the heart of Belize’s wider Selva Maya. There’s a touch of luxury about it, but they also run guided day walks that talk about local medicinal plant life, nighttime expeditions to spot margays and ocelots, and even safari-style game drives. .