The 7 best places to see wildlife in Central America

Imagine a land that accounts for just 1% of the Earth’s surface but over 8% of its total biodiversity – somewhere that crosses biomes as varied as wave-lashed beaches and humid cloud forests. That’s Central America in a nutshell, a place where you can glimpse gigantic whales in the Pacific, spy stalking jaguars in the jungles and swim coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Recent years have seen the region enter the frontline of global conservation. There are some serious challenges ongoing, not least of all deforestation and habitat destruction in the face of climate change. But there has also been a big drive to establish contiguous nature reserves that foster and rebuild ecosystems that support the menagerie of species that make their home here.

This list of the best places to see wildlife in Central America touches on just a few of the highlights, from Costa Rica’s sloth-filled coast to the impenetrable Panamanian sierras.

Parque Nacional Darién in Panama

Best for wilderness vibes

This is a wild, wild land – just a mention of the name Darien is usually enough to conjure images of impenetrable rainforest. You’re looking at 5,790 sq km of land in Panama, touching the Pacific at one end and the Serrania del Darien mountains on the Colombian border at the other. No road goes through it, and the only real towns are abandoned colonial-era mining settlements.

The best area for wildlife viewing is around the long-out-of-use ranger station under Cerro Pirre. A couple of trails lead out from there into the densest parts of the jungle. There are regular reports of mantled howler monkeys, sloths, Baird’s tapirs and even jaguars – beyond that, nobody really knows. Pack accordingly, as this is the frontier.

A man walking in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
Man walking on a trail in the green rainforest, Monteverde Cloud forest, Puntarenas, Costa Rica ©Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica

Best for bird-watchers

Monteverde is a magnet for wildlife lovers. This gem in Puntarenas province is famed for its lush cloud forest habitats that exist on the tips of the Cordillera de Tilaran between 4,600 and 5,900ft. It covers more ecological zones than you could count on one hand and consists of 90% primeval rainforest. Some stats, huh?

The flora and fauna, as you’d expect, is also pretty darn startling. The birds run the gamut from the teal-plumed resplendent quetzal to the brazenly bold violet sabrewing hummingbird, and big mammals include white-faced capuchins and elusive ocelots. The plants range from vivid bromeliads to the biggest ferns you’ll ever see.

All of that’s fantastically knitted together by a series of well-marked trails that sometimes cross soaring canopy bridges suspended over the woods. Binoculars are a must for peering through the vegetation at birds and whomever else you manage to spot; so are waterproofs, as cloud forests are famously wet. Generally speaking, though, Monteverde has some of the most accessible wildlife viewing in Costa Rica.

Boy Swimming In Sea Ambergris Caye, Belize, Central America
Head to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on the southwest side of Ambergris Cay for snorkeling tours © EyeEm / Getty Image

Ambergris Caye in Belize

Best for snorkeling and diving

Talcum-powder beaches and five-star hotel resorts have turned this dash of barrier isle on Central America’s eastern haunch into a real R&R escape. But there’s no reason you can’t interrupt a pool session for a trip out to the Belize Barrier Reef, which encompasses a whopping 30% of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest on Earth.

The main place to go is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on the southwest side of Ambergris Caye. It consists of four zones, ranging from rich seagrass beds to multi-colored underwater gardens that count more than 50 different coral species. Zone D is colloquially called Shark Ray Alley. There, it’s possible to swim with nurse sharks, sting rays and even the occasional passing whale shark.

Most tours provide snorkeling and diving equipment as part of the package. There are also strict no-fishing policies in place across much of the park.

Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor in Nicaragua

Best for a turtle arribada

Rivas province in the deep southwest of Nicaragua is the jewel in the crown of the country’s ever-developing travel industry. Waves are what really put in on the map and board-touting surfers now flock into San Juan del Sur by the thousands. But there are also unique reserves, topped off by the Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor (La Flor Wildlife Refuge).

One creature steals the show: olive ridley turtles. Thirty thousand of them, to be exact. They flood this cinnamon-tinged sand stretch just south of the surf town from July to January, with the biggest crowds hitting in mid fall. That’s the best time to come because it gives the highest chance of seeing an arribada, when multitudes of olive ridleys clamber onto the beach all at once.

Most newborn turtle releases and egg laying at La Flor occur in the dark of night, and you’ll need a good bug spray to survive the onslaught of mosquitoes that emerge during wet season. The nearest hotels are at Playa El Coco just to the north. Note that the beach is totally out of bounds during the nesting period if you don’t have a qualified guide.

A sloth clings to the branch of a tree in Costa Rica
Head to Parque Nacional Corcovado in Costa Rica for your best chance of seeing sloths in the wild © Parkol / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Corcovado in Costa Rica

Best for diversity

Arenal and Monteverde are small fry compared to the mighty Parque Nacional Corcovado (Corcovado National Park). Spread out over a map-devouring 424 sq km on the huge Osa Peninsula, this is a part of Costa Rica that conservationists wax lyrical about over their wheatgrass shots and copies of Nat Geo in the morning.

It’s been called the “most biologically intense place on Earth,”  and it’s easy to see why. Three hiking routes converge here – one on the coast, two inland – and they are each a ticket to such a rich montage of wildlife that you’d think you were dreaming.

Through the jungles on the El Tigre Trail and crossing from Estacion Sirena, you can see howler monkeys, spider monkeys, silky anteaters and sloths, along with endangered Baird’s tapirs if they decide to emerge during the day. On the shoreline, caimans meet bull sharks in the rivers (so be careful where you step), while humpbacks patrol the wave-lashed bays.

As you might expect, the Corcovado is one of the harder-to-reach corners of the land of Pura Vida. Access and planning are usually done in the nearby town of Puerto Jiménez. Strict new conservation measures mean that you can only enter for one or two days maximum, and all groups need a certified guide. Trails are hard here, too, so saddle up in strong walking boots, and bring gnarly bug spray and proper hiking stuff.

Reserva de Biosfera Bosawás in Nicaragua

Best for tropical rainforest

Matched only by the mighty Amazon, the Reserva de Biosfera Bosawás (Bosawas Biosphere Reserve) covers the second-largest tract of tropical rainforest in the Americas. It’s estimated to be around 20,000 sq km in all, supporting ecosystems home to a quarter of a million insects right up to apex predators like the mysterious jaguar.

You’ll have to do some legwork to get here. First, get permission to enter the park at the office in Siuna, Nicaragua. They can also help you organize a guide, which is compulsory – expect to pay US$20-30 a day. Then, it’s an onward bus to one of the entrance points or trailheads. Options include an attempt at the rugged heights of Cerro Saslaya or the jungle walks of Peñas Blancas.

Like Darien further south, the Bosawás is undeveloped jungl, and 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.

Selva Maya in Belize

Best for seeing jaguars

The Selva Maya extends a whopping 40 million acres across Central America, rolling through Guatemala and Mexico. But it’s the part that spills into western Belize that’s getting all the attention right now, mainly thanks to an ambitious 2021 land purchase that added nearly 100,000 hectares to the country’s protected landscape.

The new reserve joins with the Rio Bravo Conservation Area to link forests that host more jaguars per square mile than anywhere in the region, four other big cats and an estimated 350 bird species.

Chan Chich Lodge is the only accommodation option set deep in the confines of the expanded Belizean Selva Maya. There’s a whiff of luxury about it, but they also organize guided day-walks that talk about the local medicinal plant life, night expeditions to spot margays and ocelots and even safari-style game drives.

Keep planning your trip to Central America:

Relax on the 14 best beaches in Central America
Make the most of your trip by traveling by bus, plane and boat
Learn why Central America is great for budget travelers

This article was first published Apr 7, 2022 and updated Jun 26, 2024.

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