At Sarapiquí and other parts of the Caribbean slopes northeast of the Cordilleras, and in the far south west, conditions suit very dense tropical rainforest–very wet, essentially non-seasonal, lowland forest. Parts of the mid-Pacific and south east coast support a less drenched but still rich rainforest.
Inside an undisturbed rainforest it is dark. The upper ‘canopy’ layer of foliage of mighty buttress-rooted trees blocks out the intense tropical sun. Creepers and climbers wind around their trunks in search of any light that penetrates the canopy, while twisted lianas hang down like ropes. Where the sun reaches the forest floor, fast growing species spring up in a dash for the light.
Mantled howler monkey, black-handed spider monkey, white-headed capuchin, brown-nosed coatimundi, sloth, agouti, white-lipped peccaries and whitetail deer all inhabit the rainforest along with more furtive creatures like jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and tapir. But sight lines are short and the canopy is high, so it will be harder than you might imagine to see the animals: they will be aware of you and most will be keen to stay out of sight.
It is more likely to be the small things – tree frogs, morpho butterflies, columns of leaf-cutter ants, extraordinary fungi and the plants’ often cunning and intricate defence mechanisms – which keep you enthralled.
The Organisation for Tropical Studies’ La Selva research station is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading centres for the study of lowland tropical rainforest. (OTS also has a centre at Las Cruces in the south.)
La Selva offers a well thought-out series of trails through a part of its extensive reserve. There are some very well-maintained trails for a trouble-free experience of the forest, and many miles of natural trails for something more rugged.
La Selva is close to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and is easily accessed from lodges in Sarapiquí and from San José – even in a day trip, as is nearby Braulio Carrillo NP which protects an area of similar forest.
The choice of accommodation here includes La Quinta and Centro Neotropico Sarapiquís.
A popular attraction in this general area is the Rainforest Aerial Tram, in which four-person open cable cars soar almost silently through the canopy on the slopes of a private rainforest reserve, passing within an arm’s length of epiphytes and ferns and offering a monkey’s-eye view of orchids, mosses, ferns and birds. The ride lasts about 1½hr and is suitable for all ages.
On the Caribbean coast in the southeast, near the Panamanian border, is Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge which protects an area of lowland rainforest and wetlands. The lovely Almonds and Corals lodge lies within the park area.
On the mid-Pacific coast, Carara Biological Reserve covers a transitional area between dry forest to the north and primary evergreen rainforest to the south.
The nearby floodplains of the Río Tárcoles have wetlands rich in water birds and waders, amphibians and reptiles. An oxbow lake beneath the main road bridge over the Tárcoles is home to large American crocodiles of up to 4m. Pause here at dusk and you may be rewarded with the magnificent sight of scarlet macaw, a threatened species, flying to their roosts from feeding grounds in the forest. Villa Lapas Lodge is convenient for the reserve.
A little further south, Manuel Antonio National Park spreads over a series of bays and headlands where breakers wash up to a rainforest teeming with wildlife.
There are pristine white sand beaches, coral reefs and hiking trails. Cathedral Point is a classic tombolo: an island linked to the land by a sand spit.
Most visitors take the 1km forest path to the beach. Even on this short trail there are great wildlife viewing opportunities–four species of monkey, coati, racoons, sloths, iguanas, toucans and parrots are regularly seen.
The park holds one of the few remaining populations of Squirrel Monkey.
There are several hotel options here, on cliff tops above the Pacific, and the upscale hotel Arenas del Mar by the beach.
South Pacific – Golfo Dulce and the Osa Peninsula
At the southernmost end of the Pacific coast lies the Osa Peninsula, one of the most biodiverse areas on earth according to the National Geographic.
Like Tortuguero, the Osa Peninsula receives a very high rainfall, an average of 5.5 metres a year, which helps to stimulate an incredible variety of flora and fauna, 4% of which are endemic species.
The dense lowland rainforest is home to over 400 species of bird and 114 species of mammal, including such elusive ‘spectaculars’ as jaguars, ocelots and tapirs who stalk the forest’s green shadows.
Much more common are troops of mantled howler monkeys bellowing from their leafy perches, capuchin and spider monkeys peering out from breaks in the treetop foliage, and sloths hanging semi-camouflaged against the verdant background.
The rustle of dry leaves give away the presence of peccaries scurrying about in the undergrowth. Iridescent blue morpho butterflies, the size of dinner plates, dance in the sunlight filtering through the leaves, while brightly coloured pairs of scarlet macaw squawk loudly to each other in mid-air as they cross the jungle canopy. Most of the peninsula is protected by Corcovado National Park.
There are several good lodges in the area offering a variety of nature excursions, notably Casa Corcovado on the Pacific side of the peninsula, and Lapa Rios on the side facing Golfo Dulce. Esquinas Rainforest Lodge is on the mainland side of the gulf.
As well as exploring the rainforest, some offer boat trips to Caño Island where a pair of perfect stone spheres mark a traditional burial ground of the Diquis Indians. As you approach the island there is a good chance of seeing bottle-nosed dolphin, bull shark, and perhaps one of three species of whale.
Snorkelling and diving are also possible, depending on conditions.
Corcovado NP and Caño Island can also be accessed on day trips from lodges in the Dominical area.