The 5 Best Places to See Monkeys in Costa Rica

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The great thing about trying to find the best places to see monkeys in Costa Rica, is that you needn’t look very hard – they are everywhere. Imagine it, you wake up one morning to the smell of freshly fallen rain on the leafy canopy outside your window, infusing with the dark chocolaty aromas of brewing Costa Rican coffee. As you gently bring yourself back into the world, you start to notice again the ambient sounds of the rainforest – exotic bird calls, insects chirping and the odd rustling of trees. Then suddenly, piercing through this soundscape, is the unmistakable and thrilling ‘Whooop’ of the howler monkey, reverberating across the rain forest. With a renewed excitement, you remember that today you are journeying into the wild, to see the iconic monkeys of this Central American paradise.

Costa Rica has been heralded by many adventurers as the Mecca for monkey spotting. Indeed, the country is home to some of the most spectacular monkey species on earth. You can see them in a variety of places, including monkey sanctuaries, national parks, wildlife refuges or even by the side of the road in some towns and cities. Some of the most well-known locations are the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, Manuel Antonio National Park and the Corcovado National Park. Each offers its own unique experience and blend of monkey species, as well as birds, sloths and other fascinating creatures.

What is more, tourism is very well developed in most areas of Costa Rica, which makes accessing the monkeys of the region a straightforward affair. From the warm sandy beaches of the western coast, to the dramatic mountainous and volcanic interior of the country, monkeys abound waiting to be discovered.

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Corcovado National Park

A beautiful sand beach that fringes Corcovado National Park, part of one of the best places to see monkeys in Costa Rica
Image via WikiMedia Commons

This is hands down one of the best places to see monkeys in Costa Rica, or in fact any impressive concentration of wildlife in the country. Corcovado National Park covers 163 square miles of the Osa Peninsula, and is one of the largest protected native monkey habitats in the country.

This is also the only place that it is possible to see all four species of monkeys that live in Costa Rica. These are: the howler monkey, the white-faced capuchin, the squirrel monkey and finally, the spider monkey. Each species has their own enchanting character and appearance, making spotting the different types incredibly rewarding. Thankfully, it is fairly common to see all of these types in one trip to the park (if you have a professional guide). In terms of actually seeing the monkeys in any of these national parks, it is advisable that you come prepared for a proper trek in the rainforest. This means sturdy walking boots, a sun hat, long sleeved shirts and a respectful attitude. It is worth remembering that you will be entering their space, and not the other way around. There are also dangerous animals in Costa Rica, so it is always a good idea to listen to your guide and tread carefully.

Traveling to Corcovado National Park located on the emerald colored Osa peninsula, however is quite the adventure. To get there, you must first travel to the small town of Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez, from the country’s capital San José. You can achieve this using a range of transport options, from renting your own car to booking a domestic flight (when the runway is usable). If you should be lucky enough to get a flight, viewing the Osa peninsula from above is a fantastic spectacle not to be missed, and a great place to see the stunning swirling colors of the ocean before you plunge into the vibrant green of the rainforest.

A stunning jaguar balancing on a branch
Image via Unsplash

From your lodge at either of these towns, you then must make arrangements to be taken to one of the many ranger stations in the national park, from which you can start your journey. Booking one is not difficult, as there are plenty of tour operators active in the region. However, it is advisable that you do some research prior to booking, as tours vary in length and the level of comfort provided.

If you should choose to explore this particular park, you will not only get the opportunity to see the various monkeys, but other fauna as well. Some of the most impressive include a variety of big cats, such as the ocelot, puma and even the endangered jaguar. If you are looking for a comprehensive Costa Rican wildlife experience, this location is probably the best selection for you. Its great scale and well-trodden paths provide the best value if you are short of time.

Manuel Antonio National Park

White-faced capuchin
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If you are looking for one of the best places to see monkeys in Costa Rica, but also want access to some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, then Manuel Antonio National Park is probably the spot for you. As with Corcovado National Park, Manuel Antonio offers tours into lowland rainforest, in which live fabulous monkeys. The main attraction of Manuel Antonio National Park, are the red-backed squirrel monkeys, whose rusty colored bodies can be seen leaping from tree to tree in exciting numbers.

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Sadly, this is one of the last places that these majestic creatures can be seen in the wild. Also residing here, are the mantled howler and capuchin monkeys, who often wait by the entrance for tourists to feed them. Even though this might seem a tempting opportunity to interact with these animals, you mustn’t do so, as not only is it illegal, but it can have detrimental effects on the monkey’s health.

As you may already know, there are two species of sloths in Costa Rica. Both the two and three-toed variety of sloths that can be found in the country, are residents of Manuel Antonio National Park. They can sometimes be seen dangling lackadaisically from branches or sleeping in treetops. These bizarre yet endearing animals, are a joy to see relaxing in the wild.

The Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth will be the harder of the two sloths to spot though, as they are nocturnal and are more active (as active as a sloth can be) during the night. The three-toed sloth or brown-throated Sloth, is diurnal and therefore much more likely to be seen by visitors. These sloths are also smaller than their fewer-toed cousins and are the most common. Getting to Manuel Antonio is fairly simple from Quepos or San José. There are a few options that you might like to consider, from private car rental and buses to flights. For more information on how to get to the park and how to buy tickets, visit the park’s official website, to avoid fake tours or tickets.

Tortuguero National Park

A Spider Monkey crossing a wooden bridge over a river
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This national park offers visitors quite a different monkey watching experience, whilst still being one of the best places to see monkeys in Costa Rica. Here it is the common practice to see the wildlife from the river, which winds itself in and out of the forest. Perhaps more famous for the sea turtle wildlife refuge and the beaches on which they lay their eggs, Tortuguero is sometimes overlooked as a good place if you want to see monkeys, as turtles take precedence. Sea turtles that can be seen in the water and on the banks of the national park include the Green Sea Turtle and Leatherback Turtle, both of which are adapted to sea waters.

Green Sea Turtle peaking out of the clear blue water
Image via Wikimedia Commons

From the new perspective of the river, visitors are able to see three species of monkeys, including the largest of those found in Costa Rica- the spider monkey. The spider monkey is named as such because of its disproportionately large arms, which grant it the ability to swing nimbly across the great expanse of green which is their home. Spider monkeys also have a prehensile tail which helps them balance when picking their way across vines in the vertiginous canopy. Spider monkeys need a large habitat, as they live in numerous clans. Over time they have seen some of their habitat disappear due to deforestation. Luckily places like the Tortuguero national park give them enough room to live in some numbers, without the threat of human encroachment. Bring your binoculars though, as spotting their black stringy bodies can be difficult in the dark of the rainforest.

An amazing spectrum of bird life can also be seen in this national park. One of the most exotic and recognizable are the scarlet macaws, which you should be able to see as part of any tour, as their bright plumage is one of the most striking elements of Costa Rican wildlife. No visit to this spectacular central American country would be complete without seeing the famous toucan, though. Toucan species are more various than you might first imagine. In addition to the instantly recognizable Keel-billed toucan (think George of the Jungle) there is also the smaller Toucanet family. These comprise of the Emerald Toucanet and Yellow-eared Toucanet, which are just as wonderful to behold, yet smaller. Toucans are perhaps the most celebrated bird in the country, however there are many amazing birds to see if you care to take a bird-watching tour.

A brightly colored toucan perched in a palm tree
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Accessing the rare wildlife and beautiful beaches of Tortuguero National Park, is a little harder than some of the other national parks, as roads do not connect directly with the park itself. The first option is to take a car to the last village before the park and then take a boat the rest of the way. The second option (and the more appealing if it is available) is to take a plane directly from San José to Tortuguero National Park’s small runway. It is more of an enticing option because you will be treated to an aerial view of one of the country’s most beautiful landscapes as you fly north-east from the capital. Although you may not be able to see any sloths or monkeys from this height, it will give you a good understanding of the scale of Costa Rica’s rainforest, as you travel below the cloud line.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve

capuchin monkeys
Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Located in the northern part of the country, this biological preserve is an area of amazing biodiversity, and home to many different plants and animals, including some of Costa Rica’s different species of monkey. The main types that you will encounter here are the howler and capuchin monkeys. You are far more likely to hear the aptly named howler monkey before you see it, as it lives up to its name as one of the noisiest members of Costa Rica’s wildlife family. However, seeing a howler monkey is just as thrilling, given their curious human mannerisms and temperaments. Capuchins are a little more reserved and are often dubbed cute, due to their sweet faces and small size.

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The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve holds special historical significance for the survival of monkeys as well as all wildlife endemic to Costa Rica. This is because it was the first private area of land in the country which was made into a conservation site and wildlife refuge in 1972. So if you would like to see monkeys and other wildlife but are also interested in the beginnings of conservation is Costa Rica, then this might be the best choice for you.

Visitors can easily book a tour of this spell-binding place online and be safe in the knowledge that they will be in for an amazing time. In the same area as the preserve, there is also a sloth sanctuary called Selvatura Park, which is home to both the different species of Costa Rican sloths. Here, visitors can observe these relaxed creatures in one of the few places that humans can interact with the species in a semi-wild environment. To travel to Monteverde, the most common route is to get an early morning bus from San José. This journey will take most of the day but will allow for great views out of the window of the buss, giving you a chance to see toucans, monkeys and maybe even the odd sloth.

Rincón de la Vieja National Park

A small squirrel monkey clambering down a tree in Rincón de la Vieja National Park, another one of the best places to see monkeys in Costa Rica
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Dominated by the vast Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, this national park is one of the best places to see howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys and the cute capuchins. In fact you are never far from some sort of activity, be it monkey-related or volcanic. This park is recommended for those who are enthusiastic hikers and those who would prefer to spend their time observing wildlife on foot. Seeing howler monkeys and other wildlife such as toucans and coatis (they look like long-nosed raccoons) whilst trekking through the forest can for some feel like the most authentic way to discover these amazing creatures.

As authentic as travelers may want to be, it is still advisable that visitors hire a guide to keep them from getting too lost. The area on the Caribbean coast side of the park is covered in lush wet tropical rainforest, whereas the Pacific side is covered in tropical dry forest, an altogether different place to see if you are interested in the flora as well as fauna of this area. The beautiful Monk Orchid and other amazing flowers can be found in the park, so it is worth asking your guide to point out the various species if you have an interest.

Whatever area you choose however, Rincón de la Vieja remains one of the best places to see monkeys in Costa Rica, if you don’t mind a little physical effort. Due to the area being volcanic, visitors if they so choose, can relax in one of the available mud baths in the park, after a long day of spotting the different species of monkeys. The baths are supposed to have healing properties and can be quite restorative for tired legs. Getting to the park from San José requires a four hour drive to Rincón de la Vieja, where you will stay in one of the rural lodges.

These lodges as you will see are more like cowboy ranches than hotels and have a great deal of pioneering charm to them. From one of these lodges, it is easy to arrange a tour into the park and begin your monkey sightseeing journey. It would be recommended to make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to see recover between tours, as hikes can be challenging. You may even want to take a break from monkey watching on your holiday and book some time at one of Costa Rica’s best surfing resorts, before heading back into the jungle.

monkey Costa Rica
Image by D Mz from Pixabay

What kind of monkeys live in Costa Rica?

There are four distinct species of monkey that live in Costa Rica. These are the mantled howler monkey, white-faced capuchin, central American squirrel monkey and the spider monkey. Each species is spread out across the country in various pockets from north to south. However the only place that you can see all four is in Corcovado National Park, which is located on the Osa peninsula.

What do monkeys in Costa Rica eat?

The diets of the species of monkeys in Costa Rica vary. The spider and howler monkeys enjoy a mix of fruit and leaves, whereas the white-faced capuchin eats a wider spectrum of foods which include fruit and leaves but also insects and lizards. The squirrel monkeys also enjoy this more varied omnivorous diet.

Can you own a monkey in Costa Rica?

The government has been under increasing pressure from conservationists and tourism officials to clamp down harder on exotic pet ownership in the country. There are plenty of instances of Costa Ricans keeping animals like monkeys as pets, however the official stance of the government is that these animals should not be removed from their natural habitats for private ownership. Some exceptions are made for sick or injured animals who need to be rehabilitated in a sanctuary or veterinary practice.