Travel

Costa Rica’s best animal encounters



Mark Rogers, Special to USA TODAY
Published 8:05 a.m. ET Feb. 25, 2019 | Updated 8:09 a.m. ET Feb. 25, 2019

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There are a handful of destinations around the world where the prospect of animal interaction is central to a visit. Costa Rica is one of them. Each time I’ve visited Costa Rica I’ve taken home memories of animal encounters, from coming upon a sloth dangling from a limb in Manuel Antonio National Park, to peering eye-to-eye with a howler monkey in the rainforest canopy. Travelers visiting the Latin American country will find lots of opportunities for animal interaction, whether they encounter the creatures in their natural habitat or at wildlife sanctuaries.

Note: Before a visit to Costa Rica, it’s best to research whether a wildlife zoo, refuge or sanctuary is following best practices.

Sloth Sanctuary

Sloths are off the charts when it comes to the cute factor. As slow-moving animals, they’re also vulnerable to the travails of civilization, from fast-moving traffic to crunching construction. The Sloth Sanctuary on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast does a great job rescuing and rehabilitating injured sloths. The sanctuary offers two tours: the Buttercup Tour (named for a 26-year-old resident sloth) and the more comprehensive and expensive Insider’s Tour, which gives an up-close look at infant and baby sloths. While it’s only natural that visitors may want to reach out and pet these cute creatures, touching the sloths is strictly prohibited.

Jaguar Rescue Center

The Jaguar Rescue Center is located near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in the Limón Province of Costa Rica. Before setting off to visit the center, it’s important to note that it’s unlikely you will see a jaguar there. What you will see is a variety of animals both healthy and on the mend – monkeys, sloths, anteaters, snakes and ocelots. All proceeds from admission go to caring for the animals, including the fee for the JRC Private Tour. Those who want a more immersive experience can rent one of the two houses on the property, or book space in the rescue center’s hostel.

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Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa

Costa Rica is famous for its active Arenal Volcano. Dramatic overnights can be had at the Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa, which lies in close proximity to the volcano and the shores of the 33-square-mile Lake Arenal. Guests can enjoy activities on the lake, as well as nature hikes through forests and grasslands. There’s an abundance of wild animals living free on the 870-acre property. A high point during my hike through the forest was coming upon a herd of peccary, coarse-haired wild pigs, which trotted off as I approached. Wildlife at Arenal includes monkeys – howler, spider and white-faced capuchin – as well as 500 species of birds, making the region ideal for the dedicated birder. While a 7-mile network of five well-marked nature trails makes it easy to explore on your own, visitors can also take a daily guided walk with the property’s naturalist, free of charge.

Monteverde Wildlife Refuge

Animal lovers will want to seek out the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge, located in Monteverde Cloud Forest in central northwest Costa Rica. There are a variety of activities at the refuge, but the must-do is the rainforest canopy experience. Visitors can walk along walkways high in the trees. While the experience may sound daunting, it’s an effortless stroll high above the ground. This is where I first heard the barking roar of howler monkeys and then saw them appear in the canopy’s distance, moving from tree to tree to approach and inspect the visitors to their habitat. The refuge also has a butterfly garden open to visitors. For something different, sign up for one of the nighttime hikes. Given the unpredictability of the wild, there’s little guarantee what a hiker will see, although the guide will point out the nocturnal haunts of sloths, monkeys, tarantulas, night birds, kinkajous and tree frogs.

Territorio de Zaguates

This is one of those enterprises that make the world a better place. Imagine a 378-acre sanctuary for 1,300 stray dogs, where man’s best friend can be fed, cared for and allowed to go on daily walks until they are adopted. The Territorio de Zaguates (Land of the Strays) is a nonprofit, no-kill shelter tucked away in the mountains of Santa Barbara de Heredia. The shelter raised its profile when it was featured in Episode Five of the Netflix series “Dogs.” The shelter once welcomed visitors and volunteers, who could accompany streams of dogs on their daily walks. Currently, Territorio de Zaguates is closed to visitors as it works to accommodate infrastructure regulations imposed by the Costa Rican government. Meanwhile, enthusiasts can choose to “adopt” a dog by making a donation.

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