Sure, you know that Costa Rica is a unique, beautiful place with remarkable rainforests and beaches, but do you know how diverse it truly is? Although Costa Rica is a fairly small country (measuring just 19,700 square miles), it is also home to a staggering 12 ecosystems. That’s right – 12! Dotted by wildlife reserves, national parks and refuges, Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Play your cards right, and you might be able to see all of Costa Rica’s ecosystems on your next vacation to this little slice of paradise.
If you’re looking for stunning views and perfect weather, then look no further than the Costa Rican Caribbean Coastline. This stunning ecosystem is over 125 miles long and stretches from Nicaragua to Panama. From the secluded beaches to the sparkling water, there’s little left to be desired. Monkeys and sloths soak up the sun while toucans, boas and parrots decorate the trees. Rainfall is more abundant on the Caribbean coastline than the pacific, but this ecosystem is still one of the most popular vacation spots for tourists and ticos alike.
Known for its gnarly surf spots and tourist hotspots, the ecosystem of the pacific coastline actually changes as you begin to travel south. In the Guanacaste region (home to Tamarindo, Santa Rosa National Park and the Liberia Airport) you’ll find that the air is dry and the sun is hot. Make your way down the coast, however, and you’ll quickly be nestled safely in the heart of the rainforest. Similar to the Caribbean coastline, you’re likely to spot spider and howler monkeys, raccoons and iguanas on the Pacific coast
Tropical Dry Forest
Found in Guanacaste, the tropical dry forests receive far less rainfall than the lowland tropical rainforest – in fact, there is virtually no rain from November to April. These forests are known for their stunning, blossoming trees (in dry season only) and the remarkable contrast that is created by the Guanacaste tree and the arid landscape.
Lowland Tropical Rainforest
If you’ve seen photos of Costa Rica, then it’s likely that you’re familiar with the lowland tropical rainforest. From the Corcovado National Park to Manuel Antonio National Park, this multi-layered habitat provides shelter for a wide variety of plants, animals and fungi. This type of ecosystem requires consistent rainfall and warm temperatures, making the lush vegetation a bit more difficult to navigate than some of Costa Rica’s arid spaces.
The cloud forest is simply stunning. Found in areas of high-elevation, cloud forests take their name very literally: they live in the clouds. Take a hike on one of the forest’s countless hiking trails and you’ll suddenly find yourself wrapped in the comforting blanket of white fog – signifying the presence of their namesake. This ecosystem is saturated with water and there are mosses, orchids, and ferns that cover the forest floor. This is one of the most ecologically dense places in Costa Rica.
Highland Mountain Rainforest
This rainforest is home to evergreen trees – specifically ancient oaks. Although bamboo and moss are noticeably abundant, life is thriving on almost every surface of this stunning landscape. Tenorio National Park and Rio Celeste are some of the nation’s most popular highland mountain rainforests, and guided tours are offered multiple times throughout the day. There are a handful of plants and animals that reside solely in this rainforest, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled as you’re exploring.
Semi-Deciduous Mid-Elevation Forest
If you’ve been on a hike through Arenal National Park, then you’re well acquainted with the semi-deciduous mid-elevation forest. In this forest you’ll find a chorus of birds, frogs and insects, making the entire landscape seem as though it is “singing” with life. With an elevation between 1,600 and 4,900 feet, the trees in this ecosystem max out at somewhere between 80 and 130 feet. The dense canopy creates an almost blanket-like effect, making this forest a popular choice for ziplines and birdwatching tours.
One of the more difficult ecosystems to explore, the mangrove forests of Costa Rica can only be accessed by boat, as they are – quite literally – on the water. These forests are thick and strong, and their roots play a crucial role in water filtration as well as maintaining the strength of the coastline. They serve as a nursery for baby animals, like crocodiles, fish, caiman and even birds. You can take a metaphoric stroll through this web of life by booking a tour in Tortugero or Drake Bay.
Can we call this an ecosystem? Yes! The shallow sea is where countless marine animals and migratory birds make their home. From humpback whales to dolphins and turtles, this colorful landscape is perhaps one of the most remarkable in the entirety of Costa Rica. Whether you’re a dive master or you simply just want to spend a few hours in a kayak, this marine ecosystem is incredible – and always changing.
If you’ve never heard of a paramo, no problem – this ecosystem is found only on the southern part of the Talamanca mountain range. It is a small, harsh ecosystem comprised of grass and scrubland. Although it isn’t a particularly popular place to visit, birds, lizards, snakes and rodents manage to thrive in this arid environment. Chirripo and Cerro de la Muerte are both examples of páramos.
This one is for the birds! The wetlands are home to large migratory populations and include marshes, rivers and seasonally flooded woodlands. This shallow-water ecosystem provides essential cover for foraging and nesting water birds. Take a boat trip to Cano Negro or Palo Verde and keep your eyes for monkeys, iguanas, bats, crocodiles or even poison dart frogs. Oh – and don’t forget your bug spray. During the summer, the air is teeming with life.
Costa Rica is a scuba divers paradise! There are countless dive sites and vibrant reefs both the Caribbean and Pacific side of the country. This underwater tapestry of coral, anemones, seaweed, fish and other underwater animals (if you’re lucky – maybe even a turtle or a pod of dolphins) will leave you feeling awestruck. Some of the most popular coral reefs surround Isla del Coco, Cahuita National Park, the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge and Bahia Ballena National Marine Park. If you’re not certified to scuba, no problem – the snorkeling is incredible here, too.
Now it’s your turn to explore Costa Rica’s ecosystems!