Costa Rica= 100% Natural! Costa Rica, land of endless forests! Costa Rica, a natural paradise! Anyone who has planned a trip to Costa Rica has probably seen these and other slogans designed to market the country to visitors from abroad. Once you get here, if you keep an open mind, you will note that while those marketing banners do have a fair grain of truth, they also omit a good degree of reality.

Beautiful scenery but pastures aren't a natural part of the Costa Rican landscape. Just about every pasture in Costa Rica used to host far more diverse tropical forests.

Pocosol is a good place to experience nearly "endless" forests (and high quality birding).

Just as with nearly every other country on this planet, Costa Rica has seen its fair share of human-made changes, many of them not being very conducive to the continued existence of biodiverse ecosystems. Yes, the country has preserved quite a bit of its already limited territory and laws are on the books to try and protect biodiversity but the forests are far from endless, wetlands have been drained, and too many crops are doused with chemicals (challenges to sustainable living commonly shared by many countries on Earth in this over-populated, naturally disconnected segment of human history). Another sign of the times is traffic.

Waiting in a long line of cars during road work in Guanacaste.

Unfortunately, Costa Rica has reached the point where the number of cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles overwhelm the roads of some parts of the country on a daily basis. Long gone are the days of the pleasant morning drive to work. As with other densely populated places, the norm nowadays involves sharing the byways with a massive train of vehicles that clogs the arteries in both directions like amalgamations of steel, plastic, and vulcanized rubber cholesterol. Throw in a fender bender, a washed-out bridge, or a small landslide now and then and you go from gridlock to gridsuper-glued. Ok, so before you cancel that car rental, don’t panic! There are ways to avoid the traffic on a birdwatching trip to Costa Rica and here are some suggestions:

  • Leave early (as in pre-dawn early): Even if you happen to be staying in the heart of San Jose (which is of course also the center of car chaos), you will be out of town in a jiffy if you leave the hotel by 5 or 5:30 AM. Depart before then and it’s even nicer but wait until 6 and it will take a while to get out of town.

    Leaving early will also help you see more birds like this Prevost's Ground Sparrow.

  • Come back late: If you are coming back to the San Jose area, you might want to consider doing a bit of owling and having dinner outside of the city. That way, in addition to hopefully seeing an owl or two, you can head back to the hotel around 8 without having to deal with the afternoon rush hour.

    You might see a Bare-shanked Screech Owl- a fairly common regional endemic.

  • Rush hour: Of course, knowing when most people are migrating to and from home is key to avoiding traffic. The morning rush hour goes from around 6 to 8 and the worst of the afternoon madness happens between 4 and 6.
  • Routes and places to avoid: Fortunately, daily problems with traffic are mostly restricted to the Central Valley. You can expect unpleasant issues if driving during rush hour anywhere from San Ramon on east to Cartago. Other routes that have their fair share of slow-going vehicles and traffic are the highway between San Jose and Limon (at least you can watch for birds as you Sunday drive through Braulio Carrillo National Park), the Pan-American highway between Puntarenas and Liberia (due to road work and when collisions shut down the road), and the new Caldera-San Jose highway on Sundays (on Sundays, take the old road up to San Ramon instead).
  • Bird areas with little traffic: Since more birds live where there are less people, most good birding sites are naturally bereft of bottlenecks and heavy traffic. One of several wonderful birding routes that comes to mind is the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The low level of traffic and fantastic birding at places like Lands in Love, the Manuel Brenes Road, Finca Luna Nueva, the Cocora Hummingbird Garden, and the San Luis Canopy make this area one of my favorite places to bird in the country.

    You might see a Three-wattled Bellbird around there.

Follow these suggestions to save time and sanity when birding in Costa Rica!

You might also want to check out some driving tips for Costa Rica.