Birding in Costa Rica is all sorts of birding goodness. Lots of birds can be seen in all sorts of places, even away from the usual spots. Sure, watching quetzals with a bunch of other smiling people is fine. Marveling over hummingbird action is some “dolce vita” indeed but, in Costa Rica, there’s more. Always lots more.
If you don’t mind traveling a bit further afield, the birding might even be better. That’s how I feel when I visit the southern Caribbean zone. That would be the part of Costa Rica south of Limon, the corner of the country with Jamaican influence, intriguing seas, and fantastic birding.
The southern Caribbean might be at its best during migration. In October, the bird movement in this area is constant, fierce, and mesmerizing. Visit when the birds are passing through and you get enveloped in rivers of raptors, massive fronts of Hirundines, and rivulets of songbirds.
However, if you have to check out the Southern Caribbean in other months, not to worry. The birding is still good! It’s all about rainforest and avian residents that reside in huge crowns of massive trees. They can be hard to spot way up there but isn’t that what a scope is for? Use it to scan the canopy, use it to scan the ocean.
You’ll see stuff, you’ll see lots.
We just got back from a short trip to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Here’s some tips to improve your trip and help answer common questions.
How’s the birding in the Southern Costa Rica?
Expect a healthy selection of lowland rainforest birds. At times, I feel like the birding in on par with La Selva. It’s still a bit different but there’s a heck of a lot of birds to see and you don’t have to travel far to see them.
Most lowland species are present including lots of toucans, parrots, even Great Green Macaw (re-introduced), puffbirds, owls, Great Potoo, Green Ibis, yeah, you name it.
Some of the more regular, especially cool species include Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Snowy Cotinga, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Great Potoo, Black-crowned Antshrike, and White-flanked Antwren.
There aren’t as many tinamous and motmots seem hard to come by but there’s lots of everything else. Not to mention, when we factor in the lack of birding coverage, there’s probably more out there than we think. More Great Jacamars, probably rare species from Panama wandering in from time to time, and who knows what else?
Go birding in the southern Caribbean zone and you can expect a lot. You should also be ready for the unexpected; this region has some of the most exciting birding in Costa Rica.
When to go birding in southern Costa Rica
The best time to go birding in southern Costa Rica is whenever you visit. Yeah, April and October are the best months to experience some sweet fantastic tropical migration but the resident species are there all year long.
It tends to be a bit drier in September and October too but you should always be ready for rain.
How to get there (and driving expectations)
The birding sites south of Limon are reached by good roads. It’s pretty straightforward getting there but the main question is whether you want to drive yourself or have someone else do it.
From the San Jose area, the trip takes around four hours. However, construction and traffic can easily make it a five hour drive. Since the road to Limon is a major route for truck traffic, it’s hard to say what departure time is best. That said, I feel like it’s usually worse in the afternoon.
At the moment, there is still a lot of work being done on the section of the road between San Jose and Limon. All of that construction can slow things down but on this past trip, the main challenge was the lack of signage. I’m not talking signs that mention distances or places or any of that simple stuff. No, I mean good clear signage that shows you which lane to drive on.
At present, this two lane road is being converted into a four-lane highway. Much of it is already completed and in some places, there are four actual lanes! This is of course wonderful for driving and if the road is ever completed, the trip from San Jose to Limon might become an easy two hour trip.
At the moment, though, most of the highway is still two lane traffic. In many places, a pair of inviting, nice-looking lanes are present on the other side of the road. However, they aren’t officially open. You might see a few local cars using those yet to be opened lanes and, as you trudge behind some hefty truck, you will feel tempted to do the same. However, you need to just keep following that truck.
Because if you don’t, you might drive on a part of the road that ends with a drop off, odd concrete blocks, or other nasty ways to finish your trip. Fortunately, those seemingly open yet closed parts of the road are easy to avoid but other parts of the trip can generate anxiety.
At various spots, as you travel along, your lane may be detoured to the other side of the road. There’s little signage about it, there might be a hole or two, and you may wonder if you are about to drive headfirst, straight into oncoming traffic. Just follow the truck in front of you. At least we hope they know what they are doing.
Or, you might want to opt for a shuttle service. That would certainly be the easiest and most comfortable way to reach the southern Caribbean zone. The downside is not having a personal vehicle to visit birding sites around your destination. However, that can be fixed by renting anything from a bike to an electric moped or other small vehicles in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
If you do drive yourself, be sure to charge or fill up at the Hone Creek gas station. There aren’t any more after that one.
Oh, and one more thing. To keep stress on the downlow, don’t ever make the drive at night.
Where to go birding on the southern Caribbean slope?
One of the best things about this part of Costa Rica is easy access to good habitat with lots of birds. South of Limon, you’ll be happily surprised by the amount of mature rainforest right along the road.
Whether you stay in a hotel, small lodge, or rent a house, you’ll probably have good birding right there, on the grounds. For example, this past trip, we stayed at an Air BnB in the Playa Negra area. The habitat wasn’t ideal but there were still plenty of big trees and a few small streams and wet areas.
During casual birding, we had Great Potoo at night, and White-necked Puffbird, Scarlet-rumped Caciques, Red-lored Parrots, Green Ibis, and lots of other birds in the day.
Visit the Paradise Road or other roads that pass through more intact habitat and you’ll see more. During Friday morning guiding in that area, we had Black Hawk-Eagle, Snowy Cotinga (briefly), Pied Puffbird, Blue-headed Parrot, and more than 70 other species.
Where to stay?
There are honestly too many places to mention. Most hotels are small and lots of people rent houses and similar lodging. The best on-site birding is probably at Almonds and Corals, the few lodging options on Paradise Road, and any other place situated in good habitat.
But really, the birding will be good no matter where you stay. There won’t be as many species at places in the middle of Puerto Viejo but you will still be in easy striking distance of forest with lots of birds, even at the edge of town.
Once again, there are too many places to mention but I will say that there are places for various budgets. A good number of spots are not cheap but there are also several that serve really good food.
A few of my favorites are the DeGustibus bakery (a pretty good Italian bakery that also has good sandwiches and pasta), the Pecora Nera (run by a chef from Tuscany), and a great little spot called, “Take it Easy”.
Take it Easy is a roadside, outdoor spot owned by a Rasta guy in Playa Chiquita. It’s usually open from noon and if you are looking for some quality Caribbean food, oh this place will do the trick!
We had lunch there and the rice and beans with chicken was the best I have ever had (and I have sampled a lot). The chicken was juicy, just spicy enough, and had a delicious ginger zing. Even better, the spot is right on the beach and has seating on benches where you can scan the ocean or watch birds visit big trees just across the road.
Some places in this area can have a mosquito problem, especially house rentals. Make sure to use that repellent, ask for mosquito coils, and check for and plug any holes in your mosquito bed netting.
Planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? Consider visiting the southern Caribbean zone. This region has a lot to offer and has some of the most exciting birding in Costa Rica. To learn more about places to go birding in Costa Rica and much more, support this blog by getting, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
I hope to see you here!