There is no other place in the world where there are so many types of habitats squeezed into such a tiny area. The range of habitats in Costa Rica, a consequence of its unique geography, creates an incredibly rich diversity of flora and fauna – in fact no other country on the planet has such variety. Measured in terms of number of species per 10,000 sq km Costa Rica tops the list of countries at 615 species, compared to a wildlife-rich country such as Rwanda that has 596, or to the comparatively impoverished USA with its 104 species. This simple fact alone makes Costa Rica the premier destination for nature lovers from all over the world.

The large number of species in Costa Rica is, along with its diverse geography, also due to the relatively recent appearance of the country. Roughly three million years ago Costa Rica rose from the ocean and formed a land bridge between North and South America, and as species from these two vast biological provinces started to mingle and mix, the number of species was essentially ‘doubled.’

Though tropical in nature – with a substantial number of tropical animals such as poison-arrow frogs and spider monkeys – Costa Rica is also the winter home for more than 200 species of migrating birds that arrive from as far away as Alaska and Australia.

With over 850 species recorded in Costa Rica, it’s understandable that birds are one of the primary attractions for naturalists. You could stay for months and you’ll still have scratched the surface in terms of seeing all these species. Birds in Costa Rica come in every color, from strawberry-red scarlet macaws to the iridescent jewels called violet sabrewings (a type of hummingbird). Because many birds in Costa Rica have restricted ranges, you are guaranteed to find different species everywhere you travel.

Though visitors will almost certainly see one of Costa Rica’s four monkey or two sloth species, there are an additional 260 animal species awaiting the patient observer. More exotic sightings might include amazing species such as the four-eyed opossum and silky anteater while a lucky few might spot the elusive tapir, or have a jaguarundi cross their path.

The extensive network of national parks, wildlife refuges and other protected areas are prime places to spot wildlife. But remember that these creatures do not know park boundaries, so keep your eyes peeled in the forested areas and buffer zones that often surround these sanctuaries. Early morning is the best time to see animals, as many species stay still during the hotter part of the day. Nocturnal species – such as Baird’s tapir, the silky anteater and the kinkajou – require going out at night, preferably with a guide.

If you are serious about spotting birds and animals, the value of a knowledgeable guide cannot be underestimated. Their keen eyes are trained to recognize the slightest movement in the leaves, and they can recognize the many exotic calls of the wild. Most professional bird guides are proficient in many dialects of bird, which enhances your ability to hear and see them. Furthermore, a good local guide will often have an idea where certain species tend to congregate – whether because they like the fruit of a certain tree (as the quetzal in the avocado tree), or because they like to catch the fish at the mouth of the river (as the American crocodile). Knowing the habits of your prey vastly improves your chances of finding them.

No season is a bad season for exploring Costa Rica’s natural environment, though most visitors arrive during the peak dry season when trails are less muddy and more accessible. An added bonus of visiting between December and February is that many of the wintering migrant birds are still hanging around. A trip after the peak season may mean fewer birds, but it is a stupendous time to see dried forests transform into vibrant greens and it’s the time when resident birds begin their nesting season.

As expected in a country that has both unique habitats and widespread cutting of its forests, there are numerous species whose populations are declining or in danger of extinction. The number-one threat to most of Costa Rica’s endangered species is habitat destruction, followed closely by hunting and trapping.

The legendary resplendent quetzal – the bird at the top of every naturalist’s must-see list – teeters precariously as its home forests are felled at an alarming rate. Sightings of the large, squawky scarlet macaw are a highlight of birding in Costa Rica. But trapping for the pet trade has extirpated these magnificent birds from much of their former range. Although populations are thriving in the Península de Osa, the scarlet macaw is now extinct over most of Central America, including the entire Caribbean coast.

Sea turtles get a lot of attention in Costa Rica, with a wide variety of programs supporting population growth.

Costa Rica’s sexiest endangered species is undoubtedly the sleek, speedy jaguar. Jaguars require a large area to support enough prey to survive. Annually, an individual jaguar needs the equivalent of 53 white-tailed deer, 18 peccaries, 40 coatis, 25 armadillos and 55 ctenosaurs. That is for one jaguar! Owing to clearing for cattle ranches and overhunting of jaguar prey, suitable habitat for viable populations of jaguars now occurs in only a handful of protected areas, such as Parque Nacional Corcovado and Parque Internacional La Amistad.