Costa Rica: The Introtour

While it may be on the beaten track, the outrageously beautiful quetzals, great lodges, and friendly people are just some of the reasons why people come back to Costa Rica again and again. This tiny Central American country has far more than its share of beautiful scenery, not to mention a rich assortment of birds unequalled by any other country its size. This short tour takes in the top birding spots in comfort and style, and is timed to maximize your vacation time. The easy trails, great lodges, and fantastic birds make this a great introduction to the addictive wonders of Neotropical birding.


Note: The itinerary is sometimes run in a different order based on lodge availability.

Day 1: San José. You will be picked up at the airport and taken to a nearby hotel for the night. The exact hotel depends on availability, but when possible we try to pick hotels with good birding on the grounds, so you can start getting your eye in while you wait for the rest of the group to arrive.

Birds do not get more exotic than Montezuma Oropendola
Birds do not get more exotic than Montezuma Oropendola (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Braullio Carrillo National Park to La Selva. Our first morning will be spent in the lower ranges of this enormous national park, birding a forest trail that is about one hour drive from our hotel. As this will be our only time in the Caribbean middle elevations, our main targets will be foothill specialties like Lattice-tailed Trogon, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Streak-crowned Antvireo. At this site many species can be found by searching through mixed canopy flocks; while this can be challenging the rewards are great, with birds like Emerald, Black-and-yellow, Blue-and-gold, Speckled, and Carmiol’s Tanagers sometimes found with these flocks along with other species like White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Spotted Woodcreeper, and Russet Antshrike. Of course, we rarely pick up all of these species on every visit, but this is merely a selection of what might be found within the mixed-species flocks. Later in the morning, We’ll visit a hummingbird garden; the banks of lilac verbena blooms (Porterweed) attract good numbers of hummingbirds, which are usually easy to view as they forage below eye-level at close range. Here, we have a chance of finding the amazing Black-crested Coquette, the striking Snowcap, and, sometimes Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. Other more regularly occurring hummingbirds include Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Violet-headed Hummingbird. We’ll stop for lunch at a local restaurant, then drive another hour or so to La Selva Field Station; we’ll stay either in the field station or at a nearby lodge for the next two nights. In the afternoon, there should be enough time to begin birding La Selva, picking up some of the regular species around the HQ clearing, which is always active and “birdy”. Regulars in this area include Band-backed Wren, Long-tailed Tyrant, Passerini’s and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Black-faced Grosbeak, and Olive-crowned Euphonia; while keeping an eye in the surrounding treetops may yield Black-mandibled or Keel-billed Toucans, or a Collared Aracari.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs can be seen at La Selva
Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs can be seen at La Selva (Sam Woods)

Day 3: La Selva. Bird activity around the cabins and cafeteria can be so intense in the early morning that it is hard to make any progress down the trails, and often the day is over before you know it. Montezuma Oropendolas, White-crowned Parrots, and Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans are some of the more impressive species, but the smaller and more brightly-colored birds are also mesmerizing. Passerini’s, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Blue Dacnis, several euphonias, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-cowled Oriole, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar are all usually easy to see here. If we are lucky we might also see one of the tame Crested Guans or Great Curassows around the edge of the clearing as well. This area can also be good for finding White-collared Manakin, and Black-cheeked, Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers. Venturing farther into the reserve, we’ll walk some of the wide, flat trails, where we get into tall rainforest where we’ll search for other species like Great Tinamou, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Violaceous and Slaty-tailed Trogons, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, White-ringed Flycatcher, both Stripe-breasted and Black-throated Wrens, and the local Plain-colored Tanager. We’ll also search the open country at the edge of the forest for the rare Great Green Macaw, and also check here for Laughing Falcon, Gray Hawk, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. As well as birds we’ll be on the lookout for sloths, howler monkeys, agoutis, and peccaries too. It is also a great place to see the Strawberry Poison Frog. For those who wish to search for night birds, we can do so, with Pauraque being the most regular, but other possibilities including Spectacled Owl, Great Potoo, and Short-tailed Nighthawk.

Mammals are often encountered on this tour, like this Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Mammals are often encountered on this tour, like this Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (Sam Woods)

Day 4: La Selva to Savegre. We’ll have a final morning in La Selva targeting whatever we still need, before departing for Savegre in the Talamanca mountains. Much of the afternoon will be spent driving, although there should be time to check out some hummingbird feeders shortly after arrival. The hummer feeders in the area regularly attract Scintillant and Magnificent Hummingbirds, Green Violet-ear, and White-throated Mountain-gem. On this night or the following night, there will be an optional night foray to look for Dusky Nightjar or the scarce Bare-shanked Screech-Owl. We’ll spend two nights at one of the lodges in the Savegre Valley.

Savegre is a great place to see the fiery Flame-throated Warbler
Savegre is a great place to see the fiery Flame-throated Warbler (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Savegre Valley. The Savegre Valley is surrounded by magnificent oak forests, home to many species restricted to the high mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama, (known as “Chiriquí endemics”). Mixed species flocks here can be fantastic, with many of these special birds moving together, including Collared Redstart, Black-cheeked and Flame-throated Warblers, Ochraceous Wren, Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-colored and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, and Yellow-thighed Finch. The real star of Savegre is the astounding Resplendant Quetzal, without a doubt one of the world’s most spectacular birds. There are usually several stakeouts in the valley at this time, and nowhere else do we stand a better chance of finding Costa Rica’s flagship species. Our main focus of the day will be to track down this must-see bird. Other species we are may find while birding the valley include Band-tailed Pigeon, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Acorn Woodpecker, Mountain Elaenia, Black-capped Flycatcher, Mountain Thrush, Black-faced Solitaire, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and Sooty-capped Chlorospingus. Some of the rare species in the area include Silvery-throated Jay, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and Ochraceous Pewee.

Collared Redstart is a common highland specialty at Savegre
Collared Redstart is a common highland specialty at Savegre (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Cerro de la Muerte to Carara. Today, after breakfast, we’ll pack up and head up to the stunted treeline forest and grassy páramo over 10,000 ft (3000 m), which will be the highest point reached on the tour. The weather can be forbidding, and only a few hardy birds, like Volcano Hummingbird, Sooty Thrush, Timberline Wren, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Volcano Junco can make a living up here. If we’re lucky we may also track down some of the scarcer residents in the area, like Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher, or Peg-billed Finch. We’ll stop at a nearby restaurant where we should see the lovely Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and a quick look down a short trail may give us the chance for a Wrenthrush or Buffy Tuftedcheek. After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll drive on to Carara, in the lowlands of the Pacific Coast, where we’ll stay for the following two nights. After checking in to the hotel in the afternoon, there may be some time for late afternoon birding, where we can look for the stunning Fiery-billed Aracari, and may get our first views of the impressive Scarlet Macaw.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird is arguably the most stunning of the many hummingbirds regularly seen on this tour
Fiery-throated Hummingbird is arguably the most stunning of the many hummingbirds regularly seen on this tour (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Carara area. Before breakfast, we’ll bird near the hotel, checking the blooming shrubs for any hummingbirds, like Rufous-tailed and Steely-vented Hummingbirds, or Blue-throated Goldentail, while other parts of the property may hold Muscovy Duck, Rose-throated Becard, Painted Bunting, or Riverside Wren. We’ll also keep an eye overhead for Costa Rican Swifts hawking insects above. After breakfast we’ll drive a few minutes to one of the forest trails within the national park. A huge list of target birds are found in the area, and we’ll be on the lookout for Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon, Riverside Wren, Orange-collared Manakin, Great Tinamou, Gray-chested Dove, White-whiskered Puffbird, Barred Anthshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky and Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Slaty-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Black-bellied and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, and Bay-headed Tanager. If we are lucky, and encounter an army ant swarm, we may even find Gray-headed Tanager, Bicolored Antbird or Tawny-winged Woodcreeper in attendance. After lunch, we’ll take a relaxing afternoon boat ride on the Tarcol estuary and in the nearby mangroves, adding swathes of new birds. We’ll be on the lookout for Double-striped Thick-knee, Southern Lapwing, Roseate Spoonbill, Yellow-headed Caracara, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Common (“Mangrove”) Black-Hawk, Panama Flycatcher, “Mangrove” (Yellow) Warbler, and Mangrove Vireo. If we are very lucky we may even run into the rare Mangrove Hummingbird. Note: due to tides, we sometimes take the boat trip in the morning instead of the afternoon.

Turquoise-browed Motmots often feature on the Tarcoles River cruise
Turquoise-browed Motmots often feature on the Tarcoles River cruise (Sam Woods)

Boat-billed Herons are frequently seen at staked out day roost on the Tarcoles river cruise
Boat-billed Herons are frequently seen at staked out day roost on the Tarcoles river cruise (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Carara to Monteverde. We have another morning to bird in Carara, trying different trails for any missing birds. Later, we’ll drive back north, where the lower Pacific slope mountains have some drier habitat with different birds like Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, White-fronted Parrot, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Streak-backed Oriole, and the spectacular White-throated Magpie-Jay. The vegetation becomes lush and green as we climb higher into the mountains, eventually arriving at Monteverde, a small mountain town on the Pacific slope near the Continental Divide, where we stay for two nights. There will be a little time to bird around the lodge on arrival, which could produce Emerald Toucanet, Rufous-and-white Wren, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush or Rufous-capped Warbler. The verbena shrubs in the garden can also attract both Steely-vented Hummingbird or Canivet’s Emerald.

Mischievous White-nosed Coatis are regular around Monteverde
Mischievous White-nosed Coatis are regular around Monteverde (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Monteverde area. Some pre-breakfast birding on the grounds of our lodge will give us a great chance at picking up Golden-olive Woodpecker or White-eared Ground-Sparrow, while fruit feeders often host Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Brown Jay, and Blue-crowned Motmot. We’ll then head to Monteverde reserve and spend the rest of the morning slowly walking the easy trails. Mixed flocks in the reserve hold Prong-billed Barbet, Common Chloropsingus, Slate-throated Redstart, Red-faced Spinetail, Three-striped Warbler, Slaty Antwren, and others. Less conspicuous species within the reserve that are regularly seen include Black Guan, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Yellowish Flycatcher, Black-faced Solitaire, Ochraceous Wren, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia. There are also quetzals here if we got unlucky in Savegre. After a morning working the trails, and lunch at the on-site restaurant, we’ll check out their hummingbird feeders, which regularly attract Coppery-headed Emerald, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Green Hermit, Green-crowned Brilliant, Magenta-throated Woodstar, and Violet Sabrewing. After soaking up the hummingbirds we’ll head back in the direction of our hotel, but will stop in some very different dry forest en-route, where we’ll try to track down a male Long-tailed Manakin. This is also a good site for Orange-bellied Trogon, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-and-white Wren, and Rufous-capped Warbler.

The Resplendent Quetzal is quite often the 'Bird of the trip'
The Resplendent Quetzal is quite often the 'Bird of the trip' (Nick Athanas)

Day 10: Monteverde to San José. We have another morning at one of the reserves in the Monteverde area; the exact location we visit will depend on what we are still looking for. After lunch, we’ll head back to San José for the night. The exact hotel we use depends on availability – sometimes it is the same hotel we used on the first night, while other times it is a hotel near the airport with a convenient airport shuttle.

Purple-throated Mountain-Gem sitting by the feeders at Monteverde
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem sitting by the feeders at Monteverde (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Departure. The tour ends this morning as you are taken to the airport to meet your departing flight.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed to moderate. This tour is designed to be an introduction to Neotropical birds, and is run at a fairly relaxed pace; the guide will attempt to show you representatives of all the major neotropical families, even if they are common birds. While finding the regional endemics is a secondary focus of the tour, you will still see quite a lot of them, and you certainly do not have to be a novice to enjoy this trip. Lodges in Costa Rica don’t usually offer early breakfasts, and depending on breakfast times, there may be an optional pre-breakfast walk at 6:00am, with breakfast usually starting at around 6:30am or 7:00am; after breakfast the main morning birding will begin. Except for days that we travel between lodges, there will usually be some downtime after lunch to relax. There will be a couple of nightbirding outings, but they are completely optional if you prefer to relax in the lodge instead. Drives of four hours are necessary on two or three days.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding at the lowland sites will be on flat or slightly inclined tracks and trails (and many of the trails at La Selva are paved). On day 2, there is a more difficult trail that is moderately steep and sometimes slippery. Three other days of the trip will also involve some trails in the mountains, but they are well-made and there are only a few steep sections. A walking stick can help prevent falls on the mountain trails. You can expect to walk around 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) per day on average, and the walking is done at a rather slow pace. A few hours of one morning will be spent at high elevation (10,500 ft/3200 m), however all accommodation is located at 7200 ft (2200 m) or lower.

CLIMATE: Quite variable; in the lowlands, it is quite humid and temperatures usually vary from about 68°-95°F (20°-35°C). At the higher elevations it is much cooler, with temperatures ranging from about 46°-75°F (8°-24°C). Some rain can be expected.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. Wi-fi is also available in all lodges, though often it only works in the public areas and not the rooms.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds at feeders in a few places, and on the mangrove boat tour. Photography inside the forest is much more challenging. Serious bird photographers should check out our Costa Rica Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: We usually offer this tour in February and July, and both are great months to visit. February is the high season in Costa Rica, and it averages drier (though some rain can still be expected, especially at La Selva). The July tour is timed for when there is often a mini “dry season” in the middle of the rainy, or “green” season. You can still expect more rain on average than in February, but it usually comes in short bursts, and when it is not raining, the birds can be more active; sites are also usually less crowded.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all Western European countries. Visas are currently only required of nationalities mainly in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 10; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 11 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals (if eating at a restaurant that includes no drinks reasonable non-alcoholic beverages will be provided for that meal); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 10; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight; if the San José hotel has a free airport shuttle, you will be expected to use it and private transfers will not be provided). Ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 10 (for smaller groups the guide will drive and, for larger groups there will be a driver); one mangrove boat tour on the Tarcol River for the group; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; flights; airport departure tax; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.