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Explore Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge on Costa Rica Adventure Vacation 

Considered one of Costa Rica’s premier bird-watching destinations, the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge is a nature lover’s absolute dream. Located in the far north of the country, near the border with Nicaragua, this reserve comprises pristine rain forests and wetlands. Almost 10,000 hectares of them, in fact!

Fervently protected for over three decades, this prime wilderness area is a haven of exceptional biodiversity. Home to a mind-boggling array of endemic birds and welcoming an abundance of migratory species coming from the far north of the continent, Caño Negro is as important as it is fragile. Many of the bird species you can spot here are incredibly rare and, some, endangered.

Green iguana (Iguana iguana), Cano Negro, Costa Rica wildlifeNeed you be an avid bird-watching expert to enjoy a visit to this very special place?

Absolutely not! Caño Negro offers unique boat trips and eco-lodge stays that every nature lover will cherish. Plus, the reserve hosts a whole lot more wildlife than birds. In fact, this is a fantastic destination to go in search of sloths, jaguars, monkeys, caimans, turtles, and a host of other exotic wildlife!

Ready to discover one of Costa Rica’s most treasured hidden secrets?


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Overview of Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge

(Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro)

Submerged almost completely by a flooded Rio Frio for most of the year, Caño Negro is considered one of the world’s top three most important wetlands. Alongside the Pantanal in Brazil, and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Caño Negro is a spectacular pocket of biodiversity. Not only home to a plethora of unique plants and wildlife not seen anywhere else, but also a pivotal migratory route for a wide array of exotic birds.

Located in the northern Alajuela province, the reserve is the most accessible corner of the colossal wetland ecosystem which stretches past the Nicaraguan border. Mind you, it is still a hard-to-reach place although, truth be told, it is undoubtedly to its benefit that it’s way off the well-trodden tourist trail.

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Why are wetlands so important?

Wetlands act as a filter on our planet and, in doing so, create astonishing ecosystems for plants and animals to thrive. Wetlands keep shore erosion’s at bay and absorb sea pollutants, at once filtering water and improving its quality.

Wetlands of Costa Rica - Caño NegroBoth animals and plants thrive in such pristine landscapes and that’s why wetlands are revered for hosting unique organisms not seen elsewhere.

For visitors, wetlands are dreamy beyond words. Whilst some road travel is possible during the driest months in Costa Rica, Caño Negro is best explored by boat or kayak. During the rainy season, between January and April, this is really the only way to get around.

All up, Caño Negro hosts more than 1,000 unique species of plants and about 5,000 species of animals. Aside from more than 300 species of birds (what draws the biggest crowds), the refuge shelters almost 100 species of reptiles and nearly 80 species of mammals. So, you see… you need not be an expert ornithologist to be utterly overawed by this incredible place!

The importance of Caño Negro was luckily identified very early on. It was declared a protected wildlife refuge in the early 80s and gained worldwide protection in 1991.

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Best time to visit Caño Negro

The seasonal flooding that occurs has the ability to drastically change the landscape at Caño Negro. You could easily visit at different times of year and experience something unique.

Water abounds so kayaking is possible all year long and some say that wildlife and bird spotting is actually better during the dry season. The end of year migration sees a cacophony of birds overhead. Sometimes, flocks are so colossal that they obscure the sky and the consequential orchestra of screeching is absolutely incredible.


Sloths of Costa Rica - Caño NegroDuring the dry season, the wetlands are reduced to mangroves and lagoons, enticing animals to come out of their forest hiding spots in search of water. The heart and soul of the reserve is Lago Caño Negro (Caño Negro Lagoon). It is here that usually the best bird-watching is to be had.

Generally, this is one of the driest areas in all of Costa Rica (the north and northwest traditionally have less rain than all other regions). So how do the wetlands get flooded?

The slow-moving Rio Frio stretches for almost 50 miles. It originates near the Tenorio VolCaño and winds its way through the wetlands of Caño Negro, before emptying in Lake Nicaragua. The considerable flooding during the rainy season occurs as a result of heavy rains in its southernmost region.

What to look out for when visiting Caño Negro

The sheer variety of birds in the reserve is mind-boggling. Avid spotters head here to see white ibis and needle ducks, as well as the endangered pink spatulas, jabirus, cormorants and garzillas. The lagoon also hosts the only known permanent colony of the super-rare Nicaraguan Grackle (clarinero) outside of the bird’s endemic home, just north of the border.

Plumed green basilisk female, Basiliscus plumifrons, Cano Negro, Costa Rica wildlifeNaturally, a pristine and protected ecosystem such as this is bound to also attract many other animals. Elusive species like the puma, ocelot and tapir have all found their safe haven here, as have three types of monkeys, sloths, both land and sea turtles and bats galore. Ever heard about the Jesus Christ lizard that walks on water? Well, that’s the emerald plumed basilisk and yep, he lives here too!

The lagoons also host plenty of fascinating creatures, including bull shark, tarpon, tropical gar, caiman, Jaguar cichlid and sergeant fish.

This is one of the most wildlife-enriched areas in the Americas and it’s astonishing to know that, even among enthusiasts of Costa Rica adventure vacations, it is still mostly unknown.

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How to visit the Caño Negro reserve

The closest towns to the reserve’s entry point are Los Chiles and Upala, although most visitors will choose a one-day excursion from Arenal.

You could always go against the grain and, instead, spend a night or two nearby.

A tiny village has sprung up near the entrance to the reserve and it’s home to just a few lodges and a great little family-run restaurant where you can feast on freshly grilled fish and other local specialties. The lodges here stretch the budget-rainbow: although none are luxurious, they are all charming and comfortable. More than anything, they offer the chance to spend a night (or two!) in the middle of paradise, feeling like you’re a million miles away from the rest of the world.

A wonderful Costa Rican experience!

Here are your best lodging options:

3* Hotels – Around USD 100 a night

  • Natural Lodge Caño Negro
  • Hotel de Campo Caño Negro

2* Lodges – Under USD 50 a night

  • Refugio Poponjoche
  • Posada Rural Oasis

What you should know before visiting the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge

  • The park is devoid of the kind of established walking trails found in all Costa Rican reserves. Getting around is done almost exclusively on small boats, which are awesome for exploring the hardest to reach areas. This is what makes the reserve so unique and rewarding.
  • Come here on a unique side-trip during your Costa Rica adventure vacation and you can truly unwind and relax. Explore the amazing wetlands on a wildlife-spotting boat tour and you’ll see migratory and resident birds during the driest months (Jan-April) and mostly resident species at other times of year.
  • If visiting during the driest and hottest months, take an early morning boat tour as wildlife is more active during the coolest hours.
  • One of the best reasons to stay local is that full-day tours are infinitely more rewarding than the usual 2-hour tour most visitors take. Caño Negro is seriously huge (about 30 times the size of NYC’s Central Park!) and you simply can’t travel very far by boat in just two hours. Take your time and you’ll explore lesser-visited areas, where you will likely see more birds and wildlife.
  • Given the whole area around the reserve is pristine and gorgeous, there are birds and some animals to spot nearby. This means that some tours on offer don’t actually go into the reserve proper. Make sure you know which tour you are booking: if it’s much cheaper and shorter than all the others, you will likely just be taken nearby the town and not in the reserve itself.
  • Pack a proper camera, rather than using your phone, if bird and animal photos are a priority. You’ll also want a zoom and wide-angle lens. The landscape is magnificent and your phone just won’t do it justice.
  • There’s a stunning 60-foot-tall observation tower you can access by boat that grants extraordinary views across the reserve – get here at sunset for breath-taking photos.
  • There are local sodas set up along the most popular routes of the river but pack some snacks and extra drinking water for the day, just in case.
  • Starting from the settlement of Caño Negro, you actually have two route options: one side of the river follows a densely forested area and it is here that you’re likely to see more wildlife (other than birds). In the other direction, where the luscious wilderness is less dense, the bird-watching is much better. Stay overnight and you can explore both!
  • There are plenty of organized boat tours going every day yet for a few extra dollars you can get a private boat tour for you and your traveling party. If you’re a group/family of 4+, this option is not just fabulous but also crazy affordable. This is truly an amazing opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Go where you like, stay in one spot longer and just tailor the day (and have the experienced naturalist guide) to yourself. Include a visit to Caño Negro on a bespoke Costa Rica adventure vacation with us and we can organize it all for you!
  • You can rent kayaks or Cañoes and go off exploring on your own. As you can imagine, this is a magical experience. Having said that, it should arguably not be the first thing you do in Caño Negro. You won’t know where to go and what to look for. Instead, take a well-guided tour first, gather the abundance of info the local guides share and then enjoy a few hours kayaking on your own. Alternatively, you can take a guided kayak tour and you’ll have the best of both worlds.
  • There are stunning elevated boardwalks that allow you to walk into the reserve and enjoy a leisurely stroll right above the wetlands.
  • During the dry season, forest walks are on offer – the night tours are unmissable!
  • Caño Negro is at the heart of the UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve Peace and Water and, as such, is home to several traditional farms. During the dry season, when the water recedes, ample fertile lands emerge and they are priceless pastures for local ranchers. Include a visit to a local farm and you can get a behind-the-scenes look at what like is life in this amazing area.
  • Caño Negro tour boats are covered with open sides so don’t worry about rain or sunstroke. Still, take along sunscreen and insect repellent, no matter the time of year you visit. Closed-toe shoes are advisable.
  • The Caño Negro Lagoon is accessible by boat during the rainy season. During the dry season, boat captains will typically let passengers off so they can explore the lagoon on foot! Do note that a trip to the lagoon (when water is high enough) is considered an add-on to Rio Frio boat tours, and is not a given inclusion.

Reach out to us to book your Costa Rica adventure vacation and we’ll show you how seamlessly we can include a few days of explorations in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in your bespoke itinerary.

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