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Think a smaller version of Florida's Everglades and you'll have a good picture of the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro.
This lowland rain-forest reserve in the far northern reaches of Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border covers 98 square km (38 square miles). It looks remote on the map, but is easily visited on an organized day tour, especially from La Fortuna. In 2007 Caño Negro was designated the core of a new UNESCO biosphere called Agua y Paz (Water and Peace), which encompasses more than 2 million acres of wildlife habitat in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Caño Negro has suffered severe deforestation over the years, but most of the length of the Río Frío, its principal river, is still lined with trees. The park's vast lake, which floods according to seasonal rains, is an excellent place to watch waterfowl. On land, pumas, tapirs, ocelots, cougars, and the always-elusive jaguar make up the mammal life found here—consider yourself fortunate if you spot that last one. Caimans snap everywhere in the knee-deep marshy waters, too.
Best Time to Go
It gets hot here, with March and April brutally so, but the January-through-March dry season is the best time to spot the reserve's migratory bird population. Opportunities abound the rest of the year, too, though. No matter what the season, bring sunscreen, water, insect repellant, and a brimmed hat.
In addition to other bird species, the reserve is the best place to spot the Nicaraguan grackle. This New World blackbird is only found in Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica. It's medium size, with a long, graduated tail and fairly long bill and legs.
Best Ways to Explore
This is the best place in the country to see waterbirds. Just sit back in your tour boat and survey the passing parade. You're sure to see anhingas spreading their wings to dry; both glossy and white ibis recognizable by their long curved beaks; roseate spoonbills often mistaken for flamingos; and the jabiru, king of the storks. Herons and kingfishers lurk on the banks, ready to spear fish; while jacanas, with their huge feet, forage in the water lettuce, looking as though they are actually walking on water. Above the water, watch for gray-color snail kites, which, true to their name, are hunting for snails.
In the dry season you can ride horses, but a visit here chiefly entails a wildlife-spotting boat tour. You could drive up here on your own—roads to the area are in good shape—but once here, you'd need to arrange for boat transportation. Visiting with a tour company out of La Fortuna—it's a 90-minute ride one way—is the easiest way to see the park.
Famous for its caimans, Caño Negro still boasts a sizable population. They're smaller than crocodiles, though—at most 2½ meters (8 feet) long—and they are relatively unthreatening because they're too small to eat large mammals (this includes humans). It's a thrill to see them sunning on a bank or to see their spectacled eyes floating just above the water line. Unfortunately, the caimans here are under serious threat from hunters who sneak across the Nicaraguan border and slaughter them by the hundreds for their skins. The proof is sadly on display in the souvenir shops in Nicaragua, where you will see purses and belts made from caiman hides.
Top Reasons to Go to Caño Negro
The reserve is one of Costa Rica's lesser-sung bird-watching and wildlife-viewing destinations. Caño Negro is growing in popularity, but, for now, a visit here still gives you that "I'm in on a secret the rest of the world doesn't know about" satisfaction.
It's not all about wildlife viewing here: Caño Negro is also one of Costa Rica's prime freshwater fishing destinations, with snook and marlin yours for the catching and the bragging rights during the July through March season. (There's barely enough water in the lake the other months of the year, so fishing is prohibited then.) The two lodges inside the reserve can hook you up.
It's easy to get here from the Arenal area, with top-notch operators and their teams of knowledgeable guides organizing day tours from La Fortuna and so-called "evening" tours that actually get you here by the very warm midafternoon and depart around dusk.
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