Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro
Think of 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. Caño Negro is the core of a 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 after seasonal rains, is an excellent place to watch waterfowl. The reserve is home to more than 350 migratory and resident bird species and 310 types of plants. On land, pumas, tapirs, ocelots, cougars, and the always-elusive jaguar are among the more than 160 mammal species that thrive here—consider yourself fortunate if you spot a jaguar. 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–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 season, bring sunscreen, water, insect repellent, 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 found only in Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica. It is 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 until you approach Los Chiles; then it's 19 km (12 miles) on a gravel road to the park entrance in Caño Negro Town. Once here, you'd need to arrange for boat transportation. You can book the most reputable guides directly through Natural Lodge Caño Negro. Visiting with a tour company out of La Fortuna—it's a two-hour ride each way—is the most common way to see the park, but keep in mind that most Fortuna-based companies tour the perimeter of the reserve rather than the park interior in order to avoid the $5 entrance fee.
Famous for its caimans, Caño Negro 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 (such as humans). It's a thrill to see them sunning on a bank or to see their spectacled eyes floating just above the water line.
Top Reasons to Go
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 feels special.
It's not all about wildlife viewing here: Caño Negro is also one of Costa Rica's prime freshwater fishing destinations, with tarpon, snook, and garfish yours for the catch-and-release bragging rights during the September–March season (fishing is prohibited April 1–July 31, and the Garfish ban is March 1–August 31). The two lodges inside the reserve can hook you up.
It's easy to get here from the Arenal area, with tour operators organizing day tours from La Fortuna. If time allows, stay overnight in Caño Negro and reserve a tour through one of the reputable lodges. When selecting a company, make sure the tour actually enters the reserve if you want to make the most of your visit.
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