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Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Sloth Spotting in Costa Rica

Written by Bel Woodhouse
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Standing in the cool misty mountain morning I watched headlights grow larger and brighter making their way up the windy road. It’s 5:30 am and as the truck pulled up Giovanni, our wildlife tour guide, beamed Buenos Diás, good morning.


His infectious smile had us all relaxing and even those ‘I’m not a morning person’ people in the group leaned forward to hear what was on the agenda. Our intrepid early bird group of five would start by visiting a place where toucans like to greet the new day before heading to his private reserve. That’s where we would play spot the sloth.


Sure enough less than ten minutes later we rattled to a halt and everyone perked up. Giovanni excitedly pointed high up into a nearby tree. The signature bright sunflower of a yellow-throated toucan’s breast was gleaming as the rising suns first rays illuminated the canopy. “It is a good sign” he beamed as a second then a third appeared. We hurried down a path for a closer look.



Yellow-throated, also called chestnut-mandibled or double-mandibled Toucan. ©Bel Woodhouse


Their melodious chirps greeted each other; it was sweet in our ears until broken by a grunting sort of growl.


Turning around, in the large trumpet tree behind me, a sheen of rusty red caught my eye. The shimmering coat of a howler monkey radiated in the early light. Hanging upside down by its strong tail, it was enjoying some breakfast. The youngest tenderest shoots nestled in the bough of the tree’s branches. Giovanni beamed. The wildlife was co-operating today.


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New shoots of a trumpet tree are a howler monkeys’ favorite breakfast. ©Bel Woodhouse


As the sun continued its journey higher into the sky the jungle around us came alive. Flashes of color had us all oohing and ahhing as flashes of exotic birds’ flit from tree to tree happily skipping along the branches. A sunset of colors as radiant reds, oranges and yellows caught our attention.


But little did we know that this was nothing compared to our next stop. The vibrant colors of tropical birds in Costa Rica are mesmerizing. The stuff of every birder’s and twitcher’s dreams. I must say they are the most beautiful I’ve seen in over 30 countries I’ve visited.


Especially at our next stop. The main event. Giovanni’s private sanctuary: Bogarin Trail. Built from the ground up, literally. Since 2000 he has been converting farmland into a lush jungle habitat. Planting over 400 trees he has created a haven for wildlife which is now home to several families of sloths. Having waited my whole life to see a sloth it was on my bucket list of animals to see in the wild.


Before heading into the reserve it was time to sit and enjoy a morning coffee and some fruit. Being too amazed at our delightful breakfast companions I forgot to eat mine. They were the most glorious birds I had ever laid eyes on.


Red-legged honey creepers would have to be the most stunning birds on the planet.


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Red-legged honey creepers enjoying a fruit breakfast. ©Bel Woodhouse


The glowing turquoise feathers fading down to a deep purplish cobalt held me transfixed. What amazing color. I was so in love with these little birds that I opted for photographing them over having breakfast.


I didn’t want to leave them but Giovanni smiled and said “just wait, there is a lot more beauty” which had me intrigued. He was right. Just a few steps inside his sanctuary he winked at me then turned over a massive leaf.


My jaw dropped.


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Costa Rica’s nation symbol, the red-eyed tree frog. ©Bel Woodhouse


I was eye to eye with Costa Rica’s national symbol, the red-eyed tree frog, vibrant scarlet eyes staring back at me. Happily camped out under the cover and protection of their huge tropical leaf these two had a large clump of healthy eggs. It was beautiful to see their little froggy family.


Walking a little further the canopy closed overhead and the ground became spongy underfoot. The cycle of life was evident. Looking down I could see the leaf litter quickly breaking down to the rich detritus feeding this forested habitat.


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The old and the new in the jungles cycle of life. ©Bel Woodhouse


Looking up each time we passed under an opening in the canopy held beautiful surprises too. Green iguana’s sunning themselves high atop the tall trees looked down on us as we passed. Not moving, you really had to spot them as they blended in while enjoying the early morning sun.

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Juvenile green iguana high in the canopy. ©Bel Woodhouse


Black vultures peered down from under their impressive five-and-a-half-foot wingspan. Spread wide showing off their ‘fingers’ while drying their dewy feathers before taking flight for a day of soaring and foraging.


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Black vultures impressive 5.5 ft wingspan. ©Bel Woodhouse


Everywhere things moved. Above us in the tree tops. At eye level along the trunks and on the ground. Giovanni stood guard over a line of leaf cutter ants to make sure we didn’t step on them because we were too busy looking around.


Their tiny red bodies carrying huge pieces of greenery many times their own size in a feat of strength and agility. A procession not to be trampled upon.


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Leaf cutter ant procession. ©Bel Woodhouse


Then, turning a corner silence reigned. Setting up a monocular aimed high into a nearby tree, Giovanni had spotted the highlight of the day.


A baby three-toed sloth slept. Curled up in a ball hanging by one arm he seemed to be smiling in his sleep. It was one of the sweetest wildlife moments of my life. Standing there in a Costa Rican jungle with a grumbling tummy and sweat running down the back of my legs I couldn’t stop smiling.


My first sloth. In the wild. A life-long dream achieved. It was magical and is seared into my memory forever.



Baby three-toed sloth sleeping. ©Bel Woodhouse


Nearby we also saw a big male sloth and this sweet little one’s mother. A smiling sloth family. There is no way to describe the feeling of this encounter. Or, the thankfulness I felt toward Giovanni for building this sanctuary that allowed us to see them.


Now, it is home to around 25 families of sloth. A true haven for this treasure of the animal world along with many others.


But it’s not only the animals that held my wonder. The plant life is truly unique. Like this Morro tree with its cannonball like fruit growing from moss and fern covered trunks.


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Morro trees unique fruit. ©Bel Woodhouse


Or, another trunk fruit bearing tree I’m sure you’ve heard of, the Cacao tree. It’s dusty reddish pink oblong fruits ready for picking, roasting and grinding for chocolate making.


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Cacao pods ready for harvest. ©Bel Woodhouse


Plus the orchids, bromeliads and ferns dripping from the trees around us were just gorgeous. The sloths, although wonderful, are only one of many beautiful attractions that called to my nature lover’s heart.


The last highlight of this wildlife tour for me was a tiny red surprise. A strawberry poison-dart frog. Although highly toxic, when handled carefully by a pro like Giovanni we were able to get a close up look at this little beauty. My heart went pitter patter.


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A strawberry poison-dart frog. ©Bel Woodhouse


These tiny colorful amphibians have held a special fascination for me ever since reading about them in National Geographic as a young girl. Their beauty is beyond measure and I always wondered how something so small could yield such a powerful toxin. I was thrilled beyond words to have seen one up close in the wild.

So, at the end of this morning exploring Costa Rica’s natural wonders I felt blessed to have ticked two animals of my bucket list. Sloths and tiny poison-dart frogs. Along with discovering so many more truly stunning wildlife species. Those red-legged honey creepers turquoise feathers will never be forgotten.


With a grumbling belly calling for breakfast, Giovanni giggled at me and told me of a great local place for breakfast. He took us there after we left the sanctuary and I greedily goggled up my eggs while smiling. I didn’t think I would ever stop smiling.

This was hands down the best wildlife excursion I have ever been on and well worth the early rise and pre-dawn start. To this day it remains one of my most treasured travel memories.


©Bel Woodhouse


For more info:

Bogarin Trail


Last modified on Thursday, 01 July 2021