Excerpted from The Costa Rica Handbook, by Christopher Baker
Anyone who has traveled in the tropics in search of wildlife can tell you that disappointment comes easy, and often at considerable expense. But Costa Rica is one place that lives up to its word. You don’t need to venture far to experience the nation’s full panoply of magnificent wildlife. Costa Rica is nature’s live theater where the actors aren’t shy.
Many travelers visit Costa Rica in the hope of seeing crocodiles and caimans, modest-sized relatives. One of the smallest of western crocodilians–no more than two meters long–and possibly the most abundant in existence today, the speckled caiman is still relatively common in parts of wet lowland Costa Rica on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Palo Verde and Tortuguero are both good places to spot them in small creeks, playas, and brackish mangrove swamps, or basking on the banks of streams and ponds.
The scales of the caiman take on the blue-green color of the water it slithers through. Such camouflage and even the ability to breathe underwater, through raised nostrils, have not protected the caiman. Their nests are heavily disturbed by dogs, foxes, tegu lizards, and humans. And increasingly they are being sought for their skins, which are turned into trivia. Ironically, this is easing the pressure on the crocodiles, which are fast disappearing as humanity takes their hides and habitats.
The crocodile exists in precariously low numbers along both coasts, and the only healthy population is in Corcovado National Park, in the Pacific southwest. Only three species of crocodiles — the saltwater croc of Southeast Asia, Africa’s Nile crocodile, and the American alligator — are considered man-killers, but it’s still a wise idea to check with locals or park rangers before swimming in coastal estuaries and lagoons.
For all their beastly behavior, crocodiles are devoted parents. And despite being relics from the age of the dinosaurs, croc brains are far more complex than those of other reptiles. Perhaps because crocodiles have ugly toothy leers and a stigma of primeval wickedness, there isn’t the same love of crocs that has brought international support for the turtles, and their future is much less secure. As biologist David Janzen says: “We may never again see the huge four-meter animals that used to terrify the campesinos and eat their dogs.”