The Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge was created on January 20th, 1984 to protect the wetlands, rainforest and swamplands in the Northern lowland, near the Nicaraguan border. This is one of the most biologically diverse destinations, as well as one of the most important reserves for birds and wildlife observation in Costa Rica.
The refuge lies close to the settlement of the Malekus, direct descendants of the Guatuso Indians that once lived in the area. The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is important as a wintering site for migrant waterfowl, as well as a year-round habitat for local wetland species. In fact, Caño Negro is considered by many to be the third most important wetland in the world and was named Wetland of International Importance in 1991.
The Frío River is the largest flowing river in the area and is the main water source for the Caño Negro Lake, a 2,000 acre (810 ha) and 3m deep lake, made by alluvial sediments that plays a crucial role on the environment. During the rainy season, the rising water level invades the surrounding landscape. This natural phenomenon creates a perfect environment for birds to procreate, thus providing a bird-watchers paradise, reason why this refuge is gaining popularity amongst nature oriented tourists. But in the dry season, from December to April, the lake dries up, only exposing the dried out basin and the main channel of the Frío River, which surges from the Tilaran Mountain Range slopes.
From October to April, when the migrant birds are at the refuge, the variety of species and sheer quantity of individuals creates a spectacle that even non-birdwatchers will marvel at. More than 200 bird species can be found inside such as the curious Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), Green-backed Heron (Butorides virescens), Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), Wood Stork (Mycteria americana), Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Olivaceous Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus), Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis), American Widgeon (Anas americana), Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa) and the Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), which is the largest bird, and seriously endangered, as well as storks, cormorants, ducks and egrets. One species that birdwatchers hope to see here, since the refuge also protects the only permanent population in Costa Rica, is the Nicaraguan Grackle (Quiscalus nicaraguensis) an endemic bird of the Nicaraguan Lake Basin.
The delicate ecosystems found in Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge supply a plethora of different plants and animal life, many of which are rare or endangered. Some of the animals being protected here are pumas, jaguars, ocelots and caymans, as well as some more common species such as three species of howler, spider and white-faced monkeys, peccaries, raccoons, otters, sloths, tapirs, giant anteaters, deer, turtles, bats, iguanas, emerald basilisk and even Jesus Christ Lizards, as well as numerous tropical plants and diverse fish population such as snook, Wolf Cichlid or Guapote (Parachromis dovii), Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula), Drums or Hardheads, Garfishes (Belone belone) – half fish half mammal, with lungs gills and nose, the huge Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) which can weigh up to 90 kg, and even Bull Sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), giving to vacationing fishermen a good shot at reeling in some trophies during fishing season inside the Frío River, which extends from September to March.
The Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge daytime temperatures are quite warm and it is usually very humid, where temperature ranges from 21ºC (70ºF) to 32ºC (90ºF), with an annual precipitation average of some 120 inches. Although this refuge is on the Atlantic side of Costa Rica, it is far enough inland in the northern plains to have a weather pattern with a short but distinct dry season from December to April.
Throughout the dry months, the refuge can be easily accessed by road, as during this time many of the swamps and wetlands dry up. The resulting lagoon filled basin attracts thousands of birds flying overhead. During the rainy season boats are the main form of transportation as flooding causes many of the roads to be inaccessible for vehicles.
In order to visit Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, it’s necessary to join a day tour. These tours pick up guests from the Arenal area hotels at 7:30 a.m. to Los Chiles, a 1½ hour drive. Visitors are required to have a copy of their passport on hand, as the tour begins near a checkpoint with the Nicaraguan border.
Once guests arrive to Los Chiles they will board a boat and begin the tour. The tour consists of a four-hour floating safari along the Frío River, a slow-flowing river through canyons, tropical rainforest, pastures, and marshland on its way to the Caño Negro Lake. Once the tour is over, guests will re-board the bus and be back at their hotels by 4:30 p.m. Visitors are advised to bring light clothing, bug repellent, sun block, camera and binoculars. Also, it is important to make clear that the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge tour does not actually bring visitors within the refuge, only near it. However, the area just outside the park is just as spectacular as the area inside, so visitors don’t need to worry about missing out on anything.
Other nearby Costa Rica parks includes Las Camelias National Wildlife Refuge, Arenal Volcano Emergency Zone Forest Reserve, Arenal Volcano National Park and Corredor Fronterizo Costa Rica – Nicaragua National Wildlife Refuge.
Getting to Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge:
Take the Pan-American Highway from San Jose to Ciudad Quesada also known as San Carlos, then drive toward Los Chiles, near the Nicaraguan border. About 4 miles before you reach Los Chiles, you will see the exit to the new bridge to Caño Negro. In Los Chiles, a number of boats are kept at the town dock, which can be hired for the approximately 15 km trip upriver to Playuelas on the northern edge of the refuge.
An alternative approach is to drive to Upala (especially for those coming from Guanacaste) and continue east on a gravel road for 36 km until reaching the village of Caño Negro. Here dugout canoes can be hired for exploration of the marsh area.
You can take a bus San José – Los Chiles, which takes about 5:30 hours (Auto Transportes San Carlos, 2255-4318). Or, you can also take a bus San José – Upala, which takes about 5 hours (Transportes Upala, 2221-3318). There is a bus that runs from Upala to Caño Negro.
You can also take a flight from the Juan Santamaria Airport to the Los Chiles or Arenal Airport, either with Sansa Airlines or Nature Air every day. From the Arenal Airpot you can rent a car and drive to the refuge, which takes about 1.5 hours.
Location: 291 km (80 miles) straight north from San Jose, southeast of the town of Los Chiles, districts: Los Chiles, Caño Negro, El Amparo, canton: Los Chiles, province: Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Los Chiles GPS Coordinates: 11°01’53.37″N, 84°42’44.42″W
Size: 9.969 hectares (25,100 acres)
Altitude: from 30m to 100m (100ft to 330 ft) above sea level
Arenal Huetar Norte Conservation Area (ACA-HN) Telephone: +(506) 2460-0055
Ranger station phone number: +(506) 2471-1309
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192