To say Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is remote is an understatement. Located in Northern Costa Rica less than 10 miles (16 km) from the border with Nicaragua, travelers usually get here as part of group tours. Because we’re on a road trip (and we hate group tours) we drove ourselves to Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge from Rincon de la Vieja National Park, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro

The humble entrance to Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in northern Costa Rica.

Though the area is reached via a numbered highway (#4 to be exact) it was well into the process of crumbling apart leaving gaping potholes in the beleaguered pavement which required radical swerving and slow speeds to avoid the most cavernous among them. Welcome to Costa Rica where even the numbered highways will kill your car.

Boat tour Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

There are no trails in Costa Rica’s Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge so boats are the only way to go.

After such a jarring overland journey it was a relief to get into a boat. There are no trails in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge because it’s made up of 12 lagoons connected by waterways and Lake Caño Negro which is fed by the Rio Frio. Volcanoes loom in the distance (including Tenorio, Maravillas and Arenal). Animals surround you. And there’s not a pothole in sight.

Birding boat tour Cano Negro Costa Rica

On a clear day a whole string of volcanoes can be seen from Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, including Tenorio (seen here), Maravillas, Rincon de la Vieja and Arenal.

The animals of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

Volcanoes are cool and all, but the real highlight of any tour of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (US$35 per person including a guide/boatman, roughly 1.5 hours) is the wildlife. We saw caimans, a whole host of birds, huge fish, frogs, trees full of monkeys, cool lizards,and more (though the area’s pumas and jaguars took the day off). Here are some Caño Negro wildlife highlights.

Birdwatching Jicana Cano Negro, Costa Rica

A jicana hunts for lunch in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Caiman crocodile Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

This was one of the smaller caimans we saw in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.

Birding juvenile Tiger Heron Cano Negro Costa Rica

We saw or first juvenile tiger heron in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge and its stripy coloration (which they lose in adulthood) made their name make sense.

Basilisk Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

Can a lizard be sexy? We think this basking baselisk in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge comes close.

Birding Egret Cano Negro Costa Rica

An egret glides through Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Purple Gallinule birds of Cano Negro Costa Rica

This bird’s name, purple gallinule, is as impressive as its look.

Bird watching juvenile Jicana Cano Negro Costa Rica

A juvenile jicana tries its wings on for size in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Mantled Howler Monkey Cano Negro Costa Rica

This male mantled howler monkey was just hanging out on a branch over the water in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.

Touring waterways of Cano Negro Costa Rica

The shores of the waterways in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge are a haven for all kinds of critters.

Birding boat tour in Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve Costa Rica

The trail left behind by our boat as we toured Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge travel tips

We stayed at Caño Negro Natural Lodge (US$120 double including continental breakfast) which is located just a short stroll from where the tour boats depart from. The lodge has its own wildlife-filled grounds and a pool along with 42 motel-style rooms. Some have been recently renovated so be sure you get one of those.

During the dry season (November to March) the wetlands of the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge dry up considerably, shrinking the navigable area. For maximum access, visit in the wet season. Skies are clearest in October, affording the best views of Arenal Volcano, Tenorio Volcano, Maravillas Volcano, and Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the distance.

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica