Costa Rica is well-known for its incredibly diverse wildlife, but there are one species in particular that catches our attention… no other in the country has seemed to reach such dizzying heights of icon status as this adorable animal, and tourists on the way there are desperate to know the answer of where to see sloths in Costa Rica.
After the firsthand experience of unravelling the questions at hand, whilst travelling around the country in search of sloth, I hope to arm you with all the information you need to make this happen.
In this article, I will teach you the 2 different types of sloths to look out for in Costa Rica, educate you on your chances of seeing them, and tell you where you can see them and what to expect so that you can pick out which places speak to you.
Different Types of Sloths In Costa Rica
You will have the pleasure of witnessing two different types of sloths in Costa Rica; a two-toed sloth (AKA the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth) and a three-toed sloth (AKA the Brown-throated sloth).
Unsurprisingly, the naming of these different types of sloths comes from the fact that one breed of the little adorable little bastards has an extra appendage, making it distinct from the other.
An important note about these two different types of sloths; the two-toed sloth actually has 3 toes, just like the three-toed sloth does! It’s an extra finger (the claws on their arms) that they have compared to the two “toed” sloths, probably lost in Latin translation to English at some point.
The chances are high that you will see both types of sloths in Costa Rica, so read on to know how to tell the difference between the two, aside from the obvious.
Two-Toed Sloths (Hoffman’s two-toed sloth)
The two-toed sloth is a nocturnal animal with larger eyes than its extra-toed furry Costa Rica citizens. They have distinguishable white-ringed faces, brown noses and rugged coats.
Due to their sleeping pattern, they are the most elusive of the two species of sloths in Costa Rica. Even when you do see one, they are more than likely to be getting some much-needed sleep in during the darker hours.
If you really want to see a two-toed sloth awake then be sure to book a night hike in one of the national parks mentioned later on in this article.
Three-Toed Sloths (Brown-throated sloth)
Aside from the distinguishable hand digit difference from the two-toed sloth, the three-toed sloth has a rounder face and a shorter nose. This type of sloth is the more known, iconic sloth of Costa Rica that you often see snapped with a big heartwarming smile.
Three-toed sloths are found closer to sea level in Costa Rica like Puerto Viejo, Uvita and the Osa Peninsula, to name only a few.
Are Both Types of The Sloths in Costa Rica Related?
Interestingly, the two types of sloths that you will see in Costa Rica are not related and are a byproduct of convergent evolution, a phenomenon brought to us by nature when two entirely different species evolve to adopt the same traits by adapting to the similar, or the exact same environment.
Differences aside, the two species of sloth share a lot of commonalities. They both live in trees, eat the same kind of diet (mainly herbivorous based on twigs, leaves, and shoots with some insects) although the two-toed sloth has a slightly more varied diet.
They both use their strong claws to hang upside down from the trees in which they live…and they both impressively give birth upside-down!
As they are from a separate family the two-toed sloth and the three-toed sloth can not mate with one another.
13 Fun Facts About Costa Rican Sloths
While some exotic animals are celebrated for their size, scariness or majestic nature, sloths are revered for their seeming laziness and never to rush attitude. Even the Spanish word for a sloth, “perezoso” is quite simply the same as it is for the word “lazy.”
Let’s take a closer look at their behaviours and the reasons behind them with these quick sloth facts for beginners list.
- The three-toed sloths are the slowest mammal on the whole planet earth.
- Sloths live from 20-30 years in the wild.
- Sloths live in canopies, constantly hiding from predators such as large cats and birds of prey.
- Sloths poop (and pee) only one time a week. They prefer to avoid predatorial animals and with them being very slow, it’s a dangerous trip to their bathroom, which is on the ground.
- Their long claws make it difficult to walk.
- Sloths can pull, but not push. Makes sense when you see one walk, as they pull themselves along the ground via their front claws.
- Sloths are fantastic natural swimmers.
- Their diets mainly consist of leaves, which are low in calories but sloths have adapted to have lower metabolic rates and body temperature to balance this out.
- A sloth can turn its head 270 degrees, twisting its neck to look directly behind itself.
- Sloths become incredibly stressed when held by humans. (More on that in this post below).
- Fungi, algae, and moths thrive by growing on the fur of sloths, which also provides camouflage for sloths from hunting animals.
- Sloths can’t survive outside the tropical rain forests of Central and South America.
- An adult sloth is three times stronger than the average human.
Where To See Sloths in Costa Rica
You are much more likely to see a spontaneous sloth in Costa Rica on the Caribbean Coast as opposed to the Pacific Coast, which tends to be a little too dry for the sloth’s liking.
I saw sloths hanging outside of lodges that I stayed at along the Caribbean coastline in Tortuguero and Puerto Viejo, (mostly in trees) and even a few on the side of the road considering a brave saunter to the other side.
If you are really emotionally involved in seeing a sloth in the wild then your best bet is to visit a national park in this region park with a guide.
The exception to this rule is that the more south you go on the pacific side, the more chance you have of seeing sloths and other interesting Costa Rican wildlife due to favourable all-year round weather conditions for them.
Try not to fret too much. Costa Rica is pretty much the best country in the world to see a sloth in the wild, due to the aforementioned weather and the government’s famously intense conservation efforts in recent years.
4 National Parks To See Sloths in Costa Rica (Along The Caribbean Coast)
You’ll get a really good bang for your buck looking for sloths in Costa Rica’s national parks on the Caribbean coast. The chances are high for a spotting, they are well-protected and you also have the bonus of potentially seeing other species in their habitat.
Here are four well-known national parks in Costa Rica from the Caribbean side for seeing sloths in the wild, including the usual important travel logistics.
1. Cahuita National Park
If you’re beating the well-travelled Costa Rica trail, you’ll end up in Cahuita town, a sleepy but charming place in Limon Province, by the border of Panama.
The district boasts a decent percentage of the country’s natural beauty, so it’s no surprise that there is a cherished national park in this area. There are decent chances of seeing a sloth in Cahuita National Park, I saw 4 two-toed sloths during my half-day there although they also have three-toed sloths living there.
- It’s free entry (a donation is an option)
- It’s the most easily accessible national park in Costa Rica (town to national park travel is easy-peasy)
- Open 6am-4pm
- Other cool wildlife: Howler monkeys, long-legged spider monkeys, coatis, poison dart-toads
- Local beaches are lovely
- It’s close to Puerto Viejo (a popular tourist stop)
- Local tourist guides can be a little pushy for you to give them business as you walk around
- Aggressive monkeys (be careful with your food on display)
2. Tortuguero National Park
Also located in Limon Province, Tortuguero National Park is known for its abundance of wildlife, including our beloved sloths of course.
Chances of seeing a few here are also not too shabby with both the two-toed and three-toed species being known to make an appearance during wildlife-spotting hikes in the park, I saw 2 immediately upon walking into the park.
- The park is a couple of hours’ drive from the capital, San Jose
- Other cool wildlife: Capuchin monkeys, toucans, kingfishers, caiman, crocodile and most notably sea turtles – which is actually the main attraction as it’s an important nesting site, with a solid conservation effort to help protect this endangered species
- Many of the guides are cool, indigenous locals who are incredibly impressive at spotting sloths (and other animals)
- The park is not very well maintained in parts and has plastic garbage lying around
- The local town to base yourself in is very boring
- $15 USD admission fee is not good value for money when compared to other national parks and what they have as a full package
3. La Amistad National Park
La Amistad National Park is a World Heritage Site straddling Costa Rica and Panama and is also the largest national park in the country.
This remote part of the Talamanca Range gives birth to a multitude of gorgeous trails for hardcore hikers. But that’s not why you’re here, so what are the chances of seeing a sloth in La Amistad National Park?
To be honest, your chances are very slim. Doable, but not probable compared to the other picks here, but it’s worth pointing this out in case you were heading this way.
- Relatively cheap admission ($10 USD)
- Local guides are friendly low-pressure and relaxed
- Fewer tourists (off the beaten track)
- Hikes could be too hard if you’re not very experienced or fit
- Sloth sightings are possible, but not worth putting all your hopes into seeing them in this particular park, as others have a much better chance
4. Arenal Volcano National Park
I’m admittedly being a little bit cheeky adding this one in the Caribbean coast side as it’s located in the centre of northern Costa Rica, but I thought it was worth an honourable mention because I saw sloths here, it’s beautiful and it’s also a perfect day trip from La Fortuna.
Whilst there aren’t high volumes of sloths in Arenal, the chances of seeing them are high as there is a trail located 600 metres from the park, which is famous for sloths chilling out there in their own habitat.
- The volcano is beautiful on a clear day, especially if you catch it with the smoke coming out of the top
- Easy hike for those with lower fitness levels or no desire to hike to see a sloth in the wild
- Hot springs are nearby for an additional fun activity
- It’s relatively small, so not worth the effort unless you’re passing through there already
- Not a great amount of wildlife in comparison to others
- You can’t climb the volcano (it’s not permitted and illegal)
- Personally, I don’t think the $15 USD admission fee lived up to my highly volcanic expectations
3 National Parks To See Sloths in Costa Rica (Along The Pacific Coast)
The Caribbean coast side of Costa Rica may be the most efficient place where to see sloths in Costa Rica, but that doesn’t mean you’ll leave the Pacific coast side disappointed.
Although they may be a little shyer, less in numbers and more elusive to spot; there are still options to get your dose of these delightful, ridiculous creatures.
1. Corcovado National Park
Gear up for this one, folks. This place is not only gorgeous but also described by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth,” due to its size and also high concentration of diverse animals and plants.
This national park is absolutely teeming with wildlife.
You will see many endangered species here in their natural habitat and this is quite possibly your best chance of seeing both species of sloth in the wild.
- It’s so diverse that a sloth sighting is almost a guarantee
- Much extra cool wildlife to potentially spot (this national park has over 50% of the country’s biodiversity)
- Requires additional air travel due to isolated location and at $300 USD each way (or you can travel via boat from Drake Bay)
- Tour guides are mandatory here
2. Manuel Antonio National Park
Expect more busy human traffic at this park, particularly during peak season but sloth-seeing bucket list collectors should consider a guide for this park.
If you go during shoulder season you might luck out with fewer tourists, but with the park being a lot smaller and more degradation to part of its trails, you might have to manage your expectations if you have been to national parks within the country with more funding maintenance.
While seeing a sloth here is certainly doable, the often overcrowded park is best explored with an experienced guide if you don’t want to leave disappointed, bereft of a sloth-spotting.
- Big chance of seeing both kinds of sloths (most important pro)
- Beautiful local beaches
- Other cool wildlife to spot: White-faced monkeys, iguana, white-tailed deer and chameleons
- The place is really badly organised, you will queue longer than necessary and some shady locals will pose as staff for extra money
- Muggings are common in the nearby town of Quepos
3. Monteverde National Park
Nearby Santa Elena is a popular tourist hub and also a gateway to visit Monteverde National Park. The cloud forest here is complete eye-candy, but you have to earn its beauty as the roads are sketchy to navigate (you will need a 4×4 to access the park if you’re not paying for a tour).
Once you get there you’ll see that the trails are well looked after and well-prepped for a sighting of those adorable balls of fluff.
You can see sloths here, but with a slight caveat; only the two-toed sloth inhabits Monteverde.
And remember that this type of sloth is nocturnal, so you are more than likely going to have a successful sloth viewing in Monteverde during a night hike with a guide.
- As far as National Park restaurants go, the in-house restaurant was very impressive and even has vegetarian options
- Multiple trails to explore (if you’re that way inclined)
- Paths are easy to follow and well-maintained
- Those looking to see a sloth are limited to one species of sloth and more than likely only to have a successful viewing of one during the nighttime
- $25 USD admission fee before potential (hard-selling) tourist guides is not the best value for money
4 Sloth Sanctuaries in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has some high-quality sanctuaries to see sloths that have been rescued and protected from other bad human behaviour or just general bad luck down to being the slowest mammal on earth!
While many faux animal sanctuaries exist in the world, these 4 have a gold star reputation of not only where to see sloths in Costa Rica, but genuine welfare and concern for the animals.
I’m going to assume one of three things here.
The first is that you’re embracing the sloth attitude and you simply can’t be arsed to do all the adventurous Costa Rica stuff, so you’d rather visit a responsible sloth sanctuary instead.
The second is that you’ve tried and failed to see sloths in the wild and that this section is your last chance saloon.
The third is that you’re like me and you’re greedy. You are a sloth addict now and after clearing out the national parks you also want to visit a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica, safe in the knowledge that your money is supporting a good institution.
The following sloth sanctuaries in Costa Rica have been hand-picked by me after hours of intense due diligence and personal experience.
1. Aviarios del Caribe
Also known as the wildly creative name of “Sloth Sanctuary,” this establishment in Cahuita was the original rescue centre for orphaned, injured and abandoned sloths.
The Sloth Sanctuary studies and observes the animals and its findings work in unison with other sloth sanctuaries around Costa Rica.
Guaranteed viewing of both the two-toed and three-toed sloth in this pioneer of Costa Rican sloth sanctuaries.
2. The Sloth Institute
Another sloth sanctuary in Cahuita with a glowing reputation for its welfare of sloths. The guides are fantastic and knowledgeable and you’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the animals regarding their habits and struggles.
Just like its neighbour listed above (Aviarios del Caribe) this institution is big on research, education and conservation.
According to the institute, they are not an official sloth sanctuary, but a non-profit organisation with a focus on sloth welfare and behaviour. Regardless of semantics, The Sloth Institute is still a worthy addition to the list of sloth sanctuaries in Costa Rica.
3. Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary
If you haven’t exceeded your daily quota of cuteness, check out these 2 baby sloths from both species of sloth in the video above, recorded at Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary in Dominical.
You have very good odds of seeing not one, but many sloths here, including baby sloths. Not sure you can get much better than that!
4. Jaguar Rescue Center
Yep, you read it correctly. It says Jaguar, but the reality after visiting this place is that the sloths get quite a lot of the limelight here, I felt like they were the main attraction and the majestic jaguar was more of an afterthought.
The jaguar is a mere cool addition to the centre, but like most big cats it’s incredibly isolated and elusive by nature. I saw many sloths in this place while staying in Puerto Viejo and thoroughly enjoyed getting one more sloth fix.
There wasn’t too much human traffic and the animals looked well on their way to rehabilitation. This place is an absolute must-do while visiting Puerto Viejo.
The extra wildlife there was a lovely cherry on a very sweet cake after getting more than a fair share of sloth-spotting during my time in Costa Rica.
Where Can I Hold a Sloth in Costa Rica?
The Costa Rican government takes their wildlife protection so seriously that they made it illegal in 2019 for people to take selfies with any type of wild animal, hammering home their point with an aggressive #StopAnimalSelfies social media campaign.
According to a study by World Animal Protection, although the animals seem smiley and relaxed while hugging humans, sloths in their natural state that were handled by tourists felt heightened anxiety and fear, reduced appetite, followed by sleepless nights after the well-intentioned embrace.
I’m sorry to be that guy, wagging his finger disapprovingly at you but a better question than “can I hold a sloth in Costa Rica,” is “should I hold a sloth in Costa Rica?”
I know, I know. No one likes a smart-arse, but hear me out…
For starters – I’m not judging, I wanted to hold one too and for full disclosure, I once shared an embrace with a similar-looking Papua New Guinea animal known as the “cuscus” a few years before my Costa Rica trip.
That was long before I started to think deeply about the ethical dilemmas of animal tourism. This concern led to information which resulted in me making peace with the fact that I would not be hugging these absurdly cute creatures while travelling in Costa Rica and much like the nervous suicidal Tarsier; I gave the sloth plenty of space while I admired its existence.
An extra reason to just admire these creatures from (reasonably) afar is the establishments that allow you to hug sloths at your request are quite possibly a cog in the wheel of a nefarious business operation where sloths are taken from their habitat, purely for the sake of sloth-selfies in faux-sanctuaries.
Summary: 8 Guaranteed Tips For Seeing a Sloth in Costa Rica
I hope that after reading this post you are feeling the same peace of mind that I left Costa Rica with, safe in the knowledge that you will get to see sloths during your visit.
You may have to do some planning and prioritising before or during your trip, but if you follow this guide it shouldn’t be too long before you are the envy of your cute-animal loving friends and family.
You should be an expert by now, but just in case you weren’t listening/reading with full attention due to the cute sloth photos, here is a reminder for a guaranteed sloth sighting in Costa Rica…
- Memorise and look out for a Cecropia Tree (pictured above). The Three-toed sloths love to hang out here.
- Focus on the Caribbean Coast if you are short on time and want to see sloths in the wild.
- If you are on the Pacific Coast then venture south to see sloths in the wild.
- Go to National Parks and pay extra for an experienced guide if you’re really keen on improving your chances.
- The two-toed sloth is nocturnal, so best to hire a night guide to see one, or simply visit a sanctuary.
- The two-toed sloth has a more varied diet. So they are easier to reintroduce, meaning a sanctuary is your best bet if you haven’t seen one yet on your sloth mission.
- Remember that sanctuaries that allow you to hold sloths are not legitimate sanctuaries. It’s best to fund an establishment that will use your money for the welfare of Costa Rica’s beloved animal.
- Look out for sloths in the water! Sloths are actually very competent swimmers and you might see one taking a dip if you’re lucky.
Now you are an expert on where to see sloths in Costa Rica, the subtle differences between these two endemic species and how to make sure you don’t leave the country without the painful, inconsolable dread of a sloth-less experience.