Marino Ballena is a national park on the edges of the Osa Peninsula. The Peninsula is the wildest and remotest part of Costa Rica. It supports at least half of all species living in the country. The Peninsula is also one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. With studies estimating that it is home to 2.5% of the entire world’s biodiversity, despite covering an area of just 700 square miles!
Marino Ballena National Park is named after the humpback whales that migrate through the area twice a year. The Park even has a naturally formed ‘whale tale’ made up of a rocky peninsula that juts out from the shoreline into the ocean. Alongside humpbacks, the waters of the Park are home to spotted and bottlenose dolphins, the largest coral reef on the Pacific Coast of Central America, as well as nesting olive ridley and hawksbill turtles.
Beyond the ocean lies a beautiful golden sand beach which plays host to some truly spectacular sunsets. The beach is fringed with mangroves and rich green rainforest which extends up into the hills beyond the coast. This forest supports a whole range of Costa Rica’s spectacular terrestrial wildlife including capuchin and howler monkeys, coatis, hummingbirds, macaws, sloths, and toucans.
Average rating: 5.0 (very good)
Best time to visit: there are two main whale watching seasons – December to February and July to October. The latter is the best time for whale sightings as numbers are much higher and the whales are more active. However, it is the rainy season. The dry season – December to May – is a good time to visit for hiking, trips to Corcovado, diving at the nearby Cano Island, and beach lounging.
How to get there: the main entry point to the Park is the town of Uvita on Costa Rica’s coast. We stayed there for a week and it’s a great place to access the beach, hiking trails through the mangrove forest, whale watching tours, as well as day trips to Cano Island or Corcovado. If you stay further back in the hills you have access to the tropical rainforest. We spent a further week in a hotel in Ojochal which had panoramic views of the forest and coastline.
Typical activities: beach lounging, hiking, sunset watching, swimming, whale watching
Number of reports: 1
Last updated: 2022
WILDLIFE IN Marino Ballena
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the top ten most popular species that can be seen here are:
#1 Humpback whale – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Costa Rica has the longest humpback whale season in the world and Marino Ballena is fast becoming a whale-watching mecca! This is because California humpbacks migrate down from the northern hemisphere to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast from December to February, while Antarctic humpbacks migrate up from the southern hemisphere from July to October. This makes the waters around the Park an amazing spot for humpback watching.
The best time to see whales is during the main whale watching season starting in July. During this time the males compete for mates by leaping out of the water in spectacular fashion. There is even a whale watching festival in September! You can see them earlier in the year but there are fewer whales around and they are less active. Humpbacks are easy to spot on any of the whale watching tours that leave from the main street in Uvita. You can also usually arrange trips from your hotel or hostel.
#2 Spotted dolphin – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Another cetacean you can spot in Marino Ballena National Park is the pantropical spotted dolphin. Unlike the whales, you can see dolphins year-round. Spotted dolphins are fast and agile, often performing acrobatic leaps as they race through the water. They hunt out in the open water in large pods. A good tip for spotting them is to look out for brown boobies diving into the water. When the dolphins are feeding they force the fish up to the surface which attracts diving birds – and provides a helpful signal to dolphin watchers! Spotted dolphins have dark backs and pale stomachs. The number of spots varies and some don’t have any spots at all.
#3 Bottlenose dolphin – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The rich waters of Marino Ballena also support another dolphin species, the bottlenose dolphin. These are larger and a more uniform grey colouring than the spotted dolphin. They are also rarer and less likely to be encountered on a boat trip. You are most likely to see them feeding close to shore, unlike the spotted dolphins which feed out in the open seas. Like spotted dolphins, however, they are resident and you can spot them year-round.
#4 Howler monkey – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Mantled howler monkeys are one of the most common, and largest, of the monkey species found in Costa Rica. You can spot them along the walking trails in the mangrove areas of the Park. We even saw them in the trees above us when we were sunbathing on the beach! Howlers are generally less active than other monkeys so can easily be overlooked – look out for reddish-brown balls in the treetops. Alternatively, if you are staying in one of the lodges further up in the hills near Ojochal you can often hear them in the morning. Waking up to their booming calls as the dawn breaks is an unforgettable jungle experience!
#5 Hummingbird – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Costa Rica is a paradise for hummingbirds – providing a home to 52 different species. Marino Ballena itself supports around 11 species including the beautiful talamanca, ruby-throated, and charming hummingbirds. You can see them year-round and the chances of encountering one are pretty high. There are a number of bird watching tours available from the agencies in the area, or you can sit out in many of the hotel, restaurant, or hostel gardens and look out for them flitting from flower to flower.
#6 Scarlet macaw – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Costa Rica is home to two species of macaw – the scarlet and the great green. Scarlet macaws can be found along the Pacific coast while great green macaws prefer the Caribbean coast. Marino Ballena is a great place to look out for scarlet macaws thanks to the abundance of good habitat. We saw them feeding in the trees along the beach regularly when we were there. They are often seen in pairs, groups of 3-4, or occasionally larger flocks of up to 30. You can’t really miss macaws if they are around, thanks to their loud squawks, large size, and striking colours.
#7 Sloth – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
There are two species of sloth that live in Costa Rica – the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth and the brown-throated sloth. You can spot these curious creatures year-round – although the brown-throated sloth is more commonly sighted. The Hoffman’s two-toed sloth is nocturnal, so can be more difficult to see. While the brown-throated sloth is smaller and slightly more active. To spot them listen closely for rustling and look up at the canopy where they spend most of their time. Their camouflage and slow movement make them difficult to spot so it may be worth taking a guided tour (try one of the birding tours or the trips to Corcovado). When we stayed in Ojochal, the staff at our hotel helped us to find some of these fantastic animals.
#8 Toucan – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Toucans are one of the most easily recognisable birds in Latin America, and one of the unofficial symbols of Costa Rica. There are six different species of toucan in Costa Rica. The Park and surrounding forests are home to the two most spectacular of these, the chestnut-mandibled and the keel-billed toucan. The former are easily recognised by their yellow throats, green eye patches, and large yellow and brown beaks. While the latter have beautiful rainbow coloured beaks. Try joining a birding tour to spot one, or you may get lucky at your hotel. We stayed at Hotel Three Sixty where each evening at 5 pm it’s toucan time. On cue every night a noisy flock of toucans descend on the trees around the bar to feast on the fruits! Reports on TripAdvisor also suggest that La Cusinga Eco Lodge is a good bet for toucan spotting.
#9 Capuchin monkey – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Panamanian white-faced capuchin is native to the forests of Central America. They are highly social and, on average, live in groups of around 16 individuals. Capuchins are known for their distinctive appearance – mostly black fur, with white fur covering their neck, throat, chest, shoulders, and upper arms. They are less common than the howler monkeys but can be seen along the walking trails in the forested sections of the Park. Look out for them lounging and grooming other troop members on tree branches near to the trails. Keep a hold of your snacks though, as you may find one rummaging around your bag if you aren’t careful!
#10 Coati – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The white-nosed coati is very well known in Costa Rica – they are found throughout the country, although mostly near the coast. They share some similarities with North American racoons but have an elongated snout with a white tip. Coatis also have a long tail that they use for balance and signalling. They are often found in large groups of 10 to 30. We spotted them in the forest trails around our hotel in Ojochal. If you do see them make sure to keep an eye on any snacks you’re carrying – the coatis will be keen to find an easy meal!
Photo credit: WildSide team member Chris White