The Best Places to See Sloths in Costa Rica

Sloths are among Costa Rica’s most iconic animals.

Don’t just take my word for it. In recent years, Costa Rica’s TV advertising campaigns in the United States have featured anthropomorphic sloths doing everything from singing a cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to explaining why Costa Rica is one of the happiest countries in the world.

Baby brown-throated three-toed sloth
Baby Brown-throated three-toed sloth

Sloths are plentiful in Costa Rica — they’re among the most common animals in the rainforest. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to find. They are, after all, experts at camouflage.

Here are some tips on where and how to see sloths in Costa Rica.

What Type of Sloths Are in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is home to two types of sloths: The Brown-throated sloth (a three-fingered sloth) and the Hoffman’s two-fingered sloth.

Note that while most people call sloths “two-toed” or “three-toed,” the reality is both species have three toes in their hind feet — it’s the digits on their arms that differ.

Costa Rica’s two-fingered sloths are nocturnal, while the three-fingered sloths are more active during the day. This can make the latter easier to spot. Three-fingered sloths are also more popular with wildlife spotters because their faces give them the appearance of an ever-present smile.

Hoffman’s two-fingered sloths have big, round eyes, pig-like noses, and thick fur that is usually brown or tan.

Two-fingered sloths’ nocturnal lifestyles and their less-happy-looking faces mean they’re sometimes ignored in favor of their more smiley sloth relatives, but both species are — at least in my opinion — equally fascinating.

Costa Rica’s Sloths: Habitat, Behavior and Fun Facts

Hoffman’s two-fingered sloths typically live in tropical forests below 10,000 feet of elevation. They prefer to stay hidden in the rainforest canopy in trees that receive sunlight.

Two-fingered sloth hangs upside down
Two-fingered sloth hangs upside down

The Brown-throated three-fingered sloths occupy a similar habitat, though they’re usually found closer to sea level where it’s warmer — on both Costa Rica’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

The sloth habitat comprises tropical rainforests, subtropical lowlands and semi-deciduous forests throughout much of Central America, including Costa Rica, and into South America.

Sloths are solitary and spend the majority of their lives either sleeping or moving slowly throughout the canopy. Like an owl, a sloth can turn its head up to 270 degrees — almost enough to look directly behind itself.

Though sloths usually prefer to remain hidden from predators — big cats and birds — by staying in the canopy, they do descend to firm land on occasion. The most common occurrence is when they defecate, which occurs just once a week. But sloths don’t remain at ground-level for long since their long claws make walking difficult.

Sloths are excellent fast swimmers, and this comes in handy when rivers create gaps in the forest canopy.

Finally, while sloths aren’t inherently dangerous, they are territorial and have been known to bite or slash if provoked. Sloths also maintain a symbiotic relationship with algae that grows in their fur — so it’s best to keep your distance!

Where to See Sloths in Costa Rica

Sloths live throughout Costa Rica, but unlike a bright-red macaw or chittering capuchin monkey, you probably won’t see one unless you’re specifically looking for them.

That said, some areas of Costa Rica are better than others to see sloths. Here are a few of the country’s most popular sloth-watching destinations:

  • Manuel Antonio National Park: Wild animals are never a guarantee, but you’re virtually assured to see sloths (and monkeys) at Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica’s most popular national park.
  • Corcovado National Park: All visitors to Costa Rica’s most biologically intense national park are required to enter with a guide. He or she will be on the lookout for the arboreal mammals among the flora and fauna.
  • Tortuguero National Park: This hard-to-reach national park means it’s also a great place to see animals in their natural habitat.
  • Cahuita National Park: Bordering the Caribbean Sea, Cahuita National Park has beach access and trails through the forest where sloths and monkeys are common to see.

For the best odds at seeing sloths, it’s best to hike with a guide. If you want to try your own luck, keep your eyes peeled for stationary balls of fur in the forest canopy.

Sloth Sanctuaries in Costa Rica

If you absolutely must see a sloth, visiting one of the many animal rescue centers in Costa Rica is a worthwhile option. (This is an especially good idea if you’re visiting Costa Rica with kids, who might not have the patience for long walks through the jungle!) The entrance fees help support the care and rehabilitation of animals so they can be released back into the wild.

And, you’re virtually guaranteed to see and learn about Costa Rica’s sloths.

Sloth in Rescue Centre in San Jose
Sloth in Rescue Centre in San Jose

Here are some popular reserves and rescue centers where you can see a sloth in Costa Rica:

  • Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica (near Cahuita, Limón): Founded in 1992, this is Costa Rica’s original sloth sanctuary.
  • Toucan Rescue Ranch (near San Isidro, Heredia): Just north of San José, Toucan Rescue Ranch is among the most respected names in animal rehabilitation and release.
  • La Paz Waterfall Gardens (on Poás Volcano): Among the most popular private reserves in Costa Rica, La Paz houses many animals — including sloths — as part of its many attractions.

Holding a Sloth in Costa Rica

As a country with nearly 30% of its land allocated to national parks, reserves or refuges, it’s no secret Costa Rica takes environmental protection seriously.

In 2019, Costa Rica made it illegal to take a selfie with a wild animal. Despite their tranquil appearance, handling a sloth can cause it physical and emotional harm. Just like humans, sloths don’t like hugs from strangers, so please keep a respectful distance from sloths and other wild animals!

Costa Rica’s Environment Ministry also forbids guests at animal sanctuaries from handling sloths.

If you suspect a tour operator or sanctuary in Costa Rica is breaking the law, you can file an anonymous report with the Environment Ministry online at the SITADA website. Thank you for helping to keep Costa Rica’s wildlife truly wild!

Even if you’re not physically close to a sloth, it’s relatively easy to take a high-quality photo of one because they stay so still. Rainforest guides usually carry telescopes and will help you snap a memorable photo.

If all else fails, Juan Santamaría International Airport near San José has a stuffed sloth photo booth after the security checkpoint as part of Costa Rica’s #StopAnimalSelfies campaign.

Remember, while Costa Rica’s sloths aren’t endangered, they are threatened by deforestation and human interference. You can help make a difference by being a responsible tourist.

Summary: Sloths in Costa Rica

While you may not sob tears of joy when you see a sloth (a la Kristen Bell), the adorable mammals are at the top of many tourists’ wish lists when they visit Costa Rica.

Thankfully, no matter what region of Costa Rica you explore, you have a good chance at seeing at least one of the country’s most iconic animals. Sloths are prevalent in the Costa Rican wilderness, virtually everyone loves finding one, and there are many organizations dedicated to protecting Costa Rica’s two endemic species.

Just remember — if you see a sloth, keep a respectful and safe distance. And Kristen Bell, if you’re reading this, please try to keep it together.

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