(2021) Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge: Know This Before You Visit

Last updated on January 30th, 2021 at 09:06 pm EST

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Why we love the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

As an avid birdwatcher, fewer places top Ricky’s annual to-do list than the Cano Negro Mixed Wildlife Refuge (more commonly known as the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge). This calm, quiet, and beautiful refuge comprised of rivers, lagoons, marshes, and swamps forms a haven for resident and migratory birds, not to mention other kinds of wildlife. Thanks to its location in Costa Rica’s north-central region (it nearly touches the border shared with Nicaragua), the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge is a peaceful place to retreat to away from the thrilling adventures that await further south in and around La Fortuna.

Note that at the core of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge is the very small community of Cano Negro. Throughout our article, you’ll see the refuge cited as the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the community cited as Cano Negro.

We absolutely love visiting the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge. If you’re curious why, see our quick list of reasons below.

Reasons to visit the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

  • The Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge invites exploration of wetland ecosystems
  • The Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge provides fantastic bird-watching opportunities (resident and migratory species) during the driest months of the year (January, February, March, and April)
  • The Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge provides great bird-watching opportunities year-round (mainly resident species between May and December)
  • Cano Negro boat tours offer a relaxing, easy, and comfortable way to explore nature and see wildlife
  • Thanks to the refuge’s tall, 18-meter tower that overlooks the lagoon, there’s a place to snap spectacular, panoramic shots of the refuge
  • The boardwalk at El Sitio is wheelchair-accessible and well-maintained
  • Visits support residents and businesses in the small community of Cano Negro
  • From most popular destinations, including La Fortuna and San Jose, travel to Cano Negro doesn’t require a 4×4 vehicle

Boating on Rio Frio and the Cano Negro lagoon

Rio Frio

Though sections of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge can be explored on foot, the most common way to experience Cano Negro is via a guided boat tour (see the “Ways to experience the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge” section below for details).

The essence of Cano Negro boat tours is the slow-moving trip you’ll make down the flat Rio Frio (Frio River). During the journey, you’ll float down wide-open sections of the river where the water appears glass-like and mirrors the surrounding landscape. You’ll also pass through narrow canals where brush along the river’s banks comes within arm’s reach. No matter where you float–past pastureland, alongside local fishermen, or through collections of water lilies–all is quiet. If you’re in search of a tranquil place where you can explore Costa Rica’s natural environment in an immersive yet non-evasive way, in the seat of a boat that travels down Rio Frio is where you want to be.

Cano Negro lagoon

Depending on the time of year you visit the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, you may or may not be able to boat on the large, nearly 2,000-acre Cano Negro lagoon, which is considered a complementary add-on experience (if/when available) to boating trips down Rio Frio. Large numbers of birds, especially migratory birds known to visit between January and April, tend to congregate around the lagoon.

During wet months (typically May through December), when the refuge floods with rainwater, the Cano Negro lagoon is accessible by boat. Cano Negro boat tours that include a visit to the Cano Negro lagoon provide an opportunity to float around the open lagoon in search of bird species. We’ve always had great luck seeing ospreys and cormorants flying overhead, in fact, our last boat trip to the Cano Negro lagoon during the wet season delivered us to a tree that houses a colony of hundreds of cormorants. Not only was it incredible to witness a gathering of more than one hundred cormorants all in one place, but it was a treat to hear their collective grunts, which sound like an orchestra of oinking pigs.

During dry months (typically January through April), when the refuge receives little rainfall, the lagoon has little to no water and becomes inaccessible by boat. Captains typically deliver boat tour participants as close as they can to the Cano Negro lagoon. You may also be able to get off the boat and explore the lagoon on foot. Our last visit to the Cano Negro lagoon during the dry season surprised us with a sighting of more than 50 light-pink roseate spoonbills. Our visit during the dry season also allowed us to spot far more caimans around the refuge because water levels were low.

Other features at the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Cano Negro tower

If you’re not scared of heights or sets of steep staircases, you may wish to climb to the top of the 18-meter Cano Negro tower that overlooks the Cano Negro lagoon. This attraction is only accessible by boat when the refuge floods, but when that’s the case, most captains can bring you to the spot during boat tours without problem. Though there isn’t anything to do at the top of the tower other than take in a beautiful view, it’s worth the ascent/descent if you want to see what the 25,000-acre Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge looks like from above.

Boardwalk and gazebo

In Cano Negro, at the government-operated site known as El Sitio (see the “Ways to experience the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge” section below for details), you’ll find a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that extends out over the water and a lovely, open-air gazebo you’re welcome to rest at. This is a great (and free) place to grab a seat and watch birds fly around the refuge. Note that the boardwalk is arched, so visitors in wheelchairs should be accompanied by individuals who are strong enough to push chairs up slight inclines and prevent chairs from rolling down slight declines.

Bird-watching and wildlife-spotting at the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

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