Hundreds of articles on Costa Rica trip planning, travel in Costa Rica, and saving money, plus free discounts. Pura vida!

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

NEW! Our awesome Costa Rica Destination Tool filters 66 destinations by nearly 150 criteria to help you quickly and easily decide where to go in Costa Rica according to your unique preferences, wants, and needs. Learn more and access the tool on our sister site, DIY Costa Rica, here.

Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge: Know This Before You Visit

Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge: Know This Before You Visit

Last updated on July 19th, 2021 at 05:10 pm EST

Want to save money in Costa Rica?
Our sister site Pura Vida! eh? Inc. has Cano Negro tour discounts. Con mucho gusto (you’re welcome) and pura vida!
🙂

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

The Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge provides some of the best bird-watching in all of Costa Rica. Not only is spotting birds nearly guaranteed no matter when you visit, but there’s a big enough variety of species to keep seasoned birders entertained.

The list of birds you can see at the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge is far too long to recite. Instead, here’s a list of bird species that we’ve personally had the pleasure of seeing during our visits:

  • Herons, including night herons, green herons, little blue herons, great blue herons, and tiger herons
  • Egrets, including snowy egrets, great egrets, and cattle egrets
  • Spoonbills, including roseate spoonbills
  • Cormorants
  • Anhingas
  • Trogons
  • Hawks
  • Kingfishers
  • Flycatchers
  • Tanagers
  • Euphonias
  • Ospreys
  • Owls (thanks to our knowledgeable boat captain who knew in which tree along Rio Frio they typically sleep)

Wildlife of many other types resides in the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge but is more difficult to spot than the thousands of social birds that fly around on the regular. During our trips down Rio Frio and visits to the Cano Negro lagoon, we’ve seen:

  • Caimans, including spectacled caimans
  • Iguanas, including green iguanas
  • Lizards, including the common basilisk (a.k.a., Jesus Christ lizard)

We’ve also heard the call of howler monkeys from within the refuge.

Ways to experience the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Cano Negro is a laid-back destination, but planning a visit can be rather confusing given that there are several ways you can explore the refuge. To help clear up the confusion, below we outline 5 different ways you can experience the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge or its surrounding area.

Via a Cano Negro boat tour that departs from the central dock in the community of Cano Negro

This option is ideal for travelers with a rental car

This way of experiencing the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge assumes you will get yourself to and from the community of Cano Negro via rental car or public bus. Once you arrive at the community of Cano Negro, you can hire a boat captain at the community’s central dock, which sits at the southeast end of the community. Though there are usually several boats and captains waiting at the dock, availability is not guaranteed. Availability is especially tough to come by during the busy high season (mid-December to April), which is nearly identical to the refuge’s optimal bird-watching season (January to April).

If you choose to take a boat tour from the central dock, you can park your rental vehicle at your own risk in the makeshift parking lot you’ll find at the dock. Locals stationed at the lot offer to keep watch over parked cars for tips.

Via a Cano Negro boat tour that departs from El Sitio in the community of Cano Negro

This option is ideal for travelers with a rental car

This way of experiencing the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge also assumes you will get yourself to and from the community of Cano Negro via rental car or public bus. Once you arrive at the community of Cano Negro, you can hire a boat captain at the MINAE (Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía) office known as El Sitio, which sits at the southwest end of the community. There are typically less boats and captains waiting at El Sitio than at the central dock. Also, here too, availability is not guaranteed, especially between mid-December and April.

If you choose to take a boat tour from El Sitio, you can park your rental vehicle at your own risk in MINAE’s free parking lot. The lot is sometimes, but not always, patrolled by a security guard.

Via a Cano Negro boat tour that departs from a private dock in or around the community of Cano Negro

This option is ideal for travelers with a rental car

When we plan to drive ourselves to and from Cano Negro (or take the bus), our preferred way of experiencing the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge is to prearrange a boat tour through a tour operator or hotel that’s based in or around the community of Cano Negro. With this option, availability can be guaranteed in advance. Several of the tour operators and hotels that are based in or around the community of Cano Negro staff their own captains and have private docks where their boat tours depart. This saves you from needing to track down an available boat and captain at either the central dock or El Sitio in the community of Cano Negro. This option may also help keep your rental vehicle safe as some tour operators and/or hotels provide boat tour participants with private parking.

As a heads up: During the dry season, when some parts of the refuge are without water, tour operators and/or hotels that normally run boat tours from private docks may need to use docks in other areas around Cano Negro where water levels are deep.

Via self-guided exploration from in or around the community of Cano Negro

This option is ideal for travelers with a rental car or travelers staying overnight in Cano Negro

If you’re the do-it-yourself type, you’ll be disappointed to learn that it isn’t possible to tour the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge on your own by boat (you’ll need to hire a captain to steer you around). A way you can provide yourself with at least some freedom to explore is to rent a kayak or canoe. A few hotels in and around the community of Cano Negro have this equipment to rent or to provide to hotel guests. If you’re wanting to explore Cano Negro on your own terms, consider spending a night or two in or around the community so you have ample time to explore the refuge at your own pace. Note that Cano Negro has only a few (modest) accommodations, there’s no bank or ATM in the vicinity, and there’s little to do apart from exploring the refuge, so plan to stay overnight in the area only if you’re comfortable with these conditions.

Via a Cano Negro boat tour that departs from outside the community of Cano Negro

This option is ideal for travelers without a rental car and/or travelers stationed in La Fortuna/Arenal

When we’re up in Costa Rica’s north-central region, particularly in the La Fortuna/Arenal area, and we wish to spend some time at the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, we like the option to reserve a Cano Negro boat tour through a tour operator or hotel that’s based outside of the community of Cano Negro.

This option is the most popular way to experience Cano Negro. It’s especially convenient for travelers stationed in or around La Fortuna who want to make a trip out to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and back in one day.

With this option, availability can be guaranteed in advance, plus transportation to and from the refuge and the tour operator’s home destination (La Fortuna, for example) is provided. Simply reserve a Cano Negro boat tour through your preferred tour operator (several tour operators based in La Fortuna run Cano Negro boat tours), get picked up at your hotel on the morning of your chosen tour date, and enjoy the day tour experience. Included in the cost of most Cano Negro boat tours of this kind is transportation to and from the refuge, a tour guide, the boat rental, the captain rental, and usually a snack if not a full lunch (or both). Some tour operators provide the option to explore the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge in an inflatable raft or a canoe, in addition to standard exploration via boat.

It’s important to note that not all Cano Negro boat tours that depart from outside the community of Cano Negro explore the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge‘s core. Instead, some Cano Negro boat tours that depart from outside the community of Cano Negro explore a section of Rio Frio that flows north of the community. If you’re wondering why this matters, and specifically, what difference it makes to tour the refuge’s center versus the refuge’s outskirts, continue reading below.

Controversy surrounding Cano Negro boat tours vs. Rio Frio boat tours

The most controversial question that keeps popping up within Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge discourse is this: Should boat tours that run on a section of Rio Frio that flows north of the community of Cano Negro be considered Cano Negro boat tours? Rather than answering this question with a blatant “yes” or “no” response, let’s look at what you’ll get with either experience.

What to expect from a Cano Negro boat tour that tours a section of Rio Frio that nears the community of Cano Negro (i.e., from within the refuge’s core):What to expect from a Cano Negro boat tour that tours a section of Rio Frio north of the community of Cano Negro (i.e., on the outskirts of the refuge):
Tours depart from public or private docks in or near the community of Cano NegroTours depart from private docks along Rio Frio, typically north of the community of Cano Negro
Tours provide a leisurely and scenic float down Rio Frio Tours provide a leisurely and scenic float down Rio Frio
Tours provide bird-watching and wildlife-spotting opportunities Tours provide bird-watching and wildlife-spotting opportunities
Extra bird-watching opportunities (especially during the migratory season, between January and April) are provided as tours include a visit to the Cano Negro lagoon Tours typically do not visit the Cano Negro lagoon
Depending on the season, tours may include a visit to the Cano Negro towerTours typically do not visit the Cano Negro tower
Travel to/from the tour’s start/end location is slightly longer as tours depart in or near the community of Cano NegroTravel to/from the tour’s start/end location is slightly shorter as tours depart on the outskirts of Cano Negro

Overall, what you want to get out of your Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge experience speaks volumes. If you’re merely looking to participate in a relaxing river trip that presents some of the ecosystems, birds, and other wildlife that are present in Costa Rica’s north-central region, then it likely won’t matter to you which section of Rio Frio you tour. Actually, you may prefer to go with a Cano Negro boat tour that doesn’t travel as far into the refuge as the community of Cano Negro, especially if you have no specific interest in visiting the community, the lagoon, or the tower.

On the other hand, if seeing the community of Cano Negro, visiting the lagoon, and/or climbing the tower interest you, you’ll need to make sure you sign-up for a boat tour that specifically explores the core of the refuge. The best way to know if the boat tour you’re eyeing does that or not is to ask the boat tour’s operator outright. You can also ask the tour operator whether their boat tour experience departs from within Cano Negro proper, or whether it includes visits to the lagoon or tower. “Yes” answers to these questions are signs that the tour takes place in the heart of the refuge.

Cano Negro boat tour logistics

Details regarding Cano Negro boat tours vary across tour types and tour operators. In addition, tour costs can fluctuate between the high season and the low season (click here for more information about Costa Rica’s high and low seasons). Some tour details, including the duration and course of the tour, can be negotiated with boat captains. The information provided below should be viewed as an approximate guide, not an exclusive list.

Cano Negro boat tour duration (tour taken to/from the community of Cano Negro) Approximately 2-3 hours (self-drive time to/from Cano Negro not included)
Cano Negro boat tour duration (tour taken to/from La Fortuna) Approximately 7.5 hours (2-3 hours for the tour; 1 hour for lunch, assuming it’s included; and 4 hours–2 hours each way–for transportation to/from La Fortuna and the refuge)
Cano Negro boat tour course (tour taken to/from the community of Cano Negro) Typically a section of Rio Frio that flows around the community of Cano Negro and provides access to the lagoon and tower
Cano Negro boat tour course (tour taken to/from La Fortuna) Typically a section of Rio Frio that flows north of the community of Cano Negro
Cano Negro boat tour cost (tour taken to/from the community of Cano Negro)Anywhere from $40-50 per adult to group rates from $65-100 for 1-5 people (transportation and meals not typically included)
English-speaking guide cost (when applicable) for Cano Negro boat tours taken to/from the community of Cano NegroApproximately $20 per adult
Cano Negro boat tour cost (tour taken to/from La Fortuna, including round-trip transportation) Approximately $55-70 per adult
(an English-speaking tour guide and lunch are typically provided)
discount available here
Cano Negro raft tour cost (tour taken to/from La Fortuna, including round-trip transportation) Approximately $85-115 per adult
(an English-speaking tour guide and lunch are typically provided)
discount available here
Cano Negro canoe tour cost (tour taken to/from La Fortuna, including round-trip transportation) Approximately $85-115 per adult
(an English-speaking tour guide and lunch are typically provided)
discount available here

Who should (and who shouldn’t) visit the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Ricky and I are big fans of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge. That being said, we’ve also worked with enough travelers to know that the attraction isn’t for everyone.

Truly, you need to love flora, fauna (especially birds), and nature overall to really appreciate what the Cano Negro area has to offer. You don’t need to be a botanist, an ecologist, an ornithologist, or a scientist of any kind to enjoy your visit, but you should be the type of person who sees nature exploration as an adventure. If you’d prefer to couple nature exploration with fun, physical activity, like white-water rafting, zip-lining, and canyoning tours commonly do, you’d be better off skipping the Cano Negro area and spending more time elsewhere in the country. Alternatively, if the idea of seeing a rare bird species is thrilling enough for you, don’t forget to add a visit to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge to your trip itinerary.

It’s also worth mentioning that visits to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge are nearly effortless experiences. They require little physical exertion, which makes them great for seniors; travelers with limited mobility, strength, or endurance; and families with young children.

Getting to and from Cano Negro

There are two ways to reach the community of Cano Negro by car: the route via Los Chiles (Highway #35), which approaches Cano Negro from the northeast, and the route via Guatuso / Upala (Highway #4), which approaches Cano Negro from the southwest. Both routes eventually lead to opposite ends of Road 138, which provides direct access to Cano Negro. The community of Cano Negro sits about halfway along Road 138 from either Highway #35 or Highway #4.

Road 138: The Cano Negro access road

Regardless of which route you take to get to Cano Negro, you’ll need to drive part of the way on Road 138. Road 138 is a non-mountainous (but curvy in places), pressed-gravel road that isn’t difficult to drive provided you don’t speed. Watch out for potholes (especially during the wet season; May to December), be prepared to drive through a cloud of dust when you’re passed by another vehicle, and drive slowly to avoid damaging the body of your rental car with loose rocks and pebbles that are easily kicked up by car tires.

Highway #35: The route via Los Chiles

Despite the name, you won’t actually see the town of Los Chiles if you take this route. That’s because you’ll reach the turnoff to Cano Negro before you reach Los Chiles.

This route is ideal if you’re driving to Cano Negro from La Fortuna or San Jose. It involves driving nearly the full length of Costa Rica’s paved Highway #35 which connects Muelle to Los Chiles in the country’s north-central region. Approximately 7 kilometers south of Los Chiles (roughly 65 kilometers north of Muelle), you’ll encounter Road 138, which is marked with a sign for Cano Negro. If you turn left at the sign and follow Road 138 for approximately 20 kilometers, you’ll find the community of Cano Negro.

From La Fortuna via Los Chiles, the approximate one-way drive time to Cano Negro is 2 hours. From downtown San Jose via Los Chiles, the approximate one-way drive time to Cano Negro is 4 hours.

Highway #4: The route via Guatuso / Upala

This route is ideal if you’re driving to Cano Negro from La Fortuna or Bijagua. It involves driving Costa Rica’s paved Highway #3 which connects Muelle to the town of Upala (via the town of Guatuso) in the country’s north-central region. Approximately 12 kilometers south of Upala (roughly 27 kilometers north of Guatuso), you’ll encounter Road 138, which is marked with a sign for Cano Negro. If you turn at the sign (turn left if traveling from Upala; turn right if traveling from Guatuso) and follow Road 138 for approximately 25 kilometers, you’ll find the community of Cano Negro.

From La Fortuna or Bijagua via Guatuso, the approximate one-way drive time to Cano Negro is 2 hours.

Our preferred route to and from Cano Negro

Whenever we drive to Cano Negro (usually via La Fortuna), we prefer to take the route via Los Chiles to get to Cano Negro. Then, when it’s time to leave Cano Negro, we take the route via Guatuso back to La Fortuna.

Since the route via Los Chiles is the straightest route and requires the least number of stops, we take it on the way to Cano Negro to best avoid potential delays. After we’re done at Cano Negro, we take the route via Guatuso as it provides a nice change in scenery. The easy, downhill route through Guatuso (when driven from Cano Negro to La Fortuna) is particularly scenic in the afternoon when the sun begins to set over the region’s plains and a distant, conical Arenal Volcano.

Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge map

Free Cano Negro tour discounts

Click on a photo in the gallery below for discount and tour information.

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you been to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge? What did you enjoy most about your visit?

Pura vida!

Costa Rica Travel Blog

Costa Rica tour discounts

DIY Costa Rica

DIY Costa Rica

Costa Rica Recommendations Map

Costa Rica Destination Tool

Costa Rica Trip Planning 101 E-Course

Summary
Costa Rica's Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge: Know This Before You Visit
Article Name
Costa Rica's Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge: Know This Before You Visit
Description
We've visited Costa Rica's Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge several times. Here's what you need to know to plan your visit, plus free Cano Negro tour discounts!
Author
Publisher Name
The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog
Publisher Logo

Private

  • You do not have permission to view this forum.