Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro, southwest of Los Chiles, is a tropical everglade teeming with wildlife. The 9,969-hectare (24,634-acre) reserve protects a lush lowland basin of knee-deep watery sloughs and marshes centered on Lago Caño Negro, a seasonal lake fed by the fresh waters of the Río Frío. The region floods in wet season. In February-April, the area is reduced to shrunken lagoons; wildlife congregates along the watercourses, where caimans gnash and slosh out pools in the muck.

Male green iguana in orange mating color. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Male green iguana in orange mating color. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Cattle egrets, wood storks, anhingas, roseate spoonbills, and other waterfowl gather in the thousands.Caño Negro is a bird-watcher’s paradise. The reserve protects the largest colony of neotropic cormorants in Costa Rica and the only permanent colony of Nicaraguan grackles. Cattle egrets, wood storks, anhingas, roseate spoonbills, and other waterfowl gather in the thousands. The reserve is also remarkable for its large population of caimans. Looking down into waters as black as Costa Rican coffee, you may see the dim forms of big snook, silver-gold tarpon, and garish garfish. Bring plenty of insect repellent.

The hamlet of Caño Negro, 23 kilometers (14 miles) southwest of Los Chiles, nestles on the northwest shore of Lago Caño Negro. Locals make their living from fishing and guiding. The ranger station (tel. 506/2471-1309, 8am-5pm daily) is 400 meters (0.25 miles) inland from the dock and 200 meters (660 feet) west of the soccer field.

Local volunteers operate the Criadero de Tortugas (tel. 506/2876-1181, 8am-4pm daily, free), west of the soccer field and where turtles are bred for release to the wild. The village also has a butterfly garden: Mariposario La Reinita (tel. 506/2471-1301, 8am-4pm daily, $4), with 16 species flitting about within nets.

Things to Do

Caño Negro’s waters boil with tarpon, snook, drum, guapote, machaca, and mojarra. Fishing season is July-March (no fishing is allowed Apr.-June); licenses ($30) are required, obtainable from the ranger station in the village or through the various fishing lodges.

Hotel de Campo (tel. 506/2471-1012) and Natural Lodge Caño Negro (tel. 506/2471-1426) have fishing packages and lagoon tours, and you can rent canoes and kayaks. You can hire guides and boats at the dock. Try Joel Sandoval (tel. 506/8823-4026), or Manuel Castro of Pantanal Tours (tel. 506/8825-0193, $50 for up to 4 people for 4 hours).

Where to Stay

You can stay overnight in the Caño Negro ranger station if space is available ($6 pp). You’ll need a sleeping bag and a mosquito net. It has cold showers. Meals cost $5.

The Hotel de Campo (tel. 506/2471-1012, $79 s, $95 d), in Caño Negro village, stands lakeside amid landscaped grounds with a citrus orchard. Sixteen handsome, cross-ventilated, air-conditioned cabins have a choice of king or queen beds and have terra-cotta floors, lofty wooden ceilings with fans, and large modern baths with hot water. There’s a bar and restaurant, a gift store, a tackle shop, and a swimming pool.

Fishing writer Jerry Ruhlow calls Bar y Restaurante El Caimán (tel. 506/2469-8200, 6:30am-7pm daily) “sort of a drive-in for boats.” This unlikely find is beside the bridge at San Emilio; water vessels stop alongside it to order meals or cold beverages. It serves typical Tico fare. Canoe and boat trips are offered ($70 for 2 hours).

Getting There

A road from El Parque, 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Los Chiles, runs 10 kilometers (6 miles) west to a bridge at San Emilio, from where you can reach Caño Negro village via a dirt road that continues south to Colonia Puntarenas, on the main La Fortuna-Upala road (Hwy. 4). A 4WD vehicle is recommended. Several companies in La Fortuna offer trips. Canoa Aventura (tel. 506/2479-8200) specializes in trips to Caño Negro.

Maps - Costa Rica 10e - The Northern Zone

The Northern Zone

Buses depart daily from Upala to Caño Negro village via Colonia Puntarenas at 11am and 3pm daily. You can rent a boat in Los Chiles ($70 for 2 people, $15 pp for 6 people or more).

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.