Do you love animals? We certainly do – and we love helping travelers encounter animals and support them in their natural habitats. Here are some of Central and South America’s thriving wildlife preserves. The ones we’ve listed include destinations in jungles, cloud forests, and the Caribbean coast, which are some of the most biodiverse places in the world.
Because we care about preserving these creatures for future generations, we work with tour providers that care about the preservation and the dignity of local wildlife. Hopefully, these will inspire you to add something ‘wild’ to your next trip!
Tortugario Monterrico — Monterrico, Guatemala
Tortugario Monterrico is a protected area that offers a nesting place for Olive Ridley, leatherback, and green sea turtles. The nesting season takes place from June to December, and you’re most likely to see nesting sea turtles between August and September.
In order to protect the sea turtle eggs from being poached (locals consider them a delicacy), volunteers and conservationists gather sea turtle eggs and then release the baby sea turtles a few days after they have hatched. It’s possible to arrange tours to help collect the eggs, and to watch as the baby sea turtles take their first waddles toward the ocean. Feel free to cheer them on — we’re sure they appreciate a little extra encouragement.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve — Ambergris Caye, Belize
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is at the tip of Ambergris Caye, which is one of Belize’s most popular islands for visitors. It’s a short distance from the Belize Barrier reef, so an incredible variety of ocean wildlife live in this area.
You can easily combine snorkeling and scuba diving tours of the reserve with a visit to Shark Ray Alley. This “alley” is a break in the coral reef, where nurse sharks and manta rays like to gather.
Cenegón de Mangle — Azuero Peninsula, Panama
Cenegón de Mangle protects a wild network of mangroves, as well as a large population of herons and egrets. You’ll find this wildlife refuge on the eastern side of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula.
Visitors traipse above the mush of the wetlands on a long boardwalk. As you walk along, try and observe the caimans in the shallows. These sneaky creatures come to this area to hunt the reserve’s many wading birds.
Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, Belize
If you’re turned off by zoos, rest assured that this zoo serves only animals that cannot live on their own in the wild. Belize Zoo began in 1983, after a documentary called Selva Verde wrapped. Once the movie was complete, the documentarians realized that the animals they had been working with could no longer survive in the wild. So they decided to make a safe home for the animals, and the Belize Zoo got its start.
The Belize Zoo is a home to a variety of jaguars, monkeys, birds, and reptiles. Tapirs, jaguars, and harpy eagles are the star residents of the zoo, and the zoo holds birthday parties to celebrate their most popular animals. Say hi to Fuego the Tapir for us!
Gamboa Aerial Tram and Wildlife Exhibits — Gamboa, Panama
Gamboa has a sublime rainforest, and it’s a short distance outside of Panama City. Climb aboard the tram for a trip into the rainforest treetops. As you ascend, guides will help you spot birds, monkeys, and sloths. The tram eventually arrives at a 100-foot (30-m) observation tower, which has a sweeping view of Gamboa.
Continue to the wildlife exhibits. These include a butterfly garden, a freshwater aquarium, and a snake exhibit. There’s also an orchid exhibit – these flowers have such a complex reproduction that they’re nearly as lively as the animals.
Charles Darwin Research Station — Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador
Charles Darwin Research Station is on Santa Cruz Island, in the Galápagos Islands. Santa Cruz Island is one of the most popular places to stay in the Galápagos. This research station is one of the few places in the world where you can see baby Galápagos tortoises. Scientists here are working hard to make sure this species live to see another century.
And — good news — there have been recent reports of a Galápagos tortoises born in the wild!
Machalilla National Park — Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
Machalilla National Park is known for its migratory population of humpback whales from June to September. Whales make dramatic leaps from the water, and you can see calves swimming alongside their mothers. Take a boating tour and set sail for Isla de la Plata, which has many of the same bird species that you can find on Galápagos Island. This island is often referred to as the “poor man’s Galápagos,” but there’s nothing poor about the rich variety of plants and animals that live here.
Mariposas de Mindo — Mindo, Ecuador
Mindo has some of the best bird watching in all of mainland Ecuador. But birds aren’t the only reason to visit Mindo. Travel a short distance outside of Mindo to see the Butterfly Farm, which showcases the many butterfly species that thrive here. You’ll have an up-close look at these delicate, exquisitely beautiful insects.
In addition to butterflies, the Butterfly Farm also blooms with profusions of orchids.
Jaguar Rescue Center – Puerto Viejo de Limon, Costa Rica
Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center for unparalleled access to animals that live in Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean forests. While you’re here, knowledgeable guides will introduce you to the resident monkeys, snakes, wild cats, and sloths.
As the name suggests, this center rescues and rehabilitates wild animals. The center also funds scientific research.
Jaguar Rescue Center encourages visitors to get involved. You can find out in advance about bringing much-needed supplies to the center, like mealworms that the rescue workers feed to the birds.
Project Asis – La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Project Asis is a just outside of Arenal Volcano National Park. This project works with local nonprofits to rescue and rehabilitate animals, with a focus on species that are in danger of extinction.
On a tour here you’ll meet animals that are common in Costa Rican forests, including coatis, peccaries, margays, and agoutis. Never heard of some of these? Get ready to meet your new favorite animals!