Most Central America birds and mammals are active early in the morning. Extremely early. Like, break of dawn early. When your viewing location is a bit of a hike away, it often means hiking in the dark. Dusk is the second-best time to spot Central America wildlife.
If you're too talkative and noisy while you hike, you'll certainly frighten away shy wildlife. Tread softly, and try not to trample leaves and twigs. (Of course, if you're hiking through jaguar country at night, it's a bit of a different story.) It's also pretty amazing to find a place to sit and stay completely silent for a while, simply listening. The sounds in the Central America forest are impossibly layered and complex – from birds to insects, howler monkeys to frogs, all against a backdrop of running water and the rustling of trees.
Binoculars can be a pain to drag around, but when you're (seemingly) eye-to-eye with a black howler monkey, you'll realize how worthwhile they are. Even small ones can make your wildlife viewing excursion that much more successful.
Bring a camera.
Ideally, bring a camera with a telephoto lens. You'll want proof of that Resplendent Quetzal you spotted!
Bring a guide.
Most Central America guides have grown up in Central America—often near the very area where you're seeking to spot wildlife. These guides are good. I can't count the number of times a guide has pointed out animals and birds I never would have seen, from toucans bouncing on a high treetop to a sloth bundled tightly on a branch overhead. Depending on your destination, you can usually book your guides through a tourism office, your hotel or even the office of the national park when you're paying your entrance fee. Guides are usually inexpensive and so worth it. (Be sure to tip!)
Some Central America wildlife refuges are famous for viewing certain kinds of wildlife. Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize is known for birdwatching, while Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica is a favorite for monkey-spotting. Even within the national parks, you'll have better luck in certain areas than others, which is another great reason to book a guide.
Consider taking a night hike.
A number of Central America animals are nocturnal, including some of the region's most famous: jaguars and tapirs, for example. Your chances of spotting nocturnal creatures are pretty slim, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a shot. Also, hiking in the evening or at night is an incredible experience. The Central America jungle is filled with sounds and life. Bring a flashlight or two, and make sure to aim it under leaves and into crevices. You'll see insects, spiders and tree frogs for sure.
There are a few things to keep in mind when hiking in Central America. Make sure to check out our list of hiking safety tips.
Respect Central America wildlife.
Never feed the wildlife. Human food can make animals sick, or even kill them. Even if that monkey seems really hungry for that sandwich, resist. Don't touch the wildlife – even that friendly monkey.