Central America's biodiversity is hard to match, and almost every trip offers travelers the opportunity to glimpse some truly incredibly wildlife. While spotting a monkey way up in the canopy is always a delight, these Central America wildlife experiences are much more intimate.
Located just outside the town of Copan Ruinas in Honduras (near the Mayan ruins of Copan), the Macaw Mountain Bird Park & Nature Reserve is a great opportunity for travelers to get up close and personal with Central America's tropical birds. The park is home to numerous rescued and endangered birds, including owls, toucans, toucanets, amazons, and of course, macaws! The best part: holding one a giant, colorful parrots in the park's interactive exhibit.
2. Swim with Whale SharksWhale sharks aren't whales, but they are sharks – the world's largest fish, in fact. The largest confirmed whale shark was 41.5 feet long and 47,000 pounds! They can be found near certain areas and islands off Central America's Caribbean Coast. One of these special spots is Gladden Spit, located 22 miles from Placencia in southern Belize, where whale sharks come to feed upon spawning fish between March and June (typically in the week following the full moon). Whale sharks are also frequently spotted off the coast of the Honduran Bay Islands Utila and Roatan. Several tour operators and dive shops in these locations offer limited numbers whale shark tours, which allow visitors to swim or snorkel with the gigantic, majestic and yes, gentle! giants.
Monkeys are some of my favorite Central America mammals. (I mean, aren't they everybody's?) There are seven species of monkeys that live in Central America: Geoffroy's spider monkey, the Panamanian Night Monkey, the white-faced capuchin, the mantled howler monkey, the black howler monkey, Geoffroy's tamarin, and the Coiba Island howler monkey. Monkeys are found in all seven Central America countries, and in the forests along both coasts. Check out our guide to Central America's monkeys
, which includes your best bets for spotting each particular species of primate.
No, there isn't a such thing as a Shark Ray. Located in Belize's Hol Chan Marine Reserve, near the island of Ambergris Caye, Shark Ray Alley
is home to numerous nurse sharks and stingrays. Ambergris Caye's San Pedro Town offers many daily diving, snorkeling and swimming excursions to the lively spot, where visitors can observe the animals in the marine reserve's clear, shallow waters. You'll likely get the opportunity to pet both sharks and rays, which are docile and even curious.
5. Saving Sea Turtles
Five out of the world's seven species of sea turtle nest on the Pacific and Caribbean shores of Central America: loggerhead, hawksbill, olive ridley, green sea turtles and leatherbacks. Every single one of these species is threatened or severely endangered. A number of programs are working hard to help save these amazing creatures, including The Nature Conservancy
and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project
. The latter offers a number of internships and volunteer positions
for travelers interested in giving back during their time abroad. Other shorter-term opportunities include Costa Rica's Save the Turtles of Parismina
and La Tortuga Feliz
The Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary in Limon, Costa Rica is where all those viral pictures of adorable baby sloths come from – the majority of them, anyway. Aviarios has rehabilitated scores of of two-toed and three-toed sloths injured and/or orphaned in Costa Rican forests. Visitors can take a tour of the sanctuary grounds and the baby sloth nursery. Volunteers have the chance to actually care for and cuddle the animals, though the experience isn't cheap. The sanctuary is located near Cahuita and Puerto Viejo, and is easily accessible via bus from either location (make sure you mention where you're headed to the driver).
The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center is an intimate zoo in central Belize. which houses rehabilitated and orphaned animals, as well as animals sent to zoo as gifts from other zoological institutions. It's a well-kept, intimate zoo with a big heart, and a great place to visit on your way west from Belize City.