There are 2 distinct species in Costa Rica: the American crocodile (which can attack humans) and the caiman (which are not really a threat to humans).
Costa Rica has the largest concentration of American crocodiles. You will be able to observe these 4 to 6 meters long monsters on the Tárcoles Bridge (guides offer boat tours), in the Tamarindo estuary, or in national parks like Palo Verde or Tortuguero. As for the caimans, they are a little more difficult to see.
The American crocodile can measure up to 6 meters long and weigh over 900 kilos. They are often found in large rivers and lakes, but they can also live in salt water (they can be found on some beaches) and swim a hundred kilometers in the ocean from one river to another.
Both the crocodile and the caiman have laterally compressed tails, but they differ in size and snout shape.
American crocodiles are carnivores. They eat everything they can catch, from birds to fish, iguanas, turtles, deer and yes, even humans.
They tend to frequent riverbeds and can lie in the sun for hours to restore their body temperature after hunting in cold waters.
This species is much smaller than the American crocodile and does not pose a threat to humans.
The caiman is distinguished by the presence of a bony ridge between and in front of the eyes, resembling glasses, hence its name. Also, in the American crocodile, the teeth of the lower jaw protrude conspicuously when the snout is closed; in contrast, the teeth of the caiman are hidden.
The caiman is usually light tan to yellow or brown with vaguely dark crossbands on the body and tail. Young caiman are lighter in color and have more distinct crossbands.
The Spectacled Caiman eats all animals in its habitat. Juveniles eat mostly insects and crustaceans, but the larger adults consume fish, amphibians, birds, and dead birds or mammals that they find.
Where to see crocodiles in Costa Rica ?
The best place to see crocodiles is the bridge over the Tárcoles River.
You will see tons of crocodiles there. The Tarcoles River is located on the road to Jaco on the central Pacific side of Costa Rica. It is not a beautiful river and it is also one of the most polluted in the country, but it is always amazing to see the monsters underneath.
We strongly advise against taking boat tours where the guides feed the crocodiles chicken meat. Not only is this dangerous, but you are also harming the ecosystem and the crocodiles.
Some of the most popular places to see these caimans are in the canals of Costa Rica. Tortuguero is one of the best places to see them, they thrive along the waters of the canal. You can also go down to the wetlands of Sierpe, where they thrive in the wetlands and canals.
In Palo Verde National Park you can take a boat trip just to see the crocodiles and caimans drying in the sun.
The two species do not really like to mix and are very territorial. So where you see crocodiles, you will not usually see caimans.
What time should I get to the Tárcoles bridge?
There is no real schedule for crocodile watching, but if you also want to watch birds and even see macaw macaws, the morning is certainly the best time.
How to behave with crocodiles?
Crocodiles are ferocious predators with a reputation for hunting. Do not approach them under any circumstances.
Some tips on how to be smart with crocodiles:
- To see crocodiles, ask locals and look for signs (which may be written in Spanish) indicating where crocodiles are known to be?
On the other hand, do not assume that a place is safe for swimming if there is no sign.
- Avoid swimming, walking, or paddle boarding in rivers and estuaries on the plains, especially in the murky waters of warm coastal areas.
- Don't walk on the water's edge if you can't see the bottom.
- Do not lean over the edge of a river boat. Keep your hands inside.
- Be careful when entering or exiting a boat or kayak in rough water.
- Do not participate in crocodile feeding tours, which exacerbate the problem. Feeding crocodiles is illegal, and tour operators can lose their license if caught feeding them.
- Beware of what may look like tree trunks floating in the water or lying on the beach: they may be crocodiles.
- If you are unlucky enough to encounter a crocodile on land, run in a straight line (not in a zigzag pattern).
How to get to the Tárcoles Bridge from San José?
You must pass over this bridge if you are going to Jaco, Manuel Antonio, the South Pacific or the Osa Peninsula via the Costanera Sur highway (route 34) from San Jose. The Crocodile Bridge is located in the small town of Tarcoles, about a 20-minute drive north of Jaco.
From the San Jose airport, take Route 1, then Route 27 and exit at "Jaco". Continue driving south on this road, Route 34, for about 45 minutes before reaching the bridge.
How to get to the Tárcoles Bridge from Liberia?
Take the road to Puntarenas and then the "Jaco" exit. Continue along this road and stop at the Tárcoles bridge. You will see many handicraft shops and restaurants.