If you’re coming to Costa Rica to see as much wildlife as possible, there are several ways to do so. Our favorite always has been to trek through as many national parks as we can. But if you’re short on time or not able to scour the country’s extensive park system, a wildlife center may be your best bet. There are many of these centers around the country. One of the nicest is La Paz Waterfall Gardens, not far from San Jose. This facility has a beautiful layout, an amazing array of animals, and several waterfalls. In this post, we’ll tell you all about La Paz Waterfall Gardens and how you can plan a visit.
Note: While we highly recommend a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, this is a popular, touristy attraction. It can get very busy during high season (late December through March).
About La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Driving from San Jose, the ride to La Paz is a little more than an hour, depending on traffic.
Once you arrive, you’ll realize that in that short amount of time, you have entered a completely different environment. That’s because La Paz Waterfall Gardens sits at a higher elevation (around 4,000 ft/1,219 m) and is surrounded by lush rain and cloud forest. The vast property sits nestled into the mountainside on the back slope of Poas Volcano.
The property is 70 acres (28 hectares) in total. Forty acres (16 hectares) of this is cloud forest and rainforest. The remaining 30 acres (12 hectares) was cleared previously to pasture cattle.
One of La Paz’s goals is environmental preservation so the forest land is currently protected and they are working to reforest the other patch of pasture land.
As the name implies, La Paz Waterfall Gardens has a series of beautiful waterfalls worth checking out if you have time, but in our opinion, that isn’t the main draw.
We’ll go into more detail below, but what makes this place special is its separate exhibits (buildings) for jungle cats, frogs, birds, snakes, monkeys, and butterflies. Many of these are enclosures you can walk right through, giving an up-close view of animals.
Traditional zoos are outlawed in Costa Rica. That means that all the animals at La Paz Waterfall Gardens have either been confiscated as illegal pets or injured and unable to return to the wild. The frogs and butterflies are the exception since they are bred onsite or bought.
At the entrance of La Paz Waterfall Gardens, you’ll find secure parking, the main reception area, gift shop, a restaurant, and bathrooms.
Next door is the popular Peace Lodge, which is located above the wildlife exhibits. This hotel is known for its luxurious rooms and forest views. It’s a great base for exploring not only La Paz, but also Poas Volcano and the nearby Catarata del Toro, a beautiful waterfall.
Tip: Be sure to bring a sweatshirt or light jacket since temperatures on the mountain can sometimes be chilly. On our visit, we saw a lot of cold visitors buying expensive sweatshirts from the gift shop!
From the reception area, it’s a somewhat steep walk down a concrete path and several sets of stairs to the main exhibits. If you have trouble walking, they also have a golf cart that can bring you down to this level (or back up).
If you can walk, we’d recommend it, since the property is beautifully landscaped with tropical plants and flowers. There are also hummingbird feeders right after the reception area that are worth checking out.
Once you reach the lower area, you’ll find a large buffet-style restaurant with more restrooms. The exhibit areas and animal enclosures are spread out from there and make an easy loop.
If you’re up for it after visiting the wildlife exhibits, you can walk the property’s 2.2 miles (3.5 km) of hiking trails. These lead to a series of five waterfalls. The last one, located at the lowest point on the property, is La Paz Waterfall. This also can be viewed from the main road (Route 126).
The Wildlife Exhibits
Like we mentioned above, the animal exhibits are the major highlight when visiting La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This is a great way to see wildlife up close that would normally be hard to see in the wild.
Although the basic entrance fee is for a self-guided tour, each station has helpful employees that will share information about what you are seeing and answer any questions. Here’s more information on what you can see.
The large bird enclosure at La Paz allows you to walk right through. Watch out when you enter since there are several Toucans that like to fly right overhead. You can get a close-up view of these beautiful birds and many others.
We saw several types of green parrots, Scarlet Macaw Parrots, Whistling Ducks, and even a Long-Tailed Manakin.
Outside, near the monkey enclosure, there is also another nice hummingbird area with flowers and feeders set up.
La Paz has three of the four types of monkeys that live in Costa Rica. You’ll be able to see howler monkeys, known for their loud calls that can be heard from miles away, spider monkeys, which have only four fingers and like to swing from branches with their long arms, and white-faced capuchin monkeys, which are quick and playful.
The fourth type of monkey, which you won’t see, is called a squirrel monkey. These are the smallest monkeys in Costa Rica and are mostly seen in either Manuel Antonio National Park or on the Osa Peninsula in places like Corcovado National Park.
If you like butterflies, you’re going to love the gigantic butterfly enclosure. You can take your time to walk around to see the many different species such as Blue Morpho, Great Owl, Monarch, and Malachite. The inside is set up like a botanical garden so there are interesting tropical plants as well.
In the hatchery, you can learn about the lifecycle from egg, to caterpillar, cocoon, and finally adult.
Costa Rica has some amazing frogs but the chances of seeing the most spectacular ones in the wild are slim. That’s because many frog species are active at night and live along rivers or deep within the jungle.
At the frog exhibit, it is easy to see some of these beauties. The most famous is the red-eyed tree frog, which many people recognize from posters and advertisements. You’ll learn about two species of these, one that lives on the Caribbean slope and another that lives on the Pacific slope.
Some other favorites that we saw were the tiger-legged tree frog, green and black poison-dart frog, and blue jean poison-dart frog.
Jungle cats are another group of animals that you’ll have a hard time seeing in the wild during a vacation to Costa Rica.
Most of the big cats at La Paz have been confiscated from people holding them illegally as pets. La Paz has given them a good home since they will never be able to return to the wild and fend for themselves.
Through large glass windows, you can see smaller wild cats like ocelots and margays. You’ll also be able to see the larger felines like pumas (also known as mountain lions), and of course jaguars, which are the largest of them all.
If you’re into snakes, La Paz Waterfall Gardens has a large variety. If you’re a bit scared, you can take comfort in knowing that they are all safely kept behind glass.
The snake room has dozens of species of venomous and non-venomous types. Some of the highlights are the fer-de lance, the deadliest snake in Costa Rica, and oriole snake, which has a beautiful pattern on its skin. There’s also a large boa constrictor that is fun to see.
Some other exhibits that are smaller but still interesting are the sloths, which are located at the edge of the bird and butterfly exhibits. This exhibit was under construction during our visit, but you’ll be able to see both two- and three-toed sloths through the glass.
Next to that is an insect exhibit with hundreds of species of dried insects displayed and labeled.
Finally, you can find a small orchid garden next to the casita/farmhouse. At the orchid garden, you can see some of the delicate flowers that grow in the rainforest.
The farmhouse next door is a replica of an old country home from hundreds of years ago. Outside there is a stable with a large ox and next to that is a small petting zoo with a very feisty goat. Our son Sam had a lot of fun with him!
You can spend several hours visiting the animal enclosures, but if you are up for a hike, your entrance fee also allows access to La Paz’s hiking trails. These cover a distance of about 2.2 miles (3.5 km).
According to the staff, you’ll want at least 2-3 hours to complete the walk and you must be able to do quite a few stairs. We didn’t venture down the waterfall trails this time since Jenn was one week overdue with our second child (he was born three days later), but we did grab a shot of the waterfall (see below) from the road.
A shuttle service back to the top is offered during certain hours, so make sure to inquire before heading down the steeper trails.
Planning Your Visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (we suggest planning for at least a 2-hour visit, more with lunch)
$49 per person adults, $33 per person children (ages 3-12)
$14 per person adults, $8 per person children (ages 3-12)
Lunch is available from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
The buffet includes several traditional Costa Rican dishes like rice and beans, chicken, fish, tortillas, soups, as well as a salad bar, pizza, breads, French fries, and fruit. Unlimited juices, coffee, and tea are also included.
Have you visited La Paz Waterfall Gardens? Let us know your experience in the comments below.
Looking for more articles to help you plan your visit? Check out these posts:
Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Clearing up the Confusion – Nervous about renting a car and getting overcharged? Read this article to understand how renting a car doesn’t have to be stressful. We’ve also included a special discount for our readers.
Packing List for Costa Rica: Ready to zip up your suitcase? Did you remember the …? Make sure you’ve got all the basics covered with this post. Includes tips for rainy season travel too.
Best National Parks in Costa Rica: Want to search for some of these animals in the wild? Check out this list of the country’s best national parks.