Nicaragua isn’t called “the land of lakes and volcanoes” for nothing. This small country holds roughly enough untouched forest to cover the entire state of Maryland. The vibrant green jungles—78 of which are classified protected areas—are home to more than just trees. The animals in Nicaragua are colorful, unique, and always a thrill to spot in the wild.
While most of us consider standard backyard wildlife to be squirrels and pigeons, Nicaraguan natives are more familiar with iguanas, monkeys, and parrots.
Coast to coast, the tropical climate of this Central American jewel allows the exotic to thrive in an eternal summer.
Here are some of the coolest animals in Nicaragua to spot on your next visit:
If you have an eagle eye (or a particularly skilled tour guide), you may be lucky enough to spot the two- or three-toed sloth in the cloud forests of Nicaragua.
This slow-moving species won’t scamper out of sight. But their stillness allows them to blend in with their environment if you don’t know what to look for. Sloths love to cling upside down to the branches of tropical trees, emerging only once a week to dump their “loads” on the ground.
Fortunately for tourists, these lethargic animals are homebodies. They tend to pick a favorite pocket of the forest where they live for years at a time.
To see one of these lazy animals in Nicaragua, avoid the dry ecosystems. Check out Mombacho Nature Reserve’s wind-stunted dwarf forest, or the cloud forest at Maderas Volcano on Ometepe Island.
Most North Americans can only see monkeys at the zoo. But travel a little further south and these funny little primates are commonplace.
You’ll see three main species: white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys. Don’t worry, they won’t steal your purse—these animals in Nicaragua like to stay swinging through the trees. If you’re taking a hike through nature, don’t be surprised if you hear the distinctive whoop of howler monkeys in the distance.
Many places offer educational walking tours where guides will point out the agile creatures lounging in the canopies. If you really want an up close look at these animals in Nicaragua, try taking a boat tour through the Islets of Granada. One of these small volcanic islands is called Monkey Island. It’s home to spider monkey colonies, along with a few capuchins. If you bring a banana, Lucy the spider monkey might even join you on your boat.
Yep, it’s funky looking. Nope, it’s not dangerous.
The toothless, nearsighted giant anteater is a sight to behold in the wild. With an elongated snout, shaggy tail, and insatiable appetite for ants, this animal is roughly the size of a German Shepherd, but without the good looks.
Giant anteaters use their ridiculously long two-foot tongues to dip into anthills up to 160 times per minute, feasting on an estimated 35,000 ants and termites per day. These gentle giants do pack sharp, curved claws that help them tear into thick termite mounds. They’re forced to awkwardly walk on their knuckles like gorillas as a result.
It’s not likely to run into one of these animals in Nicaragua on the street. If you want to see the bizarre anteater in action, try the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in northern Jinotega, or grasslands and tropical forests.
Nicaragua is also home to the cuter Tamandua anteater, a smaller member of the species. This mainly nocturnal forest-dweller shelters in hollow trees. The tamandua is a far more common animal in Nicaragua. Look for it around Pacific beach towns like Tola, Rivas.
Unlike the jaguar, a powerful cat that prefers to stay far out of sight, the nocturnal ocelot is relatively harmless. The gorgeously marked wild animal roams the Nicaragua forests at night.
Ocelots are medium-sized predators that, though territorial, prefer to hunt small rodents, iguanas, or fish. They do not pose a real threat to humans. If anything, this “little big cat” is threatened by larger animals. This sleek, tawny feline is easily identified by its spot-painted coat and ringed tail.
The striking ocelot emerges from its resting place in the trees at twilight. If you take a night tour, you’ll have a shot at finding one of these animals in Nicaragua prowling around the forest floor.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Best seen at night, the Bolitoglossa mombachoensis is an extremely rare species of salamander endemic to the canopies of Nicaragua’s very own Mombacho Volcano. It is the only place in the world where the eponymous Mombacho Salamander is found.
This slimy little amphibian is tricky to find in the daylight, as they prefer to forage for food after dark. You can look for them by checking under bromeliad leaves. These are excellent at trapping rainwater and offer the salamander a refreshingly damp shelter. Although its regenerative abilities give it an “extra life,” the Mombacho salamander is a unique creature in danger of extinction.
Take a night tour of the Mombacho Volcano cloud forest—particularly during the dry season months of February to April—for your best shot at sighting one of these tiny animals in Nicaragua.
Red-eyed Tree Frog
Vibrant red-eyed tree frogs abound in the humid Nicaraguan forests.
Living exclusively above ground, the brilliantly green amphibian relies on water sources to breed. Females, which are noticeably larger than their mates, release a jelly-like substance containing 20 to 40 eggs onto the underside of a tropical leaf. Once they mature, the tadpoles drop straight into the water below, where they continue to grow into the tiny tree frog.
Measuring just three inches full-grown, you can actually hold one of these colorful critters in cloud forests or rainforests. Go during Nicaragua’s rainy season, which runs from May to November.
Sea turtle hatchlings are an absolute joy to witness in the wild. There’s no better place to find them than the Nicaragua beaches.
The journey of a nesting sea turtle is a natural wonder.
After laying her eggs in a pocket of sand on the beach, the adult female waddles back into the ocean. If the eggs can remain hidden, they’ll survive the threat of hungry predators, like foxes and raccoons. Two months later, they will hatch all at once and make a mad dash for the water. This short voyage is one of the most dangerous periods of the sea turtle’s lifespan. They are entirely defenseless against natural threats.
HN Hint: Paso Pacífico is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting ecosystem conservation in Nicaragua. Luis is trained in environmental biology and has collaborated with them in the past to improve the protection of sea turtle nests on Playa Jiquelite.
Incredibly, the female hatchlings will return to the same place they were born to lay eggs as an adult. No one knows how they can find their way back to that very spot. But if all goes well, twenty years from now the same tiny turtles you see in Nicaragua will return to their exact birthplace and dig nests of their own.
When I was visiting Nicaragua in January 2020, we were lucky enough to catch a rare hawksbill turtle hatching event. This species is critically endangered because they are aggressively poached for their shells. We ran the whole way to the nesting site, and got there just in time to see the rangers escorting the baby hawksbills back to the sea.
Watching the newborn turtles intuitively waddle out to the waves felt like a once in a lifetime experience. (Plus, they were adorable.)
Sea turtle hatchlings emerge from their shells year-round, with the peak nesting months running from September to February. On the Pacific side of the country, the coastlines of the Rivas department, particularly La Flor Beach Wildlife Reserve in San Juan del Sur, are great places to see these animals in Nicaragua. On the Caribbean side, where grown sea turtles stay and live instead of migrating and returning, try the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve or the beautiful offshore Pearl Cays.
Packing enormous multi-colored beaks, toucans aren’t exactly built for aerodynamic flight. Instead, they use their relatively small wings to boost themselves from tree to tree as they find fresh fruit to munch on.
Toucans live exclusively in the neotropics, and you can find at least five of their species in Nicaragua. Most popular is the keel-billed toucan, a bird with a lightweight beak that makes up one-third of its entire body.
Another cool feature? The toucan’s beak acts as a radiator for its internal temperature. It can heat or cool the toucan’s entire body in minutes.
These stunning birds are located all across the country. They are best found near the Rio San Juan river in the southern part of Nicaragua, or in the northern Bosawás Biosphere Reserve on a birdwatching tour.
Great Green Macaw
The endangered Great Green Macaw is easily spotted thanks to its colorful plumage. Bright green, with red foreheads and blue-tipped wings, this large bird is from the parrot family.
It is estimated that only 1,500 remain in the world. Nicaragua is one of the only places left to see the rare and majestic Great Green Macaw in its natural habitat.
These tropical birds are loud and unusually friendly, even letting humans approach them while feeding. This endangered animal in Nicaragua loves to eat almonds. It likes to stay within close range to the Mountain Almond Tree, which is grown near the edges of rainforests.
To see them in the wild, Nicaraguan conservation efforts trace the birds to Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in the north and the Indio Maíz and Cerro Silva Reserves in the southeast.
You might hear this bird before you see it: the White Bellbird is the loudest in the world.
With a signature wormlike “mustache” on the male’s beak, this little foghorn’s mating call is so powerful it can cause hearing damage. Ringing in at 125 decibels, the alarming birdsong beats out the howl of howler monkeys. It is comparable to the sound level of a rock concert or even a chainsaw.
Want to hear the White Bellbird’s call in the wild? You can find them in the northern part of Nicaragua at Saslaya National Park, or deep within the forests of Jinotega and Matagalpa.
Nicaragua’s national bird is the distinctive Turquoise-browed Motmot.
Colorful and social, this blue brushed bird is easily spotted in the wild. Called the Guardabarranco, or “ravine guard” by Nicaraguans, it likes to perch in plain view on tree branches, fences, and even telephone lines.
HN Hint: The Motmot is featured on Nicaraguan currency! Look for it on the 200-córdoba note.
Despite its abundance amongst the trees, the Motmot actually prefers to nest underground. It digs into the side of a dirt mound and resides inside the tunnel with its mate. Oftentimes, Motmots steal preexisting lizard nests. You can spot the round holes along the sides of roads, or anywhere you find natural dirt banks.
You can catch a Motmot sighting in Nicaragua even if you aren’t an expert birder. Many of these birds are fearless and will even let you approach them before taking off. But if you really want to see a Turquoise-browed Motmot, the Laguna de Apoyo nature reserve is a good place to start.
This list only scratches the surface of a land that has so much biodiversity to offer. For those who want to get away from the city lights, the jungles of Nicaragua offer a refuge of natural beauty, exotic mystique, and serene wildlife.
Bursting with color, Nicaragua’s flora and fauna is so abundant that biologists are still documenting its extent. The multitude of protected nature reserves offer a safe haven for many critically endangered species threatened by habitat loss. The countless exotic animals in Nicaragua make the country an environmentalist’s playground.
Nicaragua is truly paradise for the animal lover. Visit a nature reserve on your next trip, and keep your eyes peeled for one of these cool creatures!