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Costa Rica’s Tortuguero Is Turtle Heaven

Tortuguero, on the Atlantic side of Costa Rica, provides a wealth of opportunities to see a variety of sea turtles and other jungle life.

 

The quality of life seems so much richer in the absence of cars. Tortuguero, a tiny town on the eastern coast of Costa Rica, is one place where you can savor that richness—and getting there is half the adventure, as my family can attest.

Tortuguero (“region of turtles”) is home to one of the largest sea turtle migrations in the Caribbean. Unless you plan on arriving in Tortuguero in much the same way the sea turtles do, you have two choices of journey: by light aircraft or by boat on canals that were built to service banana plantations.

There are many places to embark on a boat to Tortuguero; in the costal city of Limón, for example, you can take a water taxi for three hours on a canal that parallels the coast. Canals that service Tortuguero from points north and west can vary depending on the season and level of the canals. Fortunately it’s easy to book a shuttle/boat combination from nearly any hostel, hotel or local travel agency in Costa Rica.

Pura Vida Jungle Cruise

We began our journey to Tortuguero from the center of the country. A few hours after leaving the inland town of La Fortuna, we found ourselves in Geest, which is simply the dock of a large banana plantation. Our boat’s captain, Juan, needed very little encouragement to talk. Juan embodied Costa Rica’s rallying cry of Pura Vida, which is translated as “pure life.” Juan was full of love for his country and ensured that his passengers appreciated the area as much as he does.

Disney’s Jungle Cruise is a natural comparison to the journey along the canal to Tortuguero, except Juan didn’t tell corny jokes, and the crocodiles weren’t fake. Juan pointed out every tree, mammal, reptile and bird to us, slowing down and stopping to be sure we didn’t miss anything.

When our jungle cruise came to a stop an hour later, we were in the town of Tortuguero, population 690. We settled into a guesthouse on the south edge of town. A 30-second walk to the east of our guesthouse was the Caribbean Sea, and a 30-second walk to the west was the canal on which we’d arrived. A minute south of us was the entrance to a national park. Unfortunately, we arrived a few months too early to observe turtles coming in from the sea to lay their eggs, but I couldn’t help but like a place where the main street through town is a footpath made of sand, paved in the muddy places with coconut shells.

Turtles and Other Residents of Tortuguero

The people of Tortuguero are fiercely proud of “their” turtles. Nearly 50 years ago, the village harvested the turtles in huge numbers for meat, but now the villagers are whole-heartedly engaged in turtle conservation, often deploying large groups of schoolchildren to guard nesting sites. We adopted a sea turtle for $25 at the local conservation center, and are now the proud parents of Turtle 24601. “Adopting” this particular turtle reduces the chances that it will be harvested, and when it’s spotted in the wild, we also receive an e-mail update.

In addition to the giant sea turtles, which only visit long enough to lay eggs and then leave, Tortuguero is chock full of caiman (a species of alligator), sloths, snakes, toucans and these nasty stinging ants that attack you if you accidentally touch their tree. You are virtually guaranteed to see all of these in abundance by exploring Tortuguero National Park with an experienced guide. Without the guide you likely won’t see much, but you may accidentally touch the wrong tree and unleash the power of those ants. The best and most economical guides are local people with a sign posted outside their home or place of business. If your visit includes viewing nesting turtles, a guide is required.

Visitors can explore the park in one of two ways: walk along a nature trail that is six inches underwater when it’s raining (and only two inches underwater when it isn’t) or canoe along an endless series of canals and rivers. We opted for both methods.

A small, hand-paddled canoe has many advantages over the motorboats used by the big-name lodges. Small canoes hold fewer people, making the experience more intimate and the shallower draft means they can maneuver into much smaller canals. The biggest advantage of canoes is their stealth. Our guide maneuvered his canoe within arm’s reach of a caiman that was completely submerged, save for his eyes, which were camouflaged in the flotsam. No one but guide knew it was there. For a few moments, our guide talked about the hunting capabilities of the caiman. Then for dramatic effect he pointed out its eyes breaching the water’s surface only inches from our boat.

Travel Details

With frequent rain, mornings can feel chilly in Tortuguero—yet by afternoon it can be hot as an oven and as humid as a steam room. There’s something green and leafy clinging to anything and everything: telephone poles, the tops of picnic tables and the ropes holding up the occasional suspension bridge. Tortuguero is also the only place I’ve ever been where people regularly carry bottles of 100 percent DEET in pockets designed for water bottles.

The lodges on the north end of town are frequented by guests who fly in and never leave the lodge except to venture into the park on large motorboats. To savor your experience, plan on staying at one of the many smaller guesthouses in town and hire a local tour guide to take you into the park. If your Tortuguero plans include observing turtle nesting, the best times are roughly from April through September, depending on the species of turtle. Make reservations well in advance during the peak months of July and August. In the off-season, you can show up unannounced and select from a wide variety of guesthouses and hostels. We stayed at Hostel El Icaco, located right on the beach, for $10 per person. It’s one of the few guesthouses that allows guests to book online.

Tortuguero is a must-see, but because it’s off the beaten path, it often falls off many Costa Rica itineraries. It’s a world where flip-flops take the place of cars, and hammocks replace appointment books. Ease yourself into this world by skipping the airplane flight and opt for the cheap water taxi. Sure, it will take longer, but you will grin with exhilaration as you are immersed in a part of Costa Rica that rushed travelers simply miss. 


Destinations: Costa Rica, Tortuguero

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Bird Watching, Boating


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