Named after the Spanish tortuga, meaning turtle, the main attraction in Tortuguero, Costa Rica is the endangered green sea turtles, who come to nest in the black volcanic sands of the park’s 11 miles of protected beach from July to September each year. Seeing the hundreds of behemoth mothers, who can weigh up 700 pounds, haul themselves ashore to dig nests and lay eggs is an experience probably only surpassed by the sight of countless inch-long baby turtles clumsily making their way to the sea two months later.
Unfortunately, however, it can be hard to get thousands of turtles to change their ancient nesting patterns to meet your travel schedule, so there is the chance you could end up in Costa Rica in early April like me and my wife without the slightest chance of seeing this magnificent sight. Even so, Tortuguero has much to offer.
First things first, Tortuguero is remote; from San Jose, it’s a three-hour drive followed by a 1.5-hour boat ride through the rivers and canals that characterize this corner of the country. Located in Northwest Costa Rica just south of Nicaragua on the Caribbean coast, you won’t see a single car here; boats and canals take their place, adding a sense of adventure and fun to even the simplest outing.
If time is at a premium, you can opt to trade the bus ride for a twenty minute flight on Nature Air, the world’s first carbon neutral airline. Flights start as low as $50 each way from San Jose and the views are spectacular. We took a bus to get there, but we flew back.
The friendly and tightly knit town of Tortugeuro sits within Tortuguero National Park on the thin stretch of land dividing a vast lagoon from the Caribbean Sea, the musical and cultural influence of which is clearly evident. There are a few shops, information centers, and places to eat or grab a drink in the town, but of course, the real activities are in the surrounding forest.
Guided boat tours through the intricate and vast network of jungle canals offer one of the best ways to spot wildlife, including caimans and crocodiles, as well as hundreds of species of birds like toucans and great blue herons. Iguanas ubiquitously lounge in bushes and trees along the water, and basilisk lizards can be seen everywhere running like little gravity-defying dinosaurs on their hind two legs. Elusive jaguars also inhabit the area, and three species of monkeys (capuchin, howler, and spider) can readily be found swinging through trees curiously eyeing sightseers.
We took a total of three tours through the canals, and saw new animals each time with the help of our fearless Tortuguero-born guide Ray Brown, who had grown up hunting in the forests he now helps protect, educate tourists and researchers alike.
We stayed at Pachira Lodge, a 34-acre waterside resort with over one hundred bungalows, two restaurants, bars, swimming pools, and a spa, all situated amidst a maze of winding paths and gardens where you’re more likely to see monkeys and exotic birds than other travelers. All-inclusive packages start around $250 for two days and one night, and include transportation from San Jose plus delicious meals and guided tours. The staff were congenial and warm, and the simple yet spacious rooms offer the right mix of comfort and authentic jungle experience. Highly recommended.