Wild Adventures in Tortuguero Costa Rica
Land of the Turtles
Tortuguero, Costa Rica – is a remote destination for humans and nesting turtles alike.
On the recommendation of German sailors we met in Guatemala, our visit to Costa Rica had to include the journey in search of Sea Turtles along the Caribbean coast in Tortuguero National Park. Generally, it is better not to schedule Tortuguero as your first destination after landing in Costa Rica. Transportation can be delayed and it’s always better to ensure you and your luggage make all the connections together.
Traveling light has it’s advantages – I booked the same hotel for the night we landed in San Jose and again the night we shuttled back from Tortuguero. We stored our small roller bag and back pack at the hotel for the two nights that we would be gone. We carried our computers and a minimal amount of gear with us to Tortuguero making transit very easy.
The Turtle Nesting Grounds
The Sea Turtle Conservancy has a research center located at the north end of the Village of Tortuguero. Founded by conservation biologist Dr Archie Carr in 1959, this group continues to work with the local community and the Costa Rican government advocating for preservation of the turtle population and protection of their nesting grounds along the beaches. Their work helped lead to the creation of Tortuguero National Park protecting not only the sea turtles but jungle plants, birds and larger animals including jaguars, spider monkeys, and howler monkeys. Striking a balance between the financial reality of the villagers and sustainable tourism, an economic transition from turtle harvesting to tourism has been occurring over the last 50 years.
The visitors center has a nice intro video and well-done displays in both Spanish and English. (The entrance fee of $2 supports their work.) We visited three times during our stay with an ever growing list of questions for the workers as we explored the beach.
We missed the more popular nesting season but got to experience a small bit of hatching season. Once the turtles hatch within the deep nest, they spend time digging their way up to the surface. All this activity within the nest is building up the flipper muscles that will be needed for swimming once they reach the sea. The turtles cluster just below the surface clamoring with their siblings until the outside air temperatures drop and they make the final push up and out.
Reaching this point in life is actually pretty amazing with feral dogs, crabs, and humans prone to digging up the nests before the turtles are ready to emerge. Once they do emerge, it’s a dash to the sea before flying predators can take their toll. The journey across the sand is critical to imprinting the beach as THE place to return for nesting if and when these turtles mature. All in all, a very complicated process that is only partially understood by scientists and turtle devotees around the world.
For us, it was a bit distressing to come upon a nest that had been exposed too early by a feral dog. The hatchlings that were up on the surface looked to be dehydrated and wouldn’t be making the journey to the sea. A local man covered the nest opening with sand in the hopes that the active turtles below would continue building muscle strength and reemerge when they were ready.
Tortuguero National Park
The highlight of our trip was a morning boat tour within the National Park. We chose a tour offered by our hotel which is owned by a trained naturalist. The guide was extremely knowledgeable and great at siting wildlife. The boat tours travel designated “water trails” within the Park but each trip will be different based on the wildlife activity and your guide’s skill in spotting critters. My camera phone isn’t quite up to capturing all the action that included howler monkeys, macaws and sloths. (Traveling light also has some compromises…)
Take a peek at some of our wild encounters – click on the individual photos to see a larger version.
The National Park also has a hiking trail in the jungle that parallels the beach. It is muddy so some form of Wellies are required – several locals offer boots for rent just outside the park.
It was a very exciting walk with a spider monkey spotting and a minor freak out on this seeing this snake – later to be identified as a baby boa not the deadly Fer-de-Lance. (Phew!)
Lodging and Transport
All-inclusive lodge packages on offer seemed pricey and the food options were a bit of a concern so for this part of our Costa Rican visit we decided to put together our own package. My plan was to spend 2 nights in Tortuguero which would give us one full day to explore at our leisure. That meant researching several travel options to Tortuguero which all require a boat trip once you reach one of the docks on the river / canal system.
My favorite way to save money and get to know a place is using public transport. It usually takes a bit of extra time on the journey and in the case of Tortuguero, time to actually understand the various connections. But getting to Tortuguero cost about $49 for the two of us using a taxi / bus / bus / water taxi route versus the $100 we paid for a shuttle service on the return journey. The majority of the outbound expense was $33 to taxi from near the SJO airport to the downtown bus station.
Using this guide to public transport gave me the confidence to choose transit adventure over comfort. All along the journey we were helped by transit workers very used to guiding non-Spanish speaking tourists to the next step in the process.
The buses and water taxis are well synchronized for the trip from San Jose to Tortuguero while the return journey has some dead time waiting for connections. Choosing a 2:00pm shuttle service back to San Jose allowed us time for a leisurely hike on the day of our departure. The hike in the National Park was well worth the extra cash.
Many of the Tortuguero lodges are only accessible via water taxi so I pared down our accommodation options to those within Tortuguero Village proper. Casa Marbella B&B had rave reviews and is a nice mid-range option. The room was clean and comfortable with filling breakfasts featuring lots of fresh fruit on both mornings.
Being right in the Village allowed us to explore on our own schedule – between some heavy downpours.
Within a couple of hours we had gotten the lay of the land since the Village is small. A dance group was practicing in the community center, families set up small football pitches (soccer fields) on the beach while other locals gathered at Sunset Park overlooking the canal.
Dining in the Village
Another reason we are selective about choosing tour packages is that we have some diet limitations that make all-inclusive deals not such a good deal for us. I’m vegetarian so options can range from very good (envy-inducing and inspired dishes) to very bad (French fries, sweet corn and rolls for dinner on an Alaskan tour.)
Joel has a more unique limitation – onions will trigger migraine headaches. This can get pretty complicated depending on a country’s cuisine so street food is rarely a safe choice for us. Joel’s fallback is hamburgers or Subway sandwiches since, sad to say, they both tend to be ubiquitous all over the world.
Budda Cafe turned out to be a good option for us and we ate dinner there twice. Wi-Fi could be a bit spotty at our hotel so we supplemented with the strong signal at Budda to backup all our photos.
Lunch on our final day was at a local soda. A small family-run establishment, the food was good but took so long in the making that we had to have it wrapped to go as we ran to make our scheduled water taxi departure. I ordered Gallo Pinto – it is served pretty much everywhere and it’s been a tasty option for me. The basic dish is a mix of spiced rice and beans (sorry Joel, it usually has onions…) served with all sorts of variations including eggs, tortillas, and sour cream as a condiment.
The journey to Tortuguero itself was an adventure but was eclipsed by the natural wonders that we experienced once we arrived. Put it on your must-see destinations for Costa Rica!
Have you been to Tortuguero? What other Costa Rican adventures can you recommend?