Costa Rica Adventure: Exploring Tortuguero National Park
January is right in the heart of the high season in Costa Rica, which is a good time to visit because it’s not so wet. During our two-week tour of the country, we visited four different provinces—Tortuguero, Arenal, Monte Verde (The Cloud Forest) and Manuel Antonio. In this article, I will be focusing on Tortuguero, the first stop on our tour.
A Word About San Jose, Costa Rica
We flew into San Jose at the beginning of our adventure and came back to it at the end. With a population of 288,000 within the city limits and 2.15 million in the greater metropolitan area, it is the largest city in Costa Rica and home to one-third of the total population of the country. It is also considered the safest of all Latin American cities according to World Population Review.
We stayed for a couple nights at Hotel Presidente in the historic district of downtown San Jose in order to acclimate to the country before continuing our tour. The hotel had funky artwork on the outside of the building, which was old but comfortable, and provided all the amenities you would expect in a downtown hotel.
San Jose is not a tourist destination in and of itself; the city’s economic base is business and industry, but we thoroughly enjoyed being tourists there. It was particularly refreshing to not be harassed by local vendors when passing by their shops, which usually happens in more touristy spots.
Our hotel was very well situated in the downtown core with the pedestrian boulevard only steps away. As the name implies, the pedestrian boulevard is a long thoroughfare which doesn’t allow vehicles, only walkers and bicycles. Some regular streets intersect with the boulevard so you must use caution when crossing, but otherwise, you are free to stroll along this long avenue and peruse the many shops, bakeries (the baked goods are amazing) and museums that fill the downtown area without worry of being hit by a car.
With several parks and open plazas adjacent to the boulevard that were easily accessible, we had no problem filling up the one full day we had there. Prices were reasonable for food as well, and we each enjoyed a salad buffet for lunch that was quite filling and included one meat item, bread and a drink for $6.50.
On an interesting note: several of the stores in the downtown area sold motorcycles, appliances and furniture all in the same shop—bizarre!
Tortuguero National Park
If you desire to get away from the hassles of everyday life and be in a lush tropical jungle setting, you will love Tortuguero. Named for the thousands of turtles that nest on the beach here July through October, Tortuguero is a draw for any nature enthusiast. It is situated on the Caribbean Sea and surrounded by canals. In fact, the only way in is by water or air—there are no cars. You have to tour Tortuguero National Park by motorboat, canoe or kayak.
My husband and I stayed at Pachira Lodge on the outskirts of the National Park. Pachira Lodge is a semi-rustic lodge in the heart of the Costa Rican rain forest. Our accommodations included three meals (alcoholic beverages extra) and a guide for the duration of our stay. We also could have all the tea, coffee and soda crackers we wanted. I call it “semi-rustic” because we had electricity and hot water (in the shower only), towels and toilet paper but that was it as far as amenities go. The windows did not have glass panes, only screens, and no phone or TV. We did have a safe—a very old keyed box in which to keep our valuables. The safe wasn’t large enough to hold a laptop computer.
But what the accommodations seemed to be lacking, the surrounding area made up for in spades! We took a canal tour by motorboat with our guide Julio, who pointed out all the interesting flora and fauna we encountered. Of particular note was a three-toed sloth snoozing high in a tree, the caiman, who was lurking just under the surface of the water with only his eyes and top of head showing, three different species of monkeys (howler, white-faced and spider) and many tropical birds.
As part of our lodge package, we also had a guided walk along a half-mile nature walk where we were able to view more monkeys, another sloth and numerous lizards, frogs, birds, plants and flowers. It happened to be pouring rain when we went, but it didn’t dampen our spirit of adventure in this exotic paradise! Later, we had the opportunity to repeat this walk at night which offered a whole new perspective and made it seem as if we were in a completely different place. At night, with only a flashlight, we were able to find a tink frog (smallest in Costa Rica) a scorpion and the famed red-eyed tree frog.
You don’t need to worry about an alarm clock in Tortuguero because every morning at sunrise you will awaken to the calls of the howler monkeys up in the trees surrounding the lodge. We were told it is only the males that make the calls. Apparently, the male howler monkeys have a large hyoid bone in the front of their necks that amplifies the sound, creating an incredibly loud and low yell. They make quite a ruckus that’s impossible to sleep through, especially considering all we had for windows were mesh screens!
The Village of Tortuguero
We also had the opportunity to visit the little village of Tortuguero, located right across the canal from our lodge. We were taken over by boat, and after a (not so brief) talk about the local culture and, of course, the turtles that come to the dark sandy beaches every year to nest, we were turned free to explore town for an hour. Although the village is tiny, I really wished we had been given more time to explore the little shops that lined the avenue, displaying local crafts, textiles and food.
As it was, all we could do was skim the surface of this quaint little community tucked away from the rest of the world. We bought ice cream cones on one end of town and mojitos on the other. I noted there were several small hotels in town if one wanted to stay in the village.
On our final day, as we made the hour-long boat ride back to catch our bus and resume our Costa Rican tour, my husband was delighted to spot a crocodile out sunning himself on a sandbar in the middle of the canal. Our boat driver slowed down so the passengers could get a good look at this prehistoric-looking creature. Spectacular!
A Note About the Weather
Although January is considered to be in the dry season in Costa Rica, it is never “dry” in Tortuguero. The locals say there are two seasons: wet and really wet—we’re talking flooding! It is also nearly impossible to predict the weather in that region and our weather app on the phone was consistently wrong. It rained several times in the two-and-a-half days we were there, sometimes rather hard.
The good news is, it would rain for a while then suddenly clear up and be warm and beautiful. You could either wait out a shower or brave the rain, which was never cold. If you want to go when the turtles are running, you need to be prepared for much soggier conditions. Turtles run from roughly July through October, their wettest time of year!
© 2019 Traci Wilson