Cahuita National Park was established in 1970 to protect a large coral reef off the…
Even paradise can look miserable on a wet day, and this is where we found ourselves on the morning of our fifth day in Costa Rica. Today was a travel day, so we didn’t mind it not being so nice. We were on our way to Tortuguero National Park.
In 1953 an American sea turtle researcher named Archie Carr traveled to the remote village of Tortuguero (“Place of the Turtles”) to investigate reports of a large turtle nesting ground. He was amazed by what he saw.
Tortuguero, Carr realized, was the most important green sea turtle nesting ground in the Western Hemisphere.
Each year between June and October, tens of thousands of green sea turtles returned to the dark sand beach to lay their eggs. Recognizing the region’s ecological importance, Carr alerted the Costa Rican government. In 1975 over 35 km (22 miles) of beach were set aside as Tortuguero National Park.
Since the national park was established, sea turtle populations have declined worldwide. But nestings at Tortuguero have increased nearly 500%. Today roughly 20,000 green turtles nest here each year — the largest colony of nesting green turtles in the world.
Sadly, we were travelling here outside of turtle breeding season but luckily there is much more to see than turtles.
Lying just beyond the beach are a handful of serpentine rivers that reach deep into the jungle, opening up a lush wilderness filled with wildlife.
You can explore the rivers by motor boat, kayak or canoe. As you cruise through the waterways, look for monkeys, sloths, parrots, crocodiles, caimans and dozens of other exotic animals.
All told, Tortuguero is home to 60 mammal species, 57 amphibian species, 111 reptile species, over 300 bird species, over 400 tree species and over 2,000 plant species!
With so much biodiversity, it’s no wonder Tortuguero is the Caribbean coast’s top eco-destination and Costa Rica’s third-most visited national park.
As we were coming from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in the southern area of the Caribbean coast we opted for the route from Moin, which takes about 3 to 4 hours.
There is one boat a day from Moin which leaves around 10:00 am, so you want to be there in good time (about 30 minutes before is suggested). Not leaving things to chance we had an early breakfast and left our hotel at 8:00 am for the hour-long journey from Puerto Viejo to Moin. We had a car, but there are shuttle buses and tour companies that run from Puerto Viejo to Moin for a reasonable charge.
The rain continued to pour down and it was a very moist indeed when we finally reached the small dock area at Moin, which is located right next to the container port. There were only a handful of boats, which more or less filled the place. There is sort of a car park, which it claims is secure but I was not so sure. Luckily, it was a rental car and we were fully insured … we just made sure we left nothing of value in the car. We didn’t have to pay anything and were told to tip the man when we got back from Tortuguero – although I was not quite sure who the man was.
We had reserved our places on the boat with a local travel company, but it was all informal and we had no confirmation number. They had told us to ask for Captain David and pay him our $35 per person. We made our way across to a group of men under a shelter looking in and asked whether there was a Captain David among them and sure enough one of the men spoke up, took our money and told us to hang around. Being a worrywart when it comes to travel all this informality made me anxious – but this is the way of things in Costa Rica!
Having secured our berth we made our way over to a ramshackle single-storey building to use the toilets and patiently waited in the rain for our boat to leave. There are no toilets on the boat and there is only about one place to stop on the 3-hour journey!
Sure enough, things started to happen. A man drove up in a truck and hauled out two barrels of gasoline, opened the cap and inserted a tube. He put the other end of the tube in his mouth and gave a huge suck, quickly removing the tube from his mouth and stuffing it into a hole in the boat, which I assumed was going into the fuel tank.
Once the boat was fuelled we were ready to load our bags. Now the boat we were travelling on was tiny, with enough room for 20 people max. It had a roof of sorts but apart from that it was open to the elements – luckily we had come prepared with rain jackets. There were about half-a-dozen fellow travellers waiting with us, all dripping wet from the rain. The bags were going onto the boat, mostly in an uncovered area. Our crew were prepared and pulled out some black bin bags, complete with large holes, into which we dropped our bags, after which they were stowed. At this point, we climbed aboard and set off on our 3 and half hour ride to Tortuguero.
We initially cruised at a leisurely pace and after a few hundred yards the captain stopped the boat, and we drifted to the side of the river. Oh no, surely the boat had not broken down! Fear not as on the outbound journey to Tortuguero the boat’s crew try to make it feel more like a tour than a mere transfer. As we drew closer the captain pointed out an extremely bedraggled 3-toed sloth hanging low in the branches of a tree. It looked sad, but that’s just me projecting emotions on to sloth, it may have been quite happy dangling in the rain. After a couple of minutes, we headed off to the other bank to see another sloth.
From our sloth spotting we chugged up the river another half a mile, and then the captain opened the throttle and we quickly picked up speed and were skipping across the water at a decent lick, and it was quite thrilling as we sped around the long curving bends in the river. As expected the boat’s canvas roof provide little protection from the rain, and as we hurtled along the river we were getting very wet. Never mind at least it was warm rain!
The route to Tortuguero from Moin uses the river system and man-made canals. At some points along the way you pass points in the river that opens out to the sea, and you can see the waves crashing on the beaches.
There are various hazards along the waterways, the main issue being the various detritus that has fallen into the water. Most of this is quite small and insignificant, but on one of the narrow canals, we came across a large tree that had toppled and nearly reached across to both banks. The trees have shallow roots and it is quite common that they fall in the water!
Our captain skillfully navigated his way around the tree and we were soon on our way again at full speed.
Along the way, we did get to see more wildlife. There were a lot of birds on the banks and in the trees; including spoonbills, pelicans, herons and cormorants. Another creature that inhabits these waters is the crocodile and we came across a huge specimen sitting on a sandbank as we entered the boundaries of Tortuguero National Park.
After about 3-hours we reached Tortuguero, wet and bedraggled.
Tortuguero is a small village on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast that is encompassed by a national park of the same name and lies on a rainforest-covered sandbar. The dock is tiny and we soon were docked and unloading. Luckily, the rain had stopped briefly and we scuttled off to find our hotel.
Planning your visit to Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero is located on the northern reaches of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. You can’t get to Tortuguero by land – so the only option is to travel by boat (or by plane).
The fastest way to get to Tortuguero is to fly on one of Costa Rica’s domestic carriers. Sansa and Aerobell both make daily flights from the capital of San Jose that will get you to Tortuguero’s small landing strip in 30-60 minutes.
The two most common routes by boat is from La Pavona, which is the best option if you are travelling from San Jose or La Fortuna or from Moin if you are travelling from the south Caribbean coast.
The La Pavona route to Tortuguero is the most popular as the boat ride only takes an hour. It takes about 2 hours 45 minutes to drive from San Jose to La Pavona, depending on the traffic and 3 to 4 hours by public bus. Boats leave for Tortuguero from La Pavona four times a day (7:30, 11:00, 1:00, and 4:30).
Best time to visit Tortuguero
The best time to visit Tortuguero is July – October for the turtle nestings. For the best weather, September and October are the best times to visit Tortuguero. The busiest times of the year in Tortuguero is December, July and August.