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Costa Rica: Limon Province – Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero is the most important green sea turtle nesting ground in the Western Hemisphere.

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.

After checking into our accommodation and grabbing a bite to eat we thought we would explore what Tortuguero had to offer and to be honest it was not a lot! There is one main street which is where most of the shops and restaurants are located, and this is probably about a third of a mile from end to end. So, we were soon done with our little adventure and made a beeline for the largest store in town. Just we were approaching there was a power outage. It was still daylight so seeing our way around was not an issue, the problem is in this day and age, shops rely on electricity to power their tills – but importantly the credit card machines. One thing to be aware of is that there is no ATM in the village. There was one installed a few years back, but it got stolen. Having seen the village police force sitting around and just chatting among themselves it was no surprise that the culprits were never apprehended.

By all accounts, power outages are common in Tortuguero, so they are used to improvising. Luckily, we had cash and were happy to get a paper receipt.

The streets of Tortuguero Village
Some bizzare models of animals
The small park in Tortuguero Village

I had booked the three tours the following day. I was most concerned with the 5 am canoe tour. The weather forecast was not looking too great and the prospect of spending 3-hours in a canoe in the pouring rain was not appealing. Fortunately, they were flexible, after all this is Costa Rica – Pura Vida – and were pushed out the canoe tours until the day after next. I decided that the other two tours; a walking tour in the National Park and a night tour would be okay even in the rain.

1. WALKING TOUR

When we arrived, our guide was already waiting. This was a private tour, so it was just him and us. After some brief introductions we headed out. We weren’t quite sure what to expect in the rainforest, but the fact the guide was wearing wellington boots should have been a clue.

The trail through the Park starts in the village itself. Whilst the National Park is huge you only get to walk through a small part of it, which is designed to protect the birds and animals who live there. You could stray further, but you would likely run afoul of the Park Rangers or meet an unwanted snake or two!

I had bought the Park permits online, but we still had to check in. Our guide said that it had been raining a lot and the trail he planned to take us on was a bit waterlogged and offered to take us on a trail that skirted most of the forest, which was drier. We thought what the heck – we had waterproof shoes and how bad could it be. We soon found out. After about 100-yards our shoes were filled with water and our socks soaked through. It was warm so getting cold feet was not an issue, so we pressed on. Realising this is the wettest part of Costa Rica we should have expected this. One of the good things about the jungle is that it supports a wide range of diversity – the downside is that it is difficult to spot the wildlife! For this reason, it is a great idea to take a guide with you as they will see things that you would never spot without years of training!

The Park Headquarters in Tortuguero Village
The walking trail in the jungle can get very muddy

As we walked through the jungle our guide pointed out various plants and trees along the trail. The biodiversity here is incredible! The most stunning plant in this mass of vegetation is the lobster claw heliconia, its bright red and yellow flowers jumping out of the backdrop of greenery. Hidden among the dense jungle hides a cornucopia of wildlife. We came across a tiny, bright red poison dart frog, which was less than one inch long.

Lobster Claw Heliconia
Red poison dart frog

Somethings that we not quite so difficult to see were the great curassow, a large tropical turkey and the spider monkeys.

The great curassow is an attractive bird, unlike the turkeys, we westerners are familiar with. The male great curassow is a handsome bird with glossy black plumage and a crest of forward-curling feathers. Overhunting and habitat loss have made this species quite shy, but we were lucky enough to see a couple scuttling along the trail in front of us.

The spider monkeys we easy to spot. They are quite active during the day so you can see them swinging from the trees. These monkeys are most active in the early morning before it gets too hot (in the tropics the mornings are only slightly cooled than the temperatures later in the day!). They have long, lanky arms and prehensile (gripping) tails that enable them to move gracefully from branch to branch and tree to tree. These nimble monkeys spend most of their time aloft and maintain a powerful grip on branches even though they have no thumbs. Spider monkeys find food in the treetops and feast on nuts, fruits, leaves, bird eggs, and spiders. They can be noisy animals and often communicate with many calls, screeches, barks, and other sounds.

The great curassow
A pair of male great currasows
The tail of the spide monkey acts like a fifth limb

After an hour of walking through the jungle we were offered the chance to return the way we came or walk back along the beach, we chose the latter. The beaches are not the most attractive in Costa Rica, but they are popular nesting sites for the green and leatherback sea turtles. Sadly, we were there out of season so all we could see was the indentations in the sand where the nests had been. As we walked, we came across the remains of sea turtles, including what was left of their carapaces. We learned that the turtles are not only predated at sea, but they provide a tasty meal for jaguars. They are very cumbersome out of the water, so it is not difficult for the jaguars to catch them. You might expect that the jaguar would just eat the turtle where they kill them, but no, they often drag their heavy prey up into the branches of the trees. These are powerful beasts. Locals would often find the remains of turtles up in the trees and believed that the turtles somehow flew up there.

The beach at Tortuguero
Turtles nest in there thousands along the beaches of Tortuguero
The remain of a sea turtle - probably eaten by a jaguar

2. NIGHT WALKING TOUR

In the evening we had planned another tour, this time at night! Darkness falls early in Costa Rica in December, so we were able to head out on the tour about 6 pm. Our guide this time was a pleasant young man named Israel. For this tour it was not necessary to head out into the depths of the jungle as there was plenty to see at night close by the village. Also, whilst reptiles, such as snakes are not active at night, you would not want to accidentally step on one!

The focus of this tour was spiders and reptiles. Whilst we were able to spot sloths in the trees, they are not the most exciting things to observe. Although we did see and an opossum scaling a tree. The nocturnal animals are far more animated than sloths!

We found along the way numerous spiders, mainly orb spiders, some of which were the size of our hands. These spiders are not dangerous at all, but their size is still a little intimidating and I personally would not like to run into their webs. The orb spiders live on their webs, so it is easy to see them. The tarantulas on the other hand lurk inside holes in tree trunks and other darks recesses, so they are not easy to find – and we did not see one in our whole trip to Costa Rica (which some people may prefer, but we’d like to have see one.)

Orb spider
The orb spiders are sizeable!
Another orb spider
A stick insect

Beyond the creepy crawlies there were plenty of frogs and toads out and about in Tortuguero. Many of these you can hear but finding this is quite a challenge, but we did get to see the red-eyed tree frog. Most frogs and toads are not very pretty (a matter of opinion) but the red-eyed tree frog is quite attractive by anyone’s standard.

A toad
The red-eyed tree frog

After about 90-minutes walking we ended back in the heart of Tortuguero village and headed straight to the Buddha Café to grab some dinner.

3. CANOE TOUR

We woke early to join our 6 am canoe tour of the rivers and canals of Tortuguero National Park. Our guide was Israel, who had taken us on the night tour the previous day. We were joined by one other young lady, from Belgium.
Casting off we headed out into the main waterway. Whilst we were all provided with paddles, there was no expectation for us to use them and Israel was prepared to do all the work. But I did chip in here and there so we could keep ourselves moving ahead of the many other canoes that were on similar tour to ours.

After the heavy rains of the previous day, it was a rain free day, but there was a morning mist layering the river. This provided an atmospheric backdrop as we cut through the water to the far bank. With so much of the National Park closed to foot traffic travelling on the water is by far the best way to explore the area and see the wildlife.

A misty day on the river in Tortuguero National Park

The most common sightings are the waterfowl that inhabit the banks of the river, including several varieties of heron: the great blue heron, little blue heron and tiger heron. We also came across white egrets and anhingas. The anhinga is a large and slender waterbird with a long fanlike tail that resemble a turkey’s tail. They have a long S-shaped neck and a daggerlike bill. Anhingas swim with their bodies partly or mostly submerged and their long, snakelike neck held partially out of the water, which has earned them the nickname ‘snake bird’. Another bird you are likely to see is the jacana, which has a brown body, black neck and a yellow cap on its head. There are small birds with very large feet, which enables them to walk across the floating vegetation on the edge of Tortuguero’s waterway. Beyond the waterbirds we saw the endangered great green macaws and toucans flying across the water passing over our heads.

A tiger heron
A yellow crowned night heron
A little blue heron
A great blue heron
An egret
Anhinga, 'snake bird'

As well as birds there are plenty of reptiles to see, but most are too small to see from the river. Looking up into the trees you are likely to see large green iguanas hanging around, basking in the sun. Adult green iguanas typically grow to 1.2 to 1.7 m long which makes it the largest of all iguana species. To escape from predators, they flee into the water as they are excellent swimmers and divers. The tree dwelling reptile is an agile climber and can fall from a height of 15m and land unhurt. The green iguana has an excellent eyesight and detects movements from very far distances. In many parts of South and Central America the iguana has become an endangered species. It’s often called Gallina de Palo, meaning “tree chicken” because people use to hunt and eat them. We visited during the mating season when the adult male green iguanas turn a distinctive orange. Other reptiles we saw during our canoe trip included caiman (a smaller member of the alligator family) and a boa constrictor. Caimans are fantastic swimmers and we saw a couple skimming through the water in the river. Our beady eyed guide also managed to find us a nest of baby caiman as well as well-disguised boa constrictor hiding in a tree.

A green iguana Tortuguero National Park
The male green iguana turn orange in mating seaaon
A baby caiman
A nest of baby caiman

On the canoe tour you are likely to see many mammals, especially monkeys, spider and howler monkeys, and sloths.

A troop of howler monkeys on the river banks
A spider monkey and baby
Two-toed sloth

Planning your visit to Tortuguero National Park

Address:Av. 71 215, Limón, Costa Rica
Website:sinac.go.cr
Telephone:T: +50627550461
Hours & Fees:

The Tortuguero National Park entrance fee is $15 USD for foreigners + tax and is open 6 AM to 6 PM everyday.

  • Pack appropriately for humid weather. Since it is normal for it to rain in that area, bring appropriate waterproof equipment, especially if you have cameras. Check our packing list for rainy season. A rain jacket, waterproof backpack and fast drying clothes are a must.
  • Make sure to bring plenty of mosquito repellent and sunscreen. This area has a lot of mosquitoes!
  • Be aware that some locals are super pushy with which tour guide/company you go with. Don’t feel pressured and don’t be shy to ask different companies.
  • Bring Costa Rican colones. Tortuguero now has one ATM in the village near the boat docks but bring plenty of colones. It is also better to use Costa Rican currency than US dollars.
  • There are just a handful of restaurants in Tortuguero. We recommend Restaurante Mi Niño and Soda Oasis, two places for Costa Rican food.

Best time to visit Tortuguero

Since Tortuguero is on the Caribbean coast, the climate is very hot and humid. Temperatures stay around high 80s F (32 C) for most of the year with a very high humidity level. Additionally, it is one of the wettest places in Costa Rica!

The Caribbean also does not adhere to the dry/rainy seasons like the rest of Costa Rica. Even though the driest months are September, October and February, it can rain at any time of the year. December and January are rainy months.

Where to stay in Tortuguero

1. BUDDHA HOME & CAFE

During our visit to New York, we stayed at the Buddha Home which is located in the heart of the village on the main thoroughfare.

The house is securely located in a lush, tropical garden. That said this is a small village and the neighbouring properties are just the otherside of the fence so don’t expect solitude.

There is Wi-Fi but it is not great. The Buddha Home does not serve food so you’ll yhave to find this for yourself. Across from the Buddha Home is the Budha Cafe, which does lunch and evening meals and caters for vegans and vegetarians.

2. TORTUGUERO CASA PELICAN

Set in Tortuguero, a few steps from Tortuguero Beach, Tortuguero Casa Pelican offers air-conditioned accommodation and a garden. The accommodation provides room service, and organising tours for guests.

All units at the guest house come with a seating area. All rooms have a safety deposit box and free WiFi, while selected rooms also offer a garden view. All guest rooms feature a private bathroom, a hairdryer and bed linen.

Tortuguero Casa Pelican offers a terrace. Guests at the accommodation will be able to enjoy activities in and around Tortuguero, like hiking.

Tortuguero National Park is less than 0.6 miles from Tortuguero Casa Pelican.

3. ARACARI GARDEN HOSTEL

Aracari Garden Hostel has many facilities, such a free Wifi in the common area and in the rooms, a big garden, a spacious commun area, a fully equipped kitchen, reception and tour desk, transfer bookings, laundry service and free luggage storage

Aracari Garden Hostel is located close to the Tortuguero National Park – a paradise of fauna and flora in the north of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The Tortuguero National Park awaits you with unique experiences like canoeing tours through the canals, close encounters with the flora and fauna as well as the possibility to see the egg deposition or birth of the sea turtles.

Aracari Garden Hostel offer 9 comfortable rooms, 7 private rooms (double, triple and four bed) and 2 Dorms (5-6 persons), of differents sizes and suitable for all budgets. All rooms have a ensuite bathrooms with hot water and offer different details for the traveler as bed lights, sockets at the bed, free shower gel etc.

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