Finding paradise at Tortuguero National Park
One of the greatest things about Costa Rica? Even though it is a very popular holiday destination, options to go off the beaten track are neverending! This incredibly small country offers various microclimates and distinctive cultures to explore – everytime you turn the corner you end up in a totally different place. An easy start to see more of this is to leave the popular Pacific coast behind, cross the country and make your way to the Caribbean side. Suddenly streets are packed with locals, Caribbean flair like in Curacao fills the air, the Spanish dialect here is easier to understand and the Costa Rican motto “Pura Vida” (that means pure life) merges with the Caribbean Rastafari mind.
A good pit stop for a tour around Caribbean Costa Rica is Tortuguero National Park. This secluded green paradise feels like an island – not because it actually is one, but because it can only be reached by boat or seaplane due to the surrounding rivers and canals. Yet it is fairly easy to reach from San Jose by public bus and boat, which takes about 6 hours. Entering via Cariari / La Pavona and leaving via Moin / Puerto Limon the park is on the way from San Jose to Puerto Viejo in the south.
“Wait a minute – a remote paradise, almost untouched by man’s hand, no cars, just trees, water and turtles? That sounds pricey…” I’m sorry to disappoint your assumption, as the public transport ticket will only cost a couple of dollars and there are plenty low-budget options in the village. However, doesn’t a marvelous place like this crave for a bit more luxury? Do you want to be stuck in the village or rather sleep in a lonesome bungalow in the jungle? After all it’s your holiday!
In my imagination a trip to the Caribbean is made of splashing about in waterfront pools, enjoying delicious dinner menus and sipping on tropical cocktails all day long. I think I’m not alone with longing for a couple of days in paradise every once in a while.
Our choice to fulfill this desire is a weekend getaway at Tortuga Lodge & Gardens. Nestled in between the park’s two rivers this lodge offers beautilicious river view rooms with a balcony or terrace and a private hammock to lounge in. The rooms are furnished in a modern but rustic way – soft white bed linen, wooden floors and furniture, flowers on the tables and the beds. Guests can choose between Upstairs and Downstairs Rooms, Junior and Penthouse Suites, all including full-board catering and complete relaxation.
The room’s windows take up almost the same space as the walls and do not come with glass panels, just mosquito nets. This allows for the jungle to provide the tunes to which to fall asleep and wake up to – frogs croaking a lullaby, howler monkeys substituting the alarm clock set for the sunrise hunt and the songs of colourful birds during the day.
Ok, I lied on this one – the lodge does not have a floating restaurant. Although sitting on its terrace right by / over the river helps the illusion.
When booking a complete package (usually 2-4 nights) all meals are included in the price. Lunch is served family-style – a fixed three course menu. For dinner the restaurant offers a reduced a la carte menu of 3 – 4 choices per course. This form of dinner compilation has two advantages: guests can actively participate in their holiday diet and the chefs get to know their likes and dislikes, which facilitates preparing culinary highlights.
The chefs at Tortuga Lodge try to blend tropical flavours and traditional Costa Rican recipes resulting in the restaurant’s very special creations like mango ceviche (a fish-less variation of the Costa Rican fish stew) or Ron-Don (Caribbean fish stew). If you don’t like fish the meat and vegetarian dishes are just as delicious. Whatever you’re having, leave some space for dessert – my favourite: coconut cream pie.
Wildlife Watching at its Best
As this piece of heaven is called Tortuga Lodge & Gardens it is obvious that we scheduled some time to spend in the gardens. The best way to get around is to take part in the complimentary morning walk with a naturalist guide at 6am every morning. Don’t worry the howler monkeys will wake you up in time! On our tour on the property’s trails we encountered several species of wildlife, including mentioned monkeys, Poison Dart Frogs, Eye Lash Vipers, Long Nosed Bats or Tiger Herons.
Even while lounging on the porch or hanging out at the pool we met more than one kind of bird including different species of Toucans.
Adventure is not limited to the lodge. The front desk staff organizes tours to the village and the national park, fishing trips to the Caribbean sea or turtle watch tours to the beach year round. However, it is highly recommended to wait for the peak of turtle season as being too early or late often ends in disappointment.
The best time to visit Mr. Monkey and Ms. Snake is the early morning (start at 5 or 6am) as this is the wildlife’s most active time. We decided on a kayak tour through the national park, which is a great way to get up close and go unnoticed by the animals. We met out tour guide and made our way to the entrance of the park in a motorized boat – fun and action-loaded, but definitely not the best way to meet a shy animal. Luckily we had our kayaks in the back and quickly turned off the beaten track. Inside the small creeks of the park the only other people we met were also in kayaks or canoes – bigger motorized boats are prohibited in these waterways.
Two hours and sunburned feet later we had seen a river otter sunbathing and scuba-diving, monkeys jumping from tree to tree with babies on their backs and waterbirds hunting for insects. Here and there an electric Blue Morpho danced through the air.
Concerning the tour operators and guides in the village it is hard to keep track. In general it is important to ask for recommendations, if you’re not booking through your hotel. Always choose certified tour guides as some others might violate National Park rules only to create sensation (e.g. stepping off the boat and into the jungle, which is strictly forbidden).
Our number 1 pick of Tortuguero tour guides is Barbara Hartung, one of the few women in business. The German expat biologist has been living in the village for 18 years and is an expert when it comes to wildlife and sustainability. Her canoe tours stand out, because she delivers lots of information and the authentic image of an explorer. She is eager to enter the creeks first thing in the morning before others disturb the silence, spots an incredible amount of wildlife and yet also points out her concerns for the National Park.
While kayaking gives you the individual freedom of movement and the possibility to get real close, a canoe tour with Barbara makes you meet a flock of great people and enjoy the strength of the group – who said something about taking a turn in paddling for me?
So next time you’re thinking about a trip to the Costa Rican jungle consider choosing the country”s Caribbean coast over the usual suspects. As it takes a little more effort to reach, Tortuguero National Park is less frequented than Manuel Antonio NP and not on every traveler’s list. Corcovado NP might be more famous for big cat spottings, however the heart ofTortuguero is much easier to access by kayak/canoe and just as perfect to mingle with monkeys and birds.
Thank you Costa Rica Expeditions and Tortuga Lodge for having us over the weekend, and to Barbara Hartung for taking us along on her excellent canoe tour.
All pictures by Brian Shaw, except #15 by Kathi Kamleitner.