Blissfully secluded on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, the Tortuguero National Park is a wildlife lover’s little slice of paradise. Humboldt specialist Clara spent some time exploring this isolated National Park and enjoying first-hand the region’s pristine natural beauty.
Having arrived in Costa Rica on my international flight the day before and spent what seemed like far too few hours tucked up in my bed in the Central Valley just outside of San José, I’ll admit I was not feeling overly enthusiastic about Tortuguero when I received my 4am wakeup call, ready for my transfer departure at 5 o’clock.
I found that the blow of the early start was immediately softened by the strength of the excellent coffee provided to me by my hotel (the charming Finca Rosa Blanca), and the lovingly prepared boxed breakfast I was given for my onward journey to the remote and unspoilt canal systems of the Caribbean Coast. All checked out, coffee gulped down, my breakfast duly inhaled; I set off with my guide on the journey to the National Park.
GOOD TO KNOW: Most transfers from the Central Valley to Tortuguero are shared shuttles operated by the Tortuguero lodges. The comfortable minibuses pick up all incoming guests in the area and leave in the early morning.
Despite its relatively tiny size, Costa Rica is hugely geographically varied. Owing to its unique location on the Central American isthmus, straddling the mountains separating the cool breezes of the Pacific from the sultry heat of the Caribbean, the undulating landscapes of rural Costa Rica are simply stunning. Making our way out of the Central Valley, along winding mountain roads with views across local volcanoes and lazy mountain rivulets, the route from the city to Tortuguero passes through the verdant cloud forest vegetation of the Braulio Carrillo National Park where, assisted by the eagle-eyes of our guide, we were able to observe a plethora of unique bird species.
Within about an hour and a half the rich, bottle-green flora of the cloud forest and the wild ravines of the Central Valley began to melt away into the emerald hues of the rolling pastures and banana plantations characteristic of the tropical Caribbean. In Costa Rica, the sheer natural splendour of the countryside and the incredible abundance of fauna species means that no transfer is ever time wasted. En-route to my second breakfast in the town of Guápiles (a generous buffet helping of local speciality, Gallo Pinto), I ticked off a major Costa Rica essential – the sighting of my first sloths! These laid-back little crowd-pleasers are present throughout the country and were just one species among a number of animals and birds I was lucky enough to see before even arriving in the National Park. Upon arrival at the pier, we boarded a motorboat and for the next hour or so, slowly traversed these isolated waterways, spotting basilisks or ‘Jesus Christ lizards’ lurking in the vegetation along the way.
GOOD TO KNOW: In total, the journey from San José to Tortuguero is 5-6 hours long, with breaks for breakfast in Guápiles often included. It is also possible to take a short local flight from San José, lasting around 35 minutes.
My hotel for the next two nights was Manatus Lodge, ideally located amongst the dense vegetation lining the banks of the Tortuguero Canal and the most comfortable property in the region. Boasting spacious individual bungalows set amongst tropical gardens carefully designed with attracting wildlife in mind, this lodge is also the only property in Tortuguero with A/C, a small luxury that many a traveller will feel especially grateful for in the humidity of the rainforest. Stepping out of the boat into a stylish covered seating area, as incoming guests, we were offered a sublime welcome drink, along with a refreshing cold towel before settling down for lunch.
TOP TIP: Both yourself and your luggage are transported via boat to lodges in Tortuguero. During peak season, when space on the boat is limited – lodges impose a luggage limit of 12kg per person. Be prepared and pack a smaller bag within your suitcase to fill with what you’ll need for your stay. The rest of your luggage will be safely stored by lodge staff in local offices.
Offering all meals à la carte, Manatus is unique in its varied menu for guests despite the limitations imposed by its remote location. Whether tucking into international favourites or traditional Costa Rican dishes, I found the menu to be full of comforting treats, served in an open-air restaurant & bar area (frequented also by a mischievous local kinkajou) with the relaxed TLC of good home-cooking and a smile from the friendly staff. Highly recommended is the Caribbean-style breakfast: made up of a fried egg, fried Turrialba cheese, tomato salsa, sweet plantains, rice & beans – this scrumptious start to the day couldn’t be more typically Tico!
Without ever feeling too rushed, you can pack in a lot of exploring during a short stay in Tortuguero. Our first afternoon saw us take a short boat trip to the lazy beachside town of Tortuguero itself, where the soft hum of the Caribbean Sea kissing the idyllic palm-fringed beach blended into the symphony of exotic birdsong and the calls of street vendors selling freshly-tapped coconut water. Day two was devoted to wildlife spotting in the National Park and did not disappoint.
As our boat meandered through the narrow channels separating the canals, one couldn’t help but feel transported to an age before humankind inhabited this landscape – such is the pristine condition of this remote tropical paradise. Across two separate 2-3-hour motorboat navigations in the labyrinthine river system, I ticked caimans, black river turtles, white-faced capuchins, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, sloths, tiger herons, and even a wild boa constrictor off my wildlife wishlist. Breath-takingly beautiful and fizzing with forest life, the abundance of interesting fauna in the jungles of Tortuguero is utterly enchanting.
With as little as a two-night stay, Tortuguero provides an unparalleled introduction to wildlife-rich Costa Rica and the laid-back pace of rural life in the Caribbean Zone. Perfect for adventurous families and lovers of wildlife and nature, Tortuguero makes the perfect addition to any holiday to Costa Rica.
One thing is for certain – despite my initial reservations, it was definitely worth the 4am wakeup call!