Unless you have the travel budget for a flight, traveling to Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica isn’t easy. It involves hours of driving, sometimes through massive banana plantations, followed by a 1.5 hour boat ride into the heart of this wet and wild park on the Caribbean Coast. It’s not a romantic journey, just plain long and apparently everybody is in a rush to get there. We were disturbed when our boat driver didn’t slow down at all as we sped past a sign that read “Manatee habitat. Slow down”.
Despite its remote location, Tortuguero is one of the most-visited national parks in Costa Rica. When you finally reach the park itself you will probably be amazed at just how little dry land there is. We were.
Tortuguero is made up of flooded grasslands now crisscrossed by a network of man-made canals put in before the area was protected. The rainforest here is also very humid and the area gets around 250 inches (6,400 millimeters) of rain every year. No wonder the park is almost entirely underwater and most of our explorations involved getting in a boat and cruising the canals and shoreline in search of wildlife.
Park exploration by boat
In Tortuguero “trails” have been replaced by “canals” which are explored in small, comfortable, open boats with four stroke engines and a mandatory guide. Even the ranger station, where the standard Costa Rican national park entrance fee of US$10 per person must be paid, is reachable by boat.
Morning, evening and night excursions on those canals got us close to capuchin monkeys (some of which peed on us), howler monkeys, aracaris, iguanas, toucans, spectacled caimans, all manner of egret and heron, fresh water turtles, and more. Sadly, the park’s boas and green macaws eluded us.
Rubber boots required (but not for the mud)
There are a couple of trails in Tortuguero National Park but you need rubber boots to hike them, even in the dry season. That’s because the boots are meant to protect you from snakes, not mud.
Gorgeous eyelash vipers thrive here and we headed out in search of them after renting rubber boots for US$1 per pair from an enterprising family near the ranger station which has been cleverly fashioned out of a beached patrol boat.
Eyelash vipers really do have what look like eyelashes (they’re really modified scales), which gives them a bit of pinup girl glamor. The relatively small snakes, members of the pit viper family, also come in a rainbow of colors including bright yellow, red and green plus plain old brown. We were told that the same female eyelash viper can give birth to baby eyelash vipers in all of the different colors within the same group of hatchlings. Neat trick.
As we entered the 1.2 mile (2 kilometer) Jaguar Trail a ranger assured/warned us that eyelash vipers were “everywhere” and we started walking slowly with high hopes of spotting eyelash vipers in the full array of colors. Despite our best efforts we only saw one brown viper coiled up in the crook of a fallen log.
Don’t let their good looks and fascinating habits fool you. Eyelash vipers are venomous and they are ambush hunters. Luckily, they’re also nocturnal and pretty docile and shy. Eric spent at least 30 minutes with his camera shoved to within six inches of the eyelash viper we spotted to get these shots for you and it never even batted an eye. Couldn’t resist.
The small, colorfully-painted, Caribbean style town of Tortuguero had more shops, eateries, dudes selling coconuts, guides and boats for hire and small hotels than we’d expected. Though the most common way to visit Tortuguero is as part of a group, if you want to avoid the chain-smoking Germans and the loud-talking Estonian couples dressed in Baltic high fashion then rest assured that this town has all you need to find food, lodging (Casa Marbella looked sweet) and guides on your own.
There’s even an ambitious and inventive restaurant called Wild Ginger. Owners (and chef and waiter) Jennifer and Jorge opened the place in Tortuguero town in 2012 and they’ve created a stylish place to get quality food (burgers, Asian chicken salad, hummus, etc) that shouldn’t be missed for a meal or for happy hour (4-6 pm).
We stayed about a 10 minute walk outside Tortuguero town at Mawamba Lodge which features accommodations in wooden buildings with more than the basic comforts including good beds and hot water showers. Some rooms even have ocean or canal views. There’s also a refreshing pool, a large butterfly enclosure and a frog enclosure where we saw red-eyed tree frogs in all stages of development from tadpole to adult.
Mawamba also had a weird cruise ship/package tour feel and it, honestly, wasn’t really our style. However, it’s a good option if you don’t want to have to fend for yourself and don’t mind being on the same feeding and sight-seeing schedule as everybody else in your group.
Turtles, the namesake of Tortuguero National Park (tortuga means turtle in Spanish), nest here between March and October. Plan your visit then if you want to see female green turtles, leatherback turtles, hawksbill turtles and even some loggerhead turtles coming ashore to dig pits in the sand and lay their eggs. We were told by locals that September is a great month to visit since the turtles are out in force, the weather is great and the tourists haven’t peaked yet.
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