By any measure the first couple of days in the jungles of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast are almost overwhelming. It doesn’t matter how many times you read about a country two-thirds the size of Scotland with greater bio-diversity than the whole of North America and Europe combined. Until you actually experience it, there is no way of grasping the teeming reality of that fact.
Right now, standing in remote Tortuguero, in the middle of a national park full of poisonous snakes, sucky crocodile-infested swamps and hard core jungle, close to the border with Nicaragua, and reachable only by boat or light airplane, I am starting to get it. It’s seven o’clock in the morning and already I’m sweating profusely. It’s not mega hot, but the humidity is cloyingly high and I’m surrounded by moisture. And plants. And big flying bugs, industrious caravans of ants and a multitude of colourful birds and blooms. Everywhere you look there is a breakneck race to grow, to live, to thrive.
Despite the isolation plenty of people go to Tortuguero for one reason. Turtles. The beaches that run North and South of the Caribbean village are some of the last remaining turtle breeding grounds left. Formerly home to turtle hunters, the villagers now live on the back of Turtle (and other eco) tourism.
Which is probably why, despite the swamps, jungle and snakes, getting there proved to be much easier than expected. In fact, travelling round Costa Rica as a whole proved much easier than expected. I’ve had more difficulty getting to Catford from Stoke Newington than San Jose to Tortuguero, jungle and lack of roads not withstanding.
The village is rather lovely, more Caribbean than Latino and full of brightly coloured wooden buildings, seldom more than a story a high and cheerfully rotting away in the wet, swampy surrounds. Rusting hulks of machinery dot the centre of the village, left over from the American lumber companies that tried to turn a profit cutting down local hardwoods for timber. They failed, leaving just the gently oxidising steel hulks and a canal dug 60km south to the Caribbean port of Moin. The canal did at least make the tourism easier when it started up in earnest 30 years ago.
One side of Tortuguero butts into the Caribbean Sea, the other onto a placid lagoon fringed with great cascades of greenery and echoing with the Jurassic roars of howler monkeys, the sandpaper squawks of macaws and the peculiar toot-toot hooting of Toucans. All set to a constant background insect buzz. It’s damp and swampy underfoot so make sure you avail yourself of the welly racks outside most hostels and b&bs before venturing onto the jungle trails. These sort of swampy conditions are five star accommodation for snakes, most of which at venomous to some degree, and no-one wants to end up as an a la carte entree for a Fer-de-lance or Bushmaster.
Do make sure you get out though. The chances of getting bitten by a snake are vanishingly small and there is a LOT of nature to see. Well, hear at least. We ventured out on a guided boat trip in search of crocs, manatees and more. We heard plenty, spent 15 minutes looking at a fuzzy ball that we were told was a sloth and… Well, that was it really. Despite that it was well worth the $20 each we paid. I got to live my Heart of Darkness/Indiana Jones fantasies as we edged our way up one tiny jungle canal after another, under great drooping trees and listening to all the life we couldn’t see.
Rainstorms and wildlife
And then it rained. The rain doesn’t pussy foot around with drizzle or showers here, storms drop sheets of water straight down on top of you. It was like having buckets of water chucked repeatedly over your head. And it was accompanied by thunder so loud you felt as much as heard it. Windows flexed and even the locals ducked involuntarily.
It rained when we were on the boat, it rained when we ate our pancake and papaya breakfast, it rained when we went turtle-spotting at night. And it didn’t matter a bit. The turtle tour was a particular highlight. Turtle poachers turned gamekeeper and guide, spin confessional tales before leading you out to their old hunting grounds. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer bulk of a Green sea turtle. It was almost a meter from mouth to tail and bulky with it. We watched from a distance as it squeezed out over a hundred ping-pong ball sized eggs, disguised its nest and then trundled back into the surf. If tanks gave birth, it would look like this.
Despite the lack of visible wildlife around the village, we ended up seeing a whole lot of it on the boat ride out of Tortuguero to Moin (including the baby croc in the image at the top of this post). During five hours whizzing down hyacinth clogged water ways, howler, spider and capuchin monkeys gambolled, shouted and grinned at us from tree tops, caiman eyeballed us from the water and a three metre crocodile weighed us up for a moment before gliding away. Clearly we weren’t worth the hassle.
What we hadn’t realised was how close the wild is wherever you are in Costa Rica. It was outside of the tours, parks and sanctuaries that we saw the most animals. Sloths with babies on roadside trees, white faced capuchin monkeys playing and next to our cabin, hummingbirds in the garden, spikes iguanas everywhere you looked. There always seems to be something unusual staring right back at you.
We stayed at Casa Mabella for $40 per night and booked our turtle tour ($20pp), boat tour ($20pp) and water taxi through them. The rooms are basic but fine with fans, ensuite bathrooms and a tasty breakfast.
To get to Tortuguero from San Jose, go to the Terminal Caribe in San Jose and get a morning (9:30 or 11:00) bus to Cariari. From Cariari walk north from the new bus terminal to the old and catch a bus to La Pavona. Both of these stops are the end of the line. At La Pavona buy your boat ticket to Tortuguero in the restaurant there. The boats wait for the buses so don’t worry about connecting. The whole journey costs about $10pp.
To leave Tortuguero you can either retrace your steps back to San Jose or you can book a water taxi for $30pp one way to Moin (a short taxi ride to Puerto Limon) and reach the rest of the Caribbean coast from there. I would not recommend staying in Puerto Limon.