Highlights of Tortuguero

man driving small boat in canal

Palmer and I recently enjoyed a 3 night getaway to the small town of Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s north caribbean coast (HUGE thanks to mom and dad for babysitting and allowing us some time sans kiddos!). Though most famous for its nesting green sea turtles that return to the beach where they hatched during the months of June through October, we had an amazing experience during our early January visit. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Guided Canoe Trip in Tortuguero National Park

We booked a 3 hour canoe trip with Tortuguero Tours, a local guiding company, in the national park where you can spot amazing wildlife. We woke up at dawn and headed down to the meeting point for some coffee and fruit before being given a pair of binoculars and heading to the park. We were on small boat with 4 other tourists plus our local guide who rowed us through the smaller canals and pointed out some fascinating flora and fauna. We saw howler monkeys, sloths, caimans, iguanas and lots of bird life (green macaws, little blue herons, yellow crowned night heron and northern jacanas to name a few). The highlight for me was a male emerald green basilisk that was perfectly camouflaged on a branch just over the water surrounded by leaves…so camouflaged that you couldn’t get a good pic!

2. Hike in Tortuguero National Park

Since we had already purchased our national park passes for the canoe tour, we headed back to the park later that same day to hike the one out and back trail that the park offers. We were all geared out with our sturdy rubber boots, hiking clothes, hats and even a dry bag. It soon started to rain pretty steadily and we were thankful for our rental boots as it was so muddy…and also the umbrellas we brought. Ha! We weren’t very lucky with wildlife, but we did see a howler monkey eating and a pretty cool great curassow (a large pheasant-like bird strolling the path ahead of us) and enjoyed a walk on Tortuguero beach where the turtles nest.

3. Visit to Sea Turtle Conservancy

Even though it wasn’t turtle season when we visited, we still felt we got the turtle experience with our visit to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest sea turtle research and conservation group founded by Dr. Archie Carr. He was also instrumental in the effort to protect the region and advocate for the opening of Tortuguero National Park. The small facility is located just off the beach a few blocks from the town center and functions as a research station but also hosts a small museum for visitors to learn more about the sea turtles of Tortuguero, the history of the region, and the work that STC does. We ended up adopting a turtle (named ‘Shelby’ thanks to Oscar) to support their mission. We are looking to return one day when we can actually observe the turtles nesting. That would be amazing!

4. Exploring the Town of Tortuguero

We really loved discovering the town itself and were glad that we opted to stay in town rather than one of the resorts to get a better feel for the community. We stayed at El Icaco, a modest but colorful hotel on the beach side, and had plenty of time to walk the paths of town and just relax. The one main paved pathway in front of the public dock is sprinkled with businesses (restaurants, grocery stores, shops) while the rest of the paths are mainly sand or some combination of boards or stepping stones due to all the rain they experienced. Apparently the rainy season in Tortuguero ends in late January. We enjoyed some good meals at Tutti’s (amazing calzones!) and Donde Richard, and delicious breakfasts and cakes at Dorling’s Bakery. Budda Cafe had fancy cocktails and a lovely canal-side location.

5. Getting There and Back, an Adventure In Itself

Tortuguero is only accessible by plane or boat so we opted to drive to La Pavona (basically a restaurant, bathrooms, small store and parking area in the middle of nowhere) where you can then park your car and hop on a boat for the one hour ride to Tortuguero. The drive from San José to La Pavona is beautiful as you first climb through the misty mountains of Braulio Carrillo National Park and then head north through the banana plantations and ranches north of Guápiles. The road is mostly paved except for the last 30-40 minutes when it turns to gravel, but the views were beautiful and we loved the drive. I’m sure that flying in would be spectacular too as the region is so remote and picturesque, but we’ll have to save that for our next visit.

Overall, Tortuguero totally exceeded my expectations with its raw beauty and unique wildlife and even though the town is mainly dependent on the tourism industry, it still has an authentic small town Caribbean vibe. We are hoping to return again soon during turtle season!

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A Day at Parque Nacional Marino Ballena

We spent a day at Parque Nacional Marino Ballena (Marino Ballena National Park) in Uvita over the Christmas holidays. It’s a beautiful national park located on the Costa Ballena (South Pacific Coast) of Costa Rica about 3 hours from our place in Atenas or 3.5 hours from San José.

The park is famous for migrating humpback whales and also for the ‘whale tail,’ a natural formation which appears at low tide when a sandbar is exposed and connects the mainland with some rocky formations just offshore so that it looks like a whale tail.

After checking the tide charts, we decided to check it out with Mom and Dad and enjoyed a few hours on the beautiful palm-fringed beach. It was quite a hike to get to the sandbar from where we parked and no shade of course so we lathered on the sunscreen and hoped for the best.

Using Alice’s shirt as a hat to avoid burning my scalp!
The trials of fair-skinned boy in Costa Rica.

Beautiful vistas and beach fun.

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We also enjoyed treasure hunting for sand dollars and other beach creatures.

Dad professing his love once again to Mom. awwwww

Here was our perspective from the beginning of the sandbar looking out at the ‘tail’. Can you see it? 🙂

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All that exertion deserved a cold beer and a seriously delicious BBQ lunch at Lone Star BBQ & Grill in Uvita which didn’t disappoint.

On our next visit we are hoping to see some whales, maybe even some nesting turtles and discover the little nearby surf town of Dominical! We’re realizing once again that there’s never enough time, but so thankful for the time we do have here in Costa Rica.

 

Our Favorite Typical Costa Rican Dishes

Costa Rican food isn’t known to be especially unique or flavorful, but we beg to differ. It’s always extremely fresh as most ingredients are local and dishes are homemade! We’ve loved the food we’ve found and are always on the hunt for new places to discover another favorite typical dish. Here are a few of our favorites.

‘Pinto’

Gallo Pinto (‘spotted rooster’) is probably the most famous food of Costa Rica. It’s rice and beans mixed with different spices such as cilantro, onion and peppers and served with any meal though we seem to see it most on breakfast menus. It’s a hearty beloved dish!

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Typical pinto breakfast wrapped in a banana leaf = eggs, pinto, fried cheese and maduros (sweet plantains)
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Traditional pinto at La Casita del Café with scrambled eggs and tomato, pinto, cheese and a tortilla. Not to mention fresh mango juice AND a view!

Casados

A Casado (literally ‘married’) is probably the most typical DISH of Costa Rica. They’re usually cheap and they’re found everywhere…from the tiny soda in the market or bus station to the large restaurants catering to all kinds of local and foreign tourists. They always include a choice of meat (chicken, pork or fish), rice and beans, salad and usually another side dish or two. They’re super delicious and super filling. Here are a couple that I’ve enjoyed (you see I LOVE a good casado!):

Pupusas

Alright, so pupusas are actually from El Salvador, but they’re quite common here in Costa Rica too. Most of the pupusa places are owned by Salvadorans. A pupusa is a thick corn tortilla stuffed traditionally with refried beans and cheese, or pork or all three…or really anything meat/veggie/cheese combo you like. You then put a spicy cabbage slaw on top and some hot sauce if you like! It is the perfect combo of texture (soft and crunchy) and flavor (savory and spicy). My favorite is the beans and cheese with lots of cabbage on top. We have an amazing place right here in Atenas called La Fiesta de las Pupusas that we frequent about once a week.

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Arroz con Camarones

Fried rice with shrimp or chicken or pork is very popular here too. It also typically comes with the same side dishes as a casado (salad, beans and/or plantains).

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Pescado entero

Whole fried red snapper is very common as more of a speciality dish and always seems to be cooked perfectly as the fish is super moist and flavorful! There’s a place on highway 34 near Tarcoles on the Pacific coast where you can find many fresh fish vendors standing on the side of the road with a string of freshly caught fish for sale. We are hoping to stop and buy one of these one day and try our own hand at pescado frito.

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Frescos Naturales

All of these dishes pair perfectly with a nice glass of fresh fruit juice of course. I enjoy them ‘en agua’ (mixed with water) but it’s common to request your juice ‘con leche’ (with milk) as well for a richer flavor.  Some common flavors are lemonade (with or without hierbabuena (mint), strawberry, blackberry, mango, pineapple, guanabana (soursop), cas (costa rican guava), papaya and passion fruit. They usually come in huge glasses, often larger than Alice and Oscar heads. 🙂

Our favorite flavors: pineapple and strawberry (Oscar and Alice), passion fruit (Palmer) and soursop (me).

I’ll leave alcoholic beverages for another post, but suffice to say, we’re totally on top of the boxed wine trend.  Ha!

Making Memories at Manuel Antonio National Park

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While we were staying near Playa Bejuco over the week of Christmas with the fam, we all decided to make the one hour drive and enjoy a day in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio National Park), an extremely popular tourist destination in Costa Rica for lots of good reasons.

It’s actually the smallest national park in the country, but the most visited due to its beautiful white sand beaches and abundant wildlife that is often easy to spot. In fact, some of the monkeys are known for steeling bags and opening backpacks to get to the snacks which we saw happen. Apparently, Pringle cans are banned as the monkeys know what they contain and the park is trying to ensure that the monkeys stick to their normal diet. The park is located two hours from San José on the Pacific Coast just south of the town of Quepos.

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White faced capuchin monkey

We opted to forego a local guide (we’d been here in January and discovered that as the park is so popular, there are large guided groups stopping everywhere to look at something), though they do often have a spotting scope which is very helpful because so it’s much easier to see the sloths and monkeys that are high up in the trees.

We walked to one of the four beaches in the park, Manuel Antonio Beach (also the most popular as it’s good for swimming and closest to the entrance), and spent some time relaxing on the beach and swimming. Oscar just learned to swim that week in the pool without any type of float or life jacket and he did an awesome job practicing in the ocean here with Uncle Keith, Auntie Annie and Grandpa. A couple of us also checked out Espadilla Sur Beach which is just behind Manuel Antonio Beach and much less busy. There are also other trails in the park which you can hike to see a waterfall and at least one of the other beaches, but we’ve yet to check them out (the heat and humidity and two little ones makes that tricky). 🙂

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Beautiful Playa Manuel Antonio

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As far as wildlife, we saw lots of seemingly fearless capuchin monkeys, a couple of sloths,  two chestnut-mandibled toucans, parrots, red land crabs and Oscar found an interesting salamander-type animal on the edge of the path. We even saw one sloth moving from one tree to another right next to the path near the entrance and quite low to the ground so that was very special. And Oscar was happy to discover his favorite monkey, cute little squirrel monkeys, on our walk back to the car outside of the park.

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Oscar’s discovery

After enjoying our time in sun, we headed back but had to make a pit stop and enjoy some cool ‘pipa fría’ (cold coconut water) sold at many of the stands just outside the park, It was SO refreshing after the being in the sun for so long!

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Selfie success…with everyone except dad

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We then headed to El Avión, a cool restaurant built around a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane with amazing ocean views, for a well deserved lunch before heading back to our oasis up the coast.

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Oscar and Alice at the controls…hold on tight!

 

Chillin’ in Esterillos Oeste

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Soda Margarita

We spent a week on the Pacific Coast over Christmas at a beautiful home with mom and dad and Keith and Annie and enjoyed lots of pool and beach time and exploring a few nearby towns (Uvita and Manuel Antonio). The closest town to our rental home was Esterillos Oeste, a super chill small town laid out on dirt roads right along the beach with a few restaurants, a small grocery store and a couple places offering surfboard and boogie board rentals. It’s about 20 minutes south of the popular surf town of Jaco. We had stopped here once before a few months ago just to check it out quickly, but finally made it back this time to soak it all in.

At low tide, tide pools appear at the northern end of the beach along with La Sirena, a statue of a mermaid gazing out to sea..kind of random, but kind of cool. Supposedly, no one knows how it got there. The beach has some good waves but it’s shallow for a ways out so it’s fun for swimming and boogie boarding (we all had a ball trying to catch the waves – Oscar is quite a pro now!), and popular for surfing too (Keith was stoked to catch some rad barrels). Ha!

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Treasure hunting
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Ice cream and granizado (like a snow cone but better) vendor on the beach
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La Sirena

We also enjoyed a delicious lunch at Soda Margarita which came recommended by a local, but finding it was half the fun. After starting off along the road and then walking along the beach for awhile looking for a ‘little pathway’ just beyond ‘La Sirena’ statue, we had to stop and ask a few people along the way to find this hidden family-run place. We finally arrived after inadvertently crossing a few backyards and were pleasantly surprised by the casual and friendly atmosphere and delicious traditional meals, pescado entero (whole fish) and arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp) to name a few, along with their fresh fruit juices.  The kids were entertained trying to crack open a coconut they had found as well playing with all the animals (kittens, dogs and parrots) at the home.

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Pescado Entero (whole fish) with patacones (fried plantains), rice and salad
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A coconut entertaining the kids

More adventures from our Christmas week coming soon! Happy New Year!