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!