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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Road Trip to the Caribbean!

We spent last weekend celebrating Dad’s birthday on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica in the relaxed beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and surrounding tiny coastal towns of Cahuita and Manzanillo.

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The 115 mile trip took us SIX HOURS (that included about an hour for lunch)! Yes, it is slowwwwwww going on these roads. We had to skirt around San José (yet still got caught in traffic) and then climb through the mountains and into the clouds of Braulio Carrillo National Park topping out at about 5,300 feet before heading down to the eastern lowlands,

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The blue bags protect the bananas from bugs and being damaged.

banana and pineapple plantations and finally arriving at the Caribbean coast. Most of the route is two lanes and it’s especially slow when you’re behind large semi trucks in the mountains and also going through a few mile very congested stretch of road just outside of the port city of Limón which is full of semis and commercial shipping / sea container yards (Chiquita and Del Monte among them).  But we eventually made it to our lovely beach home for the weekend.

 

Our first adventure was to Cahuita National Park, Dad’s birthday choice, where we enjoyed a beautiful hike that ran parallel to the coast and saw iguanas, sloths, beautiful flora and a picturesque coastline! We were hoping to swim and snorkel here but unfortunately the water was quite rough due to a coming storm so we really didn’t get to swim.

The tiny town of Cahuita had a very chill vibe with lots of local characters and color!

 

Puerto Viejo is one of the larger towns in the area and we were surprised at the number of tourists and expats that lived there, as well as all of the English spoken and prices in USD. That was quite a change from Atenas!  We had some fabulous meals (Madre Tierra is a must for fancy tropical cocktails and dinner on the second floor, Chile Rojo had yummy sushi and Pan Pay offered delicious pastries) and enjoyed a little shopping here too as the weather wasn’t so conducive to outdoor activities.

 

We also visited the Jaguar Rescue Center which was awesome and we highly recommend it for anyone traveling to the Puerto Viejo area. The center takes in injured or sick animals and their goal is to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. There aren’t any jaguars there today, but the center began when a sick baby jaguar was brought to the home of the eventual founders after its mother had been killed by farmers. There are a lot of sad stories of injury and abuse (sadly, many stories due to humans) but most animals are eventually released. However, there are a few that are permanent residents including a margay (member of the cat family) and a crocodile that had been abused. The center is mostly volunteer run (with the exception of two veterinarians) and offers small group tours at 9:30 and 11:30am every day. We were able to see baby sloths and monkeys and get closeups of two types of toucans that live in Costa Rica, the Keel-billed Toucan and the Chestnut Mandibled Toucan.

 

We were hoping to spend some good time at the beaches, but with the storm and huge waves, we instead enjoyed quality time relaxing. We did drive south along the coast along some beautiful stretches of coast to the town at the end of the road, Manzanillo. I loved the feel of this town – authentic, colorful and laid-back! Hoping we’ll get back here one day to further explore the area and do some hiking in Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. Here are some of the colorful quaint homes in Manzanillo:

 

and a few more photos for good measure. ha!

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Special beverages!
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My sweet boy
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Coconut oil for sale was popular in the area. We had to stop of course!
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‘thatch for sale for roofs’

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