TORTUGUERO ABOUT

Parque Nacional Tortuguero

‘Humid’ is the driest word that could truthfully be used to describe Tortuguero, a 311-sq-km coastal park that serves as the most important breeding ground of the green sea turtle. With annual rainfall of up to 6000mm in the northern part of the park, it is one of the wettest areas in the country. In addition, the protected area extends into the Caribbean Sea, covering about 5200 sq km of marine habitat. In other words, plan on spending quality time in a boat.

The famed Canales de Tortuguero are the introduction to this park. Created to connect a series of lagoons and meandering rivers in 1974, this engineering marvel allowed inland navigation between Limón and coastal villages in something sturdier than a dugout canoe. Regular flights service the village of Tortuguero – but if you fly, you’ll be missing half the fun. The leisurely taxi-boat ride, through banana plantations and wild jungle, is equal parts recreation and transportation.

Most visitors come to watch sea turtles lay eggs on the wild beaches. The area attracts four of the world’s eight species of sea turtle, making it a crucial habitat for these massive reptiles. It will come as little surprise, then, that these hatching grounds gave birth to the sea-turtle-conservation movement. The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the first program of its kind in the world, has continuously monitored turtle populations here since 1955. Today green sea turtles are increasing in numbers along this coast, but the leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead are in decline.

The area, however, is more than just turtles: Tortuguero teems with wildlife. You’ll find sloths and howler monkeys in the treetops, tiny frogs and green iguanas scurrying among buttress roots, and mighty tarpons and endangered manatees swimming in the waters.

Activities


Turtle-Watching


Most female turtles share a nesting instinct that drives them to return to the beach of their birth, or natal beach, in order to lay their eggs. (Only the leatherback returns to a more general region, instead of a specific beach.) During their lifetimes, they will usually nest every two to three years and, depending on the species, may come ashore to lay eggs 10 times in one season. Often, a turtle’s ability to successfully reproduce depends on the ecological health of this original habitat.

The female turtle digs a perfect cylindrical cavity in the sand using her flippers, and then lays 80 to 120 eggs. She diligently covers the nest with sand to protect the eggs, and she may even create a false nest in another location in an attempt to confuse predators. She then makes her way back to sea – after which the eggs are on their own. Incubation ranges from 45 to 70 days, after which hatchlings – no bigger than the size of your palm – break out of their shells using a caruncle, a temporary tooth. They crawl to the ocean in small groups, moving as quickly as possible to avoid dehydration and predators. Once they reach the surf, they must swim for at least 24 hours to get to deeper water, away from land-based predators.

Because of the sensitive nature of the habitat and the critically endangered status of some species, tours to see this activity are highly regulated. So as to not alarm turtles as they come to shore (a frightened turtle will return to the ocean and dump her eggs), tour groups gather in shelter sites close to the beach and a spotter relays a turtle’s location via radio once she has safely crossed the high-tide mark and built her nest. At this time, visitors can then go to the beach and watch the turtle lay her eggs, cover her nest and return to the ocean. Seeing a turtle is not guaranteed, but licensed guides will still make your tour worthwhile with the wealth of turtle information they’ll share. By law, tours can only take place between 8am and midnight. Some guides will offer tours after midnight; these are illegal.

Visitors should wear closed-toe shoes and rain gear. Tours cost US$20 (a flat rate established by the village; at the time of writing, there was talk of raising this to US$25). This rate includes the purchase of a US$4 sticker that pays for the patrols that help protect the nesting sites from scavengers and looters. Nesting season runs from March to October, with July and August being prime time. The next best time is April, when leatherback turtles nest in small numbers. Flashlights and cameras are not allowed on the beach.

Other Wildlife-Watching

More than 300 bird species, both resident and migratory, have been recorded in Tortuguero – a bird-watchers’ paradise. Due to the wet habitat, the park is especially rich in waders, including egrets, jacanas, 14 different types of heron, as well as species such as kingfishers, toucans and the great curassow (a type of jungle peacock known locally as the pavón). The great green macaw is a highlight, most common from December to April, when the almond trees are fruiting. In September and October, look for flocks of migratory species such as eastern kingbird, barn swallows and purple martins. The Sea Turtle Conservancy conducts a biannual monitoring program, in which volunteers can help scientists take inventory of local and migratory species.

Certain species of mammal are particularly evident in Tortuguero, especially mantled howler monkeys, the Central American spider monkey and white-faced capuchin. If you’ve got a good pair of binoculars and a good guide, you can usually see both two and three-toed sloths. In addition, normally shy neo tropical river otters are reasonably habituated to boats. Harder to spot are timid West Indian manatees. The park is also home to big cats such as jaguars and ocelots – but these are savvy, nocturnal animals and sightings are very rare.

Most wildlife-watching tours are done by boat. To get the best from Tortuguero, be on the water early or go out following a heavy rain, when all the wildlife comes out to sunbathe. It is also highly recommended to take tours by canoe or kayak – since these smaller, silent craft will allow you to get into the park’s less trafficked nooks and crannies.

Boating

Four aquatic trails wind their way through Parque Nacional Tortuguero, inviting waterborne exploration. Río Tortuguero acts as the entranceway to the network of trails. This wide, beautiful river is often covered with water lilies and frequented by aquatic birds such as herons, kingfishers and anhinga’s – the latter of which is known as the snakebird for the way its slim, winding neck pokes out of the water when it swims.

Caño Chiquero and Cano Mora are two narrower waterways with good wildlife spotting opportunities. According to park regulation, only kayaks, canoes and silent electric boats are allowed in these areas (a rule that is constantly violated by many area tour companies and lodges). Caño Chiquero is thick with vegetation, especially red guácimo trees and epiphytes. Black turtles and green iguanas like to hang out here. Caño Mora is about 3km long but only 10m wide, so it feels as if it’s straight out of The Jungle Book. Caño Harold is actually an artificially constructed canal, but that doesn’t stop the creatures – such as Jesus Christ lizards and caimans – from inhabiting its tranquil waters. Canoe rental and boat tours are available in Tortuguero village.

Hiking

Behind Cuatro Esquinas station, El Gavilán Land Trail is the only public trail through the park that is on solid ground. Visitors can hike the muddy, 2km out-and-back trail that traverses the tropical humid forest and parallels a stretch of beach. Green parrots and several species of monkey are commonly sighted here. The short trail is well marked. Rubber boots are required (for rent at hotels and near the park entrance).

Information

Park headquarters is at Cuatro Esquinas
 (Tel 2709-8086; park admission US$10; h 67am, 7:30am-noon & 1-4pm), just south of Tortuguero village. This is a helpful ranger station, with maps and info.

Jalova Station (h 6am-6pm) is on the canal at the south entrance to the national park, accessible from Parismina by boat. Tour boats from Moín often stop here for a picnic; you will find a short nature trail, bathroom, drinking water and rudimentary camping facilities that may or may not be open (and may or may not be flooded).

Getting There & Away

The park is a short walk south of the village of Tortuguero (the most common entry point) and also accessible by boat from Parismina.

Tortuguero Village

Located within the confines of Parque Nacional Tortuguero, accessible only by air or water, this bustling little village with strong Afro-Caribbean roots is best known for attracting hordes of sea turtles (the name Tortuguero means ‘turtle place’) – and the hordes of tourists who want to see them. While the peak turtle season is in July and August, the park and village have begun to attract travelers year-round. Even in October, when the turtles have pretty much returned to the sea, caravans of families and adventure travelers arrive to go on jungle hikes and to canoe the area’s lush canals.

Activities


Volunteering


Sea Turtle Conservancy

(formerly Caribbean Conservation Corporation; Tel 2709-8091, in USA 352-373-6441; www.conserveturtles.org; museum admission US$2) About 200m north of the village, Tortuguero’s original turtle-conservation organization operates a research station, visitor center and museum. Exhibits focus on all things turtle related, including a 20-minute video about the history of local turtle conservation.

STC also runs a highly reputable environmental volunteer program. During nesting season, volunteers can assist with turtle tagging and egg counts, and during bird migration seasons, help with mist-netting and point-counts. Volunteer fees (starting at US$1524) include accommodations, meals and transport to and from San José.

Canadian Organization for Tropical Education & Rainforest Conservation

(COTERC; Tel 2709-8052; www.coterc.org) This not-for-profit organization operates the Estación Biológica Caño Palma, 7km north of Tortuguero village. This small biological research station runs a volunteer program in which visitors can assist with upkeep of the station and ongoing research projects, including sea-turtle and bird monitoring and plant-diversity inventories. Volunteer fees start at US$250 per week and include accommodations in dormitory buildings and three meals per day. A two-week minimum commitment is required. Call ahead to arrange a visit.

Boating & Canoeing

No motorized boat transport obviously offers the best chance of spotting wildlife while exploring the surrounding waterways. Numerous area businesses rent kayaks and canoes and offer boat tours.

Hiking

Hikers can follow the self-guided El Gavilán Land Trail (adjacent to Cuatro Esquinas ranger station); parallel the beach on the well-worn coastal trail north from the village to the airport; or walk the beach during daylight hours. Other hiking opportunities exist in and around the park but require the services of a guide. Inquire at the agencies listed under Tours. Note: night hiking in the national park is not allowed.

Tours

Guides have posted signs all over town advertising their services for canal tours and turtle walks. The two most dependable and convenient places to arrange tours are at local hotels and at the official Asociación de Guías de Tortuguero (Tel 2767-0836; www. asoprotur.com) kiosk by the boat landing. Rates at the time of writing were US$20 per person for a two-hour turtle tour (possibly increasing to US$25), and US$20 to US$35 for a two to three-hour boat tour. Other options include walking (US$20 to US$25), bird-watching (US$35) and fishing (US$65) tours. For more specialized guides, see the list below.

Tinamon Tours

(Tel 8842-6561, 2709-8004; www.tinamontours.de) Trained zoologist and 20-year Tortuguero resident Barbara Hartung offers hiking, canoe, cultural and turtle tours in German, English, French or Spanish.

Castor Hunter Thomas (Tel 8870-8634; http://castorhunter.blogspot.com; Soda doña María) Excellent local guide and 40year Tortuguero resident who has led hikes, turtle tours and canoe tours for over 20 years. Contact Castor at Soda Doña María.

Ballard Excursions  (www.tortuguerovillage.com/ballardexcursions) Ross Ballard, a Canadian with deep local roots, leads 31⁄2-hour walking tours focusing on the biology and ecology of the species-rich rainforest at the foot of Cerro Tortuguero, the region’s tallest hill.

Don Chico Tours (Tel 2709-8033) Longtime local guide Chico offers both hiking and canoe tours; look for his sign just beyond Miss Miriam’s restaurant (towards the beach on the north side of the soccer field).

Sleeping


In addition to places listed below, the village has a number of basic cabinas (cabins) charging US$18 and up for a double room.

Casa Marbella

(Tel 2709-8011, 8833-0827; http://casamarbella.tripod.com; incl breakfast s US$35-60, d US$40-65, extra person US$10 ) In the heart of the village, with a spacious and delightful canal side deck, this B&B owned by naturalist Daryl Loth is easily Tortuguero’s most appealing in-town option. Ten simple, well-lit rooms come with ceiling fans, super clean bathrooms and hearty breakfasts served overlooking the water.

Street side rooms pick up some noise from Tortuguero’s village bustle during daylight hours; reserve ahead for the three popular upstairs rooms (one facing the river). It’s a two-minute walk north (left) from the village boat landing.

Princesa del Mar

(Tel 2709-8131; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; per person US$10, incl breakfast US$15) This oceanfront spot offers excellent value for budget travelers. A clapboard structure with 22 basic wood-and-concrete rooms faces an open garden with two pools (one for children), and there’s an onsite restaurant with ocean views serving Caribbean-Tico cuisine. It’s 50m east of the Guardia Rural post on main street, or about 100m up the beach from the soccer field.

Cabinas Miss Miriam II

(Tel 8873-2671, 2709-8107; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; s/d with fan US$20/25, d with ocean-view terrace US$35, d with air-con US$40; W) This beachside branch of Miss Miriam’s budget cabinas has clean tiled rooms surrounding a small garden courtyard. All have firm mattresses and hot water, and a couple offer air-con. Best is the fan-and-breeze-cooled front room with its own ocean-view terrace. Breakfast costs US$5 extra per person. It’s south of the soccer field, 25m east of the Adventist church.

La Casona

(Tel 2709-8092, 2709-8047; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; s/d US$18/25, d with kitchenette US$35;W) Ten cute cement rooms with rustic touches surround a garden at this family run spot. Three units have kitchenettes with hot plates. It has a pleasant restaurant that serves Caribbean and Italian meals, and the managers can help arrange tours. It’s on the north side of the soccer field.

Hotel Miss Junie

(Tel 2709-8102; www.iguanaverdetours.com; incl breakfast s/d standard US$45/50, superior US$55/65; W ) Tortuguero’s longestestablished lodging, Miss Junie’s place is set on spacious palm-shaded grounds strewn with hammocks and wooden armchairs. Spotless wood-paneled rooms in a nicely kept tropical-plantation-style building are tastefully decorated with wood accents and bright bedspreads. Upstairs rooms share a breezy balcony overlooking the canal. It’s at the northern end of the town’s main street.

North of the Village

Most of the lodges north and west of the village cater to high-end travelers on package deals, though most will accept walk-ins (er, boat-ins) if they aren’t full. Multinight packages typically include accommodations, three meals daily, boat and walking tours and transport to/from San José. Note that Mawamba Lodge and Laguna Lodge are on the same peninsula as Tortuguero Village, so you can walk or boat into town. Other lodges lie across the canal and are only accessible by boat or water taxi.

Toucan & Tarpon Lodge

(Tel 8524-1804; www.toucanandtarpon.com; s/d/ tr/q incl breakfast US$30/40/45/50) Just across the river from Tortuguero village, this place was opened in late 2013 by Canadian expatriates Jeff and Sue. Three simple cabinas with solar electricity and Guatemalan textiles sleep between two and four. Other amenities include delicious homemade breakfasts, a communal kitchen with well stocked spice cabinet, free canoe use and excellent wildlife-spotting (monkeys, sloths, toucans) in the surrounding trees.

Rana Roja

(Tel 2223-1926, 2709-8260; www.tortugueroranaroja.com; r/cabins per person incl breakfast US$40/45, r or cabins per person incl 3 meals US$60; i W s ) This Tico-run spot is one of Tortuguero’s best value places, especially for solo travelers. Twelve immaculate rooms and five cabins with private terraces and rockers are connected by elevated walkways; all have tile floors, hot showers and awesome jungle views. Free kayaks are available onsite and guests can make use of the pool at the adjacent Evergreen Lodge.

Turtle Beach Lodge

(%2248-0707, after hours 8837-6969; www.turtlebeachlodge.com; 2-night package per adult/ child US$299/90; i s ) S Surrounded by 70 hectares of tropical gardens and rainforest, Tortuguero’s northernmost lodge (8km outside the village) is flanked by beach and river. Spacious wood cabins have tile floors, hardwood furniture and huge screened windows. Guests can explore the onsite network of jungle trails, kayak the adjacent canal, or lounge around the turtle-shaped pool or thatch-roofed hammock hut.

Tortuga Lodge & Gardens

(Tel 2521-6099, 2257-0766; www.tortugalodge. com; r US$138-238, 2-night package per adult/ child US$548/348; W s ) This elegant lodge, operated by Costa Rica Expeditions, is set amid 20 serene hectares of private gardens, directly across the canal from Tortuguero’s airstrip. The 27 demure rooms channel a 19th-century safari vibe, with creamy linens, handmade textiles, vintage photos and broad terraces that invite lounging. The grounds come equipped with private trails and a riverside pool, bar and restaurant.

Evergreen Lodge

(%2222-6841; evergreentortuguero.com; 2-night package per adult/child US$258/129; Ws) One of three hotels operated by the Pachira group, this pleasant place has a more rustic, less resorty feel than its counterparts, with 60 newly remodeled rooms and private bungalows surrounded by jungle greenery. Guests have access to a sunny pool area, Tortuguero’s only canopy tour (US$30), free use of kayaks and an upstairs bar overlooking the river.

Laguna Lodge

(Tel 2272-4943, in USA 888-259-5615; www.lagunatortuguero.com; 2-night package per adult/child US$299/150; W s ) This expansive lodge, liberally decorated with gorgeous mosaic art and trim, has 110 graceful rooms with high ceilings and wide decks lined with Sarchí made leather rocking chairs. It also has a restaurant, two bars (canal side and poolside), a massage room, a soccer pitch and a Gaudíesque reception area.

Pachira Lodge

(Tel 2257-2242, 2256-6340; www.pachiralodge. com; 2-night package per adult/child US$299/150; W s ) A sprawling compound set on 5 landscaped hectares of land, this 88-room hotel with turtle-shaped pool is a popular family spot. Pristine, brightly painted clapboard bungalows with shared terraces house blocks of rooms that sleep up to four. Cribs and children’s beds are available.

Mawamba Lodge

(%2293-8181, 2709-8181; www.mawamba.com; 2-night package per adult/child US$299/150; W s ) With pool tables, foosball, a mosaic swimming pool, and butterfly and frog gardens, this lodge sits between the canal and Tortuguero’s main turtle-nesting beach, within walking distance of town. Simple wood-paneled rooms have firm beds, good fans and spacious bathrooms with hot water. All are fronted by wide verandas with hammocks and rocking chairs.

Hotel Aninga & Spa

(Tel 2222-6840, 2222-6841; www.aningalodgetortuguero.com; 2-night package per adult/child US$299/150; W s ) One of the trio of lodges run by the Pachira Group, this place 1km north of the village has similar grounds and facilities to the adjacent Pachira Lodge, along with Tortuguero’s only spa. Nonguests can make appointments for massages (US$40 to US$80) and other treatments here.

Eating

Taylor’s Place

(mains US$7-10; h 6-8:30pm) Low-key atmosphere and high-quality cooking come together beautifully at this backstreet eatery southwest of the soccer field. The inviting garden setting, with chirping insects, and picnic benches spread under colorful paper lanterns, is rivaled only by friendly chef Ray Taylor’s culinary artistry. House specialties include beef in tamarind sauce, grilled fish in garlic sauce, and fruit drinks both alcoholic and otherwise.

Sunrise Restaurant

(mains US$4-8; h9:30am-9pm Wed-Mon) Between the boat dock and the national park, this cozy log-cabin-like place will lure you in with the delicious smoky aroma of its grilled chicken and pork ribs, but it also serves breakfast and a full Caribbean menu at lunch and dinnertime, at some of the best prices in town.

Miss Miriam’s

(mains US$9.50; h8am-9pm) This little place on the north side of the soccer field dishes out flavorful local food, including pork chops, fish and well-spiced Caribbean chicken.

Soda Doña María

(Tel 8870-8634; dishes US$5-8; h 7:30am-8pm) Recover from a hike in the park at this riverside soda, serving jugos (juices), burgers and casados. It’s about 200m north of the park entrance.

Miss Junie’s

$$ (Tel 2709-8029; mains US$13-20; h 7-9am, noon2pm & 6-9pm) Over the years, Tortuguero’s best-known eatery has grown from a personal kitchen to a full-blown restaurant. Prices have climbed accordingly, but the menu remains true to its roots: chicken, fish and whole lobster cooked in flavorful Caribbean sauces, with coconut rice and beans. It’s at the northern end of the main street.

Wild Ginger

(Tel 2709-8240; www.wildgingercr.com; mains US$826; h noon-9pm) Run by a Tico-Californian couple, this low-lit spot near the beach north of town specializes in fusion cuisine incorporating fresh local ingredients, such as lobster mango ceviche (seafood marinated in lemon or lime juice, garlic and seasonings), Caribbean beef stew and passion fruit crème brûlée. It’s 150m north of the elementary school.

Budda Cafe

(mains US$7-10, pizzas US$9-20; h noon-8:30pm; v) Ambient club music and stenciled ‘om’ symbols impart a hipster vibe to this cafe between the main road and the river. It’s a pleasant setting for pizzas, cocktails and crepes (savory and sweet). Grab a table outside for a prime view of the yellow-bellied flycatchers zipping across the water.

Drinking & Nightlife

La Culebra

(h8pm-close) Next to the public dock in the center of town, this bright-purple nightclub (Tortuguero’s one and only) plays thumping music and serves beer and bocas right on the canal.

La Taberna Punto de Encuentro

(h 11am-11pm) Adjacent to the Super Bambú pulpería (corner store), this popular tavern is mellow in the afternoons but draws the party people after dark with cold beer and blaring reggaetón. The highlight, however, is the life-size statue of Jar Jar Binks.

Information

The community’s website, Tortuguero Village (www.tortuguerovillage.com), is a solid source of information, listing local businesses and providing comprehensive directions on how to get to Tortuguero.

There are no banks or ATMs in town and only a few businesses accept credit cards, so bring all the cash you’ll need. Several local accommodations have internet connections, but these can be iffy, especially during heavy rains.

Centro de Información Turístico PNT

(h 6am-6:30pm) immediately to the left of the boat landing; staffed by members of the local tour guides’ association.

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