Stephen Bailey
Tortuguero - Where Jungle Meets the Caribbean
Tortuguero - Where Jungle Meets the Caribbean
Stephen Bailey

Tortuguero National Park is on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

In case you don’t speak Spanish, tortuga is the Spanish word for turtle — and tortuguero means dwelling of turtles.

Yes, this is Turtle-Dwelling National Park.

Tortuguero is one of Costa Rica’s newer attractions. When tourism developed in that country, it developed mostly along the Pan-American Highway, at destinations in the heart of the country, and also at easily accessible destinations on the Pacific Coast.

The Caribbean Coast is definitely less developed, which means more opportunity to see an authentic side to the country.

An Introduction to Tortuguero

The classic way to go to Tortuguero is to take a domestic flight from San Jose, the country capital. Before you do, perhaps you would like to do a bit of craft beer tasting and historical sightseeing around San Jose. You can also visit one of the coffee plantations or volcanoes near the capital — and then fly out to the Caribbean.

And there, you will find two contrasting experiences. This national park is special because it’s got the Caribbean — and one of the world’s most important sea-turtle nesting locations — and it’s also got thick jungle.

Wildlife Experiences in Tortuguero

In the jungle, there are rivers that twist through the trees.

So, in the morning, as hummingbirds and other birds flutter through the air, you wake to the sound of birdsong and the smell of freshly-brewed Costa Rican coffee. And you go out on a small boat through the forest, searching for animals.

Caymans that swim from bank to bank. Toucans with their beautiful doses of pure colour. Snakes and lizards along the riverbanks. Sloths hanging from the trees. Monkeys as well, although the monkeys are quite difficult to see, so you hear them instead — hear their chattering and howling.

After a few hours on the boat, you set off on foot. You walk through the dense jungle, behind guides who cut the trail open with a machete, making sure you can keep walking. You’re looking for monkeys and sloths, you see more toucans and hummingbirds — there’s so much in the forest.

By 11 o’clock you are back at the lodge. It’s the middle of the day. It’s warm and humid. Time to rest, go to the pool, eat your lunch, have a snooze. Then, in the afternoon — a Caribbean beach. Why not?

It’s just like the Caribbean you imagined — white sand and tropical waters. You can lounge on the beach. Maybe go for a quick snorkel.

Meeting the Turtles

When you’re snorkelling, you may see some turtles, but to really go snorkelling with the turtles, you need to go with a guide. Because of course, the guides know the places where turtles are hanging out — most areas where the turtles are swimming are usually away from the coast. So, you have to do a little boat trip to get there and swim and snorkel with the turtles.

And after dark is when you go looking for the turtle nesting-sites.

Now, that area is well preserved. They make sure that visitors don’t go on the beaches where the turtles nest, except on guided excursions. Naturalist guides take you out to go looking for the nests — and you become part of the conservation process.

It’s not just “hey, here are some nests” — you are actively looking for where there are new nests. Depending on the time of year, you may even see the turtles coming out, making their run for freedom.

You will be part of the conservation efforts to protect these turtles, and give them the best chance to have a future.

So, in one day you can have both sides. You have the experience with the turtles, the Caribbean — and you also have the jungle wildlife experience.

The next morning, after a nice night in the lodge — you’ve probably been listening to monkeys and birds all evening — you wake up, do another activity, go back to the lodge in the middle of the day, have lunch and then move on.

Onwards in Costa Rica

From Tortuguero you can fly onwards to another part of Costa Rica. Or you can go by road. Within half a day you can get to some of the more established Costa Rican destinations — coffee plantations, volcanoes, Cloud Forest, or other areas along the coast. There is a lot to visit within half a day of Tortuguero, so it’s easy to make it a part of a longer itinerary in Costa Rica.

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