I have been promising some more travelogues from prior trips. Below is one from my and Krystyana’s trip to Costa Rica last month.
For our second weekend in Costa Rica, on September 13th, Krystyana and I decided to take a two-night, three-day trip to the Tortuguero area of the country. Our tour provider was, once again, Costa Rica Expeditions.
Tortuguero is the location of a national park, and is situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the north easterly part of the country. The park is a protected area for all sorts of animals, fish, plants, and especially for sea turtles. Thousands of turtles use the beaches of the Tortuguero area for nesting every year. And inland are magnificent jungles.
Bright and early, at 6:30pm, a Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van was waiting to pick us up at our hotel. The folks who picked this up were kind enough to offer actually take all of our baggage and store it in a secure facility for the three days that we were going to be away but I had prepaid the hotel, so we just left every thing in our rooms.
Travel to Tortuguero via the tour typically involved ground and boat transport in one direction, and a charter plane flight in the other.
One of the interesting things that we discovered when we originally booked this trip was that there was a 25 pound per person limit on baggage for the flight segment, and that the flight typically occurred on the return from Tortuguero, but Douglas, our great agent at Costa Rica Expeditions was able to rearrange the flight schedule for us in a way that guaranteed we could have more luggage with us by flying on the outbound on an empty plane. That was very helpful as my camera bag alone was about 25 pounds, and of course we had our clothing and shoes as well.
We were brought to a small private airport on the north side of the San Jose near the high-rent district where the president of Costa Rica lives. From there we boarded the small eight-seat plane for Tortuguero. The flight was about 35 minutes and took us to the small hamlet of Barro del Colorado on the northeast coast of Costa Rica, above the Tortuguero National Park.
Upon arriving in Barro del Colorado we were met by one of the people from Tortuga Lodge – our home for the next three days. His name was Riccardo, and as it would turn out, we would be spending a lot of our time with him. In a ride which took almost an hour, Riccardo took us by riverboat to Tortuga Lodge, which is just outside of Tortuguero Town. Tortuga Lodge is owned by Costa Rica Expeditions, incidentally.
As aside, it is interesting to note that there actually are no real roads and therefore no cars or other large four-wheeled vehicles in the Tortuguero Town area. Instead, all traffic – including all shipping of goods and transportation of people – is handled by very long and narrow river barges on the Tortuguero River and the surrounding canals and inlets.
As we arrived at Tortuga Lodge we found a number of the members of the staff waiting for us on their pier, including the manager of the property, Duane. We felt quite honored by the turnout. They gave us welcome drinks, took our bags from us, and guided us to breakfast, as it was only about 9am. Breakfast was wonderful. We sat next to the swimming pool, overlooking the water of the nearby river, and had great granola and fresh fruit.
By the way, I should mention that pineapples are the number one export of Costa Rica, and everywhere we ate, fresh pineapple was readily available, and it was incredibly delicious – a nice golden color, juicy, and sweet.
We were also offered our choice of eggs and breakfast meats and as much extra food as we wanted. It turned out that all the meals at Tortuga Lodge were a fixed set of courses, different for every meal and from day to day. And all were excellently prepared. The service was very good too. The only things not included in our package were beverages other than water and juice, and those were inexpensive.
After breakfast we were taken to our room, which was at the very end of the property, on the north side near some tall trees. In those trees were some howler monkeys. We were warned not to go close to them because they were rather spiteful and were known to throw feces at people that came too close to their trees.
Our room had two large beds in it, a nice bathroom, but the only air conditioning we had was in the form of heavy-duty screens on the all windows so there be a constant airflow through the room. There were also a couple of ceiling fans – one above each bed. We were concerned about the lack of cooling equipment, as it was quite hot and muggy (the humidity in Tortuguero is quite high during much of the year, we’ve been told), but it turned out to be a non-issue, because we actually managed to sleep quite well due both to exhaustion as well as cooler temperatures at night.
After unpacking and settling in, we headed out and explored the lands and vegetation of the Tortuga Lodge with a couple of our cameras. We came across iguanas, spiders – there were lot of spiders… big spiders… colorful spiders… lots of spiders – and all beautiful in a macabre sort of way. They are kind of frightening but very cool looking all at the same time.
We also encountered our first basilisk lizards, which are a rather prehistoric looking type of lizard which runs on its rear legs. I think Ray Harryhausen used them in the movie The Lost World back in the 1920s. When they are young and smaller (and thus weigh less), basilisk lizards can actually run across water.
We also found some very large grasshoppers, a couple of strawberry poison-dart frogs and we were also shown a “ting” frog. It is a little brown frog, and its name “ting” is derived from the noise it makes at night, which is kind of sounds like someone clinking nice wine glasses together.
We also took the exploration as an opportunity to go to the reception area and sign up for an afternoon guided walk through the protected Tortuguero National Park.
Lunch featured marinated grilled veal pierced with skewers of sugarcane and finished with a chocolate torte drizzled with a natural fruit syrup.
In preparation for our walk in the jungle of the Tortuguero National Park, we were advised to wear rubber boots because of the mud we would like find in the rainforest. There was quite an assortment of boots behind the reception building, and I even found a pair that almost fit my rather large feet.
We were then taken by Riccardo, our boat driver from earlier that day, to the national park and spent about an hour and hour and a half with him, wandering along a lush jungle trail through the park to look at the variety of plant and animal life that existed there.
Among the things that we saw along the trail were several species of monkeys – spider monkeys, what they call white faced monkeys or capuchins, and also howler monkeys.
We also saw a variety of birds, but the most special find was a toucan, as we were not aware that toucans existed in this part of Costa Rica. We thought they were only on the Pacific side of the country. We also found numerous leaf cutter ants and yet more spiders and even some beetles too.
But by far the coolest find was the eyelash viper, a rather poisonous but very small snake. The eyelash viper we found was bright yellow and all curled up and tucked in under a fallen piece of old timber. It was the size of a small tea plate, but we were told stretched out it would be about two feet long. If the snake had not been bright yellow we would never noticed that it was there, and even then we only found it because Riccardo spent quite some time trying to find a snake for us.
Back at the Tortuga Lodge we had ourselves a wonderful dinner and set forth with another guide, Fernando, to see turtles nesting on the protected beach in Tortuguero National Park. We encountered a light drizzle, and ending up wearing ponchos that the staff at Tortuga Lodge had thoughtfully provided us with.
There are actually two viewing times each night that have been set up by the park rangers – 8pm and 10pm – and each resort is put in a lottery every night to see during which of two those slots their guests can go to observe the turtle nesting. In our case we were lucky enough to get the 8pm slot.
I should note that one disappointment that we faced before going on the turtle nesting trip was learning that we could not take cameras with us – even those that basically only shot in infrared, such as Krystyana’s Sony Cybershot, as there were concerns that any sort of unnatural lights could upset the nesting turtles and prevent them from making a nesting attempt.
Fernando took us by boat to Tortuguero Town, and from there we walked about a mile to our appointed meeting spot a few hundred meters inland from the beach. We did not wait on the beach itself because the rangers did not want us frightening the turtles away while they were trying to nest just by our mere presence.
We waited at the meeting spot for about half hour with a growing group of other people from other hotels and tours. Ultimately we had about 40 people in our section. We finally got a call from rangers indicating that they found nesting turtles at a particular place on the beach. Fernando led us there and in the light of the full moon we could actually see a couple of turtles coming up on the shore from the ocean, the moonlight reflecting off their damp shells.
We had to be careful to stay a fair distance away in order to avoid spooking the turtles, but as we found out during the course of the two hours that we were on the beach, a couple of turtles did indeed abort their nesting attempts because they came out of the water in spots near our group and were too unnerved to crawl much further onto the beach. They turned back into the ocean to try to make their nesting attempt later.
The way the rangers and our guides managed to avoid spooking the turtles too much while observing them was by using flashlights that had red filters on the lenses because turtles, as with many marine organisms, don’t actually see light in the red color spectrum. I use the same type of red light when night diving in order to not frighten fish and other creatures and thus be able to observe them in a more natural state.
The turtle nesting beach on which groups are guided and shepherded at night in the Tortuguero National Park are about five kilometers long. During the peak season, which occurs during July and August, there were as many as 700 people a night participating in watching the turtles nest.
The turtle species spotted nesting are primarily green turtles, although occasionally leatherback and loggerhead turtles are seen too.
Throughout our two hours together, Fernando explained a variety of aspects of turtle behavior, including how turtles mate and nest, how the temperature of an egg in the nest will determine the sex of the newborn turtle, the low survival rates of baby turtles, and much more. He also told us that on some busy nights during the peak of the nesting season there have been as many as 2000 nesting attempts recorded during a single night on the 30 kilometers of beach in and surrounding Tortuguero. That is just phenomenal. Back on Bonaire it’s noteworthy if we get even a few recorded nesting attempts a night, but 2000 in one night? Wow. Then again Bonaire does not have the same sorts of beach length or composition that Tortuguero has.
Another interesting thing Fernando explained is that each turtle makes numerous attempts over the course of couple of months period to nest and to lay eggs – typically laying a handful of nests over a two month period. The female turtles crawl all the way into the bushes at the top of the beach to dig their nest, as that is likely to be the most protected area for the two months it takes for the eggs to mature and hatch. However, with some many turtles nesting multiple times, a turtle may in fact dig into another turtle’s preexisting nest and destroy some of the turtle eggs that are in there. And, in fact, we witnessed just that situation occur the night that we were on the beach. The turtle we watched laying eggs had actually exposed another turtle’s nest and ejected a number of those older eggs onto the beach with her forceful digging attempts, using her flippers.
We actually found egg fragments, and even a couple of whole eggs, sitting on top of the sand near the new nest. We had an opportunity to actually hold one of the ejected eggs and found it to be quite heavy. It probably weighed about two thirds of a pound, which surprised us – it looked like a ping pong ball, and we therefore expected it to weigh less. We gently placed the egg back on the beach but Fernando told us that there was no chance that the egg would survive without being in a nest, protected from the sun and predators, and that just by having been flung out of the nest would have killed the baby turtle forming inside. That was rather sad and unfortunate, but that is also a normal product of nature.
Krystyana and I spent many minutes actually watching a large green turtle lay her eggs and then cover her nest. It should be noted that once turtles actually start laying eggs, they go into a trance of sort and kind of ignore the outside world, which is why it was safe for us to observe the egg laying and not disrupt the process merely by being nearby. All in all it was a pretty fascinating experience.
Ultimately we saw about 10 turtles come ashore and most of those continue to actually make making their nesting attempts in or near the bushes. Turtle nesting is a time consuming process because it takes the turtles in order about 15-20 minutes to make it 150-200 feet from the water’s edge into the bushes at the top of the beach and then probably another half hour to dig the nest where she is going to lay her eggs.
It’s a lot of work and we felt kind of sorry for these turtles, watching them struggle along on land, a place where they really were never designed to exist for very long. Their bodies are designed to be sleek and elegant in the water, but natural history dictates that nesting must occur above the water line, as that’s where the eggs have to hatch, in the sand. The cycle starts afresh with the next generation when the baby turtles have to crawl out of their nest, across a huge stretch of sand (relative to their tiny size) and finally end up in the ocean to continue a mostly aquatic life, until it’s time for mature female turtles to nest, on the same beach on which they were born.
One other lesson we learned that night was “bring bug spray”. There were a fair number of mosquitoes and biting insects on the beach, and without bug repellant we would have been very itchy and covered in bites. In fact, bug repellant is kind of a must when venturing anywhere near large growth in the Tortuguero area, since mosquitoes are very common. We did find, however, that while traveling on the bigger rivers, as well as while near the buildings and at meals at Tortuga Lodge, we did not have any mosquito problems.
We slept well that night and the following morning, after another very nice breakfast, we headed out again with Riccardo. This time it was to go and do a canal tour by boat in the Tortuguero National Park. This involved us being on a boat that could hold probably about 10 people. However, because we were there during low season, the tour consisted of just two of us, Krystyana and myself, along with Riccardo as our guide. That was perfect as it allowed us to stop for prolonged periods in places with good photo opportunities.
We spent probably around three hours in the canals looking at and looking for all sorts of interesting creatures. We saw several species of herons, a number of other bird species, some bats, a couple of green basilisk lizards, and several caiman (which are a species of crocodile. We also saw a crocodile too. We also observed all three local species of monkeys in the jungles along the canals – spider monkeys, white faced capuchins and howler monkeys. And, of course, there was the lush green jungle itself, which was simply beautiful.
Another set of unusual creatures that we saw on our canal tour were other tourists who were taking similar canal tours with various other tour companies. Amusingly one of the people on the other boats was Laura, a fellow student from the ELISA Language School back in San Jose who had told us that she was going to be out in Tortuguero the same weekend we were.
We headed back to Tortuga Lodge and had another wonderful lunch, took a little bit of rest and then headed off in the afternoon with Riccardo again, this time to go kayaking in the canals. Krystyana and I each had our own kayak, and Riccardo had his and guided us through the canals – a different set of canals from those we had explored earlier that day by boat.
We saw even more different kinds of birds during our kayaking, and being by ourselves with no other people around, I decided to try and “speak” howler monkey, ultimately establishing a sort of bellowing rapport with a couple of male howler monkeys. They sound a bit like sea lions. My conversation caused Krystyana much consternation because she was afraid that they might actually come down and try to attack us. I was more concerned about having things whipped at us, so I tried to ensure we were outside feces hurling range.
Another cool thing we saw were juvenile basilisk lizards actually running across the water on their rear legs – another thing we had not expected to see during our time in Tortuguero.
One of the nice things about kayaking is that is very serene and peaceful (other than the howler monkey conversation, of course), in part becaue we did not have to deal with the sound of a boat’s motor. We were out for over two hours and then returned back to Tortuga Lodge to enjoy their wonderful warm swimming pool. We stayed in the pool until after sunset and then had another great dinner.
After dinner we opted for a tour of our own – exploring the Tortuga Lodge grounds at night, in the dark, using our flashlights for navigation, with the intent of taking pictures of whatever interesting things we could find with our cameras and strobes.
As we shined our flashlights around on the grass and trees we noticed these little tiny spots of white light reflecting back at us. When we went closer to these reflecting spots, we found they were the eyes of spiders. Fortunately there were not huge spiders, but we just had never realized that spider eyes reflect light, might in the same way that the eyes of shrimp and other crustaceans reflect light underwater at night.
This whole glowing spider eye thing freaked Krystyana out a bit, so we ended up staying out of the more densely vegetated areas in the back of Tortuga Lodge that night. After the initial discovery, I didn’t disclose to her all the additional glittering eyes I ended up seeing as I was looking through the bushes and through the grass for good camera subjects. I will say that there were a lot of spiders in sizes ranging from just an inch centimeters across (leg end to leg end) to as big as five or six inches. None of these was particularly threatening, and some were downright beautiful, but it was a bit creepy nonetheless – I was very glad to have long pants, hiking shoes, and a long sleeved shirt on, just in case.
Among our non-arachnid finds were a sleeping basilisk lizard, some poison dart frogs, many big frogs and toads, as well as a number of interesting bugs and plants. We did not find any ting frogs, although we could definitely hear them all around.
Upon retiring to our room, exhaustion from the day’s activities brought deep slumber that night – fortunately with no spider dreams. The following morning after breakfast we joined another nine departing guests for an hour-long river boat ride to our bus pickup point at Cano Blanco. That was the closest point where the road actually kind of got to Tortuguero.
Along the way to Cano Blanco we actually almost got stuck in the canal because at one point the water level was so low relative to the muddy bottom in the canal that we had only about one or two inches of clearance. Fernando (our boat captain that morning) got us through, but only with a lot of churning through the mud. We observed some other boats coming the other way that actually did get stuck, and the crew had to get out and push the 50 foot long boat through the shallowest part.
As we neared Cano Blanco we also ended up seeing a flock of black headed vultures, as well as roseate spoonbills, another bird species which we found to be a real treat. On Bonaire we have large flocks of Caribbean flamingos, which are just as pink as the roseate spoonbills, but seeing wild spoonbills was cool.
During our three and a half hour bus ride back to San Jose we saw some interesting sights, including banana fields, the relative poverty of some of the smaller villages along the dirt road we were on for the first hour, and truck pulling a horse behind it (instead of the other way around).
We arrived at our hotel late on Monday afternoon, tired but happy. Our trip to Tortuguero was more than we had hoped for, both in terms of experiencing the jungles of Caribbean Costa Rica, and with respect to the service we received all along the way. Extra kudos go to all the folks at Costa Rica Expeditions and Tortuga Lodge. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small property in the middle of the jungle which provided such excellent service, facilities, activities, and not at all least, great dining. And the wildlife we had a chance to observe close up and even interact with (in case of the howler monkeys) was incredible.
Definitely put a multi-day visit to Tortuguero on your expedition list if you visit Costa Rica, and don’t let the fact that September is rainy season scare you away from visiting. Just minimize your time in the bigger cities and spend your time out near the wilds.