Costa Rica is one of those brilliant countries which places huge importance on its flora and fauna. In this day and age, with other parts of the world burning to smithereens to make way for crops and livestock, kudos surely has to go to the government of this Central American paradise, for attempting to do something to not just preserve the rainforests, but expand them, with swathes of the country being declared as protected, National Park land. Good on you, Costa Rica! You’re great! Tortuguero National Park is the closest National Park to Puerto Limón, the port city on the Caribbean coastline of this amazing country, and the place where we docked every two weeks. So naturally we decided to head on over one humid day via taxi, ready to climb into a boat and see some nature up close and personal-like.
The taxi fiasco
The Tortuguero Canals are an ideal excursion from Puerto Limón, with only a short taxi ride- no longer than half an hour- needed to get you there. We had arranged our taxi in advance as we’d made friends with a driver on one of our first visits to Costa Rica, but there are loads and loads of taxi drivers waiting at the port exit to take you wherever you need to go. Just like every other port we docked at in the Caribbean, it can get a bit on the overwhelming side to have so many taxi drivers getting up in your grill trying to make you get a ride with them, but unfortunately this just comes with the territory. Just decide on a price with the driver before you get in, and as a rule the more people in the taxi, the cheaper it’ll be per person.
Arriving at Tortuguero
After whizzing out of the city and into the surrounding jungley-countryside complete with sloths hanging from the trees overhead, we arrived at a big covered shelter next to the brown water of a river with all the glossiness of melted chocolate. A collection of local people were gathered under the shelter, shaded from the bright glare of the sun. I actually can’t remember exactly what this shelter looked like other than it had no walls and was basically just a roof- but the majority of buildings I saw in Costa Rica were made of a mixture of metal and brightly-painted concrete blocks, so maybe it was something along those lines!? We joined the people in the shade, waiting for the boat to turn up whilst browsing from a table of souvenirs- magnets, wooden frogs, and tiny paintings with baby parrot feathers stuck on for texture.
Check this out: A Walk Through Cahuita National Park
Ten minutes into our wait, my pal Marc glanced up into some leaves above where he was stood and let out an exclamation of ‘WOW!! BATMAN!!’ Hanging from the underside of some gigantic leaves was a posse of tiny bats gathered together like a bunch of grapes, green light filtering through the leaves from the sunshine outside. (On a side not one of the best things about Marc is that he finds most things in the world incredible and awe-inspiring, and it’s a good reminder of how incredible and awe-inspiring the world really is.)
Eventually the flat low-bottomed boat arrived, and in we all hopped, plus a collection of other tourists who were coming along for the ride.
The most magical animals I ever did see
The boat driver, a hilariously jolly Costa Rican man, navigated the way through the canal system, along wide waterways and winding narrow paths which you could barely see amongst the vines and branches spreading out like veins into the water. Every time he spotted an animal in the treasure-trove-undergrowth or overhead, he’d turn the engine off and let the boat drift as close as possible without disturbing whichever creature it was.
I feel like you need a trained eye to spot a sloth, kind of like those visual illusion books where if you look at an image for long enough, you’ll see another image appear. Sloth-searching is basically the same; once you get used to spotting the camouflaged balls of coarse fur gripped tightly to densely packed tree branches, you’ll become a pro.
Check this out: The Best Way to See Sloths in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is also home to one of the world’s largest populations of American Crocodiles, and we spotted a couple sunbathing on the banks of the larger canals, plus several smaller Caimans. If you happen to be visiting Costa Rica any time soon though pals, beware, as these bad boys have been spotted fairly regularly on the beaches of this glorious place. As awesome as they are, I wouldn’t want to meet one whilst building a sand castle, know what I’m saying!?
I was super happy to see a couple of toucans in the trees- although too far away to take any photographic evidence, these birds are fairly shy and hard to spot, despite their bright colours, mainly because they tend to hang out in areas where humans are a rarity. Iguanas and Jesus Christ Lizards were in abundance, although alas, the JC Lizards weren’t doing their incredible trick of walking on water á la Christ whilst we were around. Never mind.
Two of the coolest things we saw, in my humble opinion, were overhead. Firstly the beautiful nests of the Montezuma Oropendola bird, hanging from the branches of a tree close by. The birds weave their nests to hang about three feet below the branches, often close to wasps’ nests to deter any predators. Clever guys. And whilst we were staring in awe at the alien-style birds nests, we heard the call of a gang of howler monkeys crashing through the rainforest in the distance, over the chatter of birds and insects and other monkeys which surrounded us at all times. The boat driver followed their call through some narrow watery ways to a spot directly next to the howler monkeys’ hangout.
Check this out: Ziplining Through the Costa Rican Rainforest
Now pals- I’ve seen howler monkeys in zoos before and been pretty amazed by the throaty guttural sound which they can make reverberate around the entire area; but to see them in the wild, even from a distance, was quite a full on incredible experience. And to hear their strange calls echoing around AN ACTUAL RAINFOREST was downright incredible.
That moment where you’re like: am I about to be eaten by a crocodile?
Our journey lasted for just under an hour, although at around the forty minute mark myself and my pal Anna began to worry that the boat was actually about to sink when we noticed several rusty holes in the bottom, slowly letting water seep in. Do boats normally let water seep in through tiny rusty holes!? It didn’t seem like the norm, but then I am no boat expert. Luckily we reached dry land before we had to find out whether we’d actually been in any danger or not. What a relief, as I was deffo not up for being consumed by any crocodiles on that particular day.
Check this out: The Strangest Welcome at Puerto Limón
Let’s not beat around the bush here, this boat ride malarkey is quite the touristy activity to do, especially given the canal’s proximity to Puerto Limón, however it’s also a great way to see the fascinating nature of Costa Rica if you haven’t got the time to spend actually trekking through the jungle; and having only seen these creatures in zoos before (which I have very mixed feelings about), having the opportunity to see this wildlife in its natural habitat was one that I was truly grateful for.
- We paid our taxi driver around $50 each for around seven or eight of us, and this price included the taxi, boat ride, entry to the sloth sanctuary, and a trip to Cahuita National Park.
- Costa Rica’s currency is the Costa Rican colón, but US dollars are widely accepted.
- Don’t forget to tip! Just ’cause it’s a nice thing to do, okay!?
- The beaches of Tortuguero are also a well-known nesting place for sea turtles, and it’s possible to go and see them during hatching season with a guide.