Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast - My Family Travels

A family traveler explores Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park in beautiful Costa Rica.

In addition to my many other Costa Rican travels, I have spent some time along the Caribbean coast. In a country full of national parks, Tortuguero is one of the richest and most popular.

Puerto Limón

Puerto Limón, usually called simply Limón, is the capital of Limón province. This Caribbean port town does not offer much for the tourist. Travelers who go here are usually just passing through. The weather here is warmer and much more steamy than the spring climate of San José.

Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero, attracting nearly 50,000 tourists annually, is the major tourist attraction of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, and one of the world’s primary nesting sites for endangered green turtles. Nesting season is July through October and sometimes into early November, which is the best, and the busiest, time to come. Even if you come during the “non-nesting” season you will still have an enjoyable time and learn a great deal about the local wildlife, including the sea turtles.

Tortuguero is not a place where you come on your own. All bus and boat transfers are set up as part of a package which includes lodging, meals and sightseeing with a certified guide, who is well versed in the local wildlife. Most packages are set up for a two-night stay in Tortuguero which is the ideal amount of time. Tour prices vary depending on your accommodations and the transfers included. The more expensive packages offer more amenities at your lodge and often include a flight back to San José rather than the return trip by bus. All lodges are comfortable however, and include private bath and hot water.

The first day of your Tortuguero excursion consists of a bus ride for several hours during which you will cross over the Continental Divide and drive through acres and acres of lovely banana plantations, including the Chiquita Plantation. Costa Rica is the world’s second largest producer of bananas, next to Ecuador. Your guide will explain some interesting facts about bananas and plantation life as you pass by. Stops are made to observe unusual wildlife. Our guide spotted a sloth in clear view at the top of a tree and we were fortunate enough to observe him move several times in the course of a few minutes – a rare occurrence for a sloth!

Later you will board a covered motor launch to cruise down a waterway that is replete with all kinds of wildlife, both on land and in the air. You’ll be able to spot caimans (small alligators), Costa Rican water buffalo, egrets, herons, terns, sandpipers, turkey vultures, monkeys, snakes, and more.

As you begin your boat ride you will pass through an area that at one time was a “primo” place for sports fishing. In 1991 this area was struck by an earthquake of 7.4 magnitude which caused an upheaval in the ground underneath the waterways. The ecology changed and the fish went elsewhere. Dredging of the lagoons has been conducted since the earthquake and is still going on. The fish are returning and although the area is not yet what it was before the earthquake, it is getting there. For more information contact Tortuguero National Park (506/239-9130 or 506/837-9301).

Excursions Within the Park

Throughout your stay at Tortuguero you will have numerous opportunities for excursions – hiking, boating, museum visits and wildlife excursions. Some are standard inclusions in your package and some are available at additional cost. Take advantage of everything you can. Each excursion offers an opportunity to discover something new.

Be prepared for rain and bugs and all kinds of weather from hot and humid to chilly and wet. Although the hotel provides boots and heavy long rain coats, sometimes there are torrential downpours in the preserve, when it rains so hard the water will seep into your clothes through the openings in your coat and you will be drenched down to your underwear by the time you finish your hike.

You only need bring a small suitcase or duffle to Tortuguero – check the rest of your luggage at your San José hotel. Make sure your suitcase is covered with a plastic bag and that you have, brought at least two additional changes of clothing plus raingear, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, a sweater, a bathing suit, plastic bags for wet clothing, and a brimmed hat or baseball cap. Don’t count on the hotel’s laundry service. Clothes dryers in Central America are often inefficient and very slow.

One more helpful hint – when you return from a rainy excursion, don’t dawdle but jump right into the shower before everyone uses up the reserve supply of hot water.

If all this sounds a bit dreary, remember that you are in the heart of a rain forest and to experience its exciting wildlife you may have to endure a little discomfort. Some of the exciting wildlife you will witness on your hikes are the brightly colored poisonous tree frogs, whose skin coating was used to make poisonous darts. If your guide is skillful enough he will place one on his hand for you to see up close – shades of the Discovery Channel! You will also have the opportunity to meet insect-eating bats hanging upside down under the tree leaves and you may even get to enter a vampire bat cave.

Boat rides down the narrow inlets will reveal howler monkeys swinging in the trees. Tortuguero National Park is on a 19,000-hectare plot of land and water and if some of it looks vaguely familiar to you, you are correct. “George of the Jungle,” as well as several James Bond movies, were filmed here.

If you are fortunate enough to be here during turtle-nesting season you will be taken to the beach for a night walk to watch the turtles lay eggs or see the babies hatch and head out to sea. You need to wear dark clothing, no heavy perfume, and move quietly. No cameras or flashlights are allowed; they will be confiscated. The sea turtles have no ears (due to their need to dive deeply) but they see and smell very well. It takes a sea turtle two and a half hours to lay all her eggs and once the process is started, it cannot be stopped. If disturbed in any way by unusual sights or smells, the turtle immediately heads out to sea, dropping her eggs as she goes, leaving them easy targets for predators.

If it is not turtle-nesting season, your guide will take you to the beach prior to dusk and explain all the fascinating details about turtle-nesting, too numerous to mention here. One of the most interesting facts is that once the baby turtles have hatched and imprinted their birth place in their brain, the mature females return to the exact same spot on the beach to lay their own eggs.

Prior to exploring the beach there is a brief visit to the local museum, the H. Clay Frick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center, which displays exhibits and a short video on sea turtles. Avoid walking directly under the surrounding palm trees as the coconuts drop with a resounding thud! At the museum you can “adopt” an endangered sea turtle. You will receive an official Certificate of Adoption with the turtle’s picture and tag number and you get to choose the name. Sea turtles come ashore to nest every two to four years and you will be notified when your turtle is spotted.

We adopted a turtle that we named Gloria – Tag Number 73161. If you hear anything about her progress let us know!


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