Sometimes it’s not all about the destination, it’s about the journey! As spectacular as Tortuguero was, the journey there was at least its equal. Everything had been arranged for us by Ludrick from Green Cahuita. We got a bus from Cahuita to Limon, and Ludrick was even there at the bus station to make sure we got on the first bus of the day. The bus unfortunately when it did turn up was full and we had to wait for the next one but luckily we still had time to make the boat.
We knew from our research that Tortuguero was pretty much a cash only village, and there are no ATMs there at all. We had no luck with the one and only ATM in Cahuita and the one at Limon bus station didn’t like our card. Over to Plan B, use the credit card! Less than ideal however we had got cards with no foreign transaction fees, (Starling) and no cash withdrawal fees on the credit cards. As long as we paid the credit card bill immediately, then no interest would accrue either. – We were set to go!
We met up with Ludrick’s brother in Limon and he drove us down to Moin docks, and we made it in time for the daily 10am sailing. What followed was a 4 hour trip through rivers and canals in a surprisingly high-powered boat. Beautiful jungle scenery everywhere you looked.
We stopped off at a jungle cafe at one point, just long enough to have a beer in the heat of the midday sun, and to watch some Congo Monkeys in the trees on the riverbank. I think Congo Monkeys and Howler Monkeys are exactly the same thing, Congo is just what the Spanish speakers call them.
Onwards towards Tortuguero, the boat stopped 4 times for us all to take pictures of the local wildlife, and on each occasion the thing we stopped to see was a crocodile. The first one was the largest of the 4, and this was the first wild crocodile I had ever seen. Apparently they are called American Crocodiles, and we saw with our own eyes they can be lengths of 4 metres or more!
On one occasion the crocodile we stopped to photograph was on a small bank just to the left of us, we were on the left side of the boat so we had a great view from only about 2 metres away. Our chief photographer, Carol was happily snapping away when suddenly the resting croc got up and slid into the water right beside us. As huge as they are, these things can jump clean out of the water and have been known to board boats! Carol jumped, and the boat captain quickly opened up the throttle and sped us on our way. We love a close encounter, but not necessarily that close!
Where we stayed
Once we arrived in Tortuguero, we walked probably 750 metres or so and checked into Hotel Icaco. There are no cars here, only feet and the occasional bike. On the way our guide stopped and gave us a history lesson about the local school. What he said may well have been very interesting, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and for us, tired from a very early start, and travelling by bus, car and boat for several hours, and with our very heavy backpacks weighing us down, now was not the time.
Hotel Icaco was a good standard of accommodation, and in a great location about 20 metres from the shoreline. Lovely view, but unfortuantely swimming is highly advised against here due to Crocodiles, Bull Sharks and a very strong riptide. We managed to follow the rules without too much of a problem, and did not go in the water here.
We had a boat tour arranged for the next day at 6.30am – you have to get up early for your best chance of seeing the wildlife. Many of our days on tour have had very early starts, and it just doesn’t seem right to have to set an alarm when you’re travelling, but with time differences from home and constantly heading west, normally we have no problem getting up before the alarm goes off.
We met up with Charlie, our guide/oarsman for the day, and a resident of Tortuguero for 25 years and off we set for our early morning row through the narrow channels. Our early start was in the most peaceful surroundings you could imagine. There was some kind of restricton on motorboats here, and the vast majority of travellers set off on their guided tour like us, in a small boat equipped only with paddle-power.
Tortuguero lies amongst a network of waterways, and it amused me to see there there signs around that you would normally only expect to see on a road, such as a speed limit, and directions to Nicaragua and other more local towns. I asked how far we were from Nicaragua, and I think taking into account we only had one oar, the answer was “about 2 days”
We saw sloths, but that early in the morning they are very high in the trees, trying to be as close to the sun as possible. As the day heats up, they come down to the lower branches for some shade. The animal highlights were probably a couple of Caiman we saw, and Carol managed to get a fantastic photo of an Emerald Baselisk. We also saw some fantastic birds, and hot on the heels of our sightings in Cahuita, Costa Rica was turning us into a couple of birdwatchers! The sounds of the howler monkeys were unmistakable that early in the morning, it’s actually quite an eerie sound at any time of the day, but when it’s the only sound amongst otherwise complete silence it’s something else. It poured with rain on our tour and we got soaked! thank goodness for Charlie and his plastic bag to keep everything dry!
The village itself is pretty small, comprised of small alleyways and a few playing fields; the distance between the main river one side and the sea is around 200mts. It is a pretty little place and we quite happily sat in the park area looking at the massive array of colourful birds; even managing to catch a toucan close by.
The one thing we did notice was that there were a lot of dogs about, playing with other dogs or just taking themselves for a walk. They all looked well looked after and were very friendly. Stories were going round whilst we were there, that a jaguar had been spotted on one of the main walkways, and someone’s dog had gone missing. Jaguars also eat dogs! The stories were backed up by owners starting to bring their dogs in at night, which is not something they usually do. We never saw a jaguar, but as we left on our final day, we saw a huge, cat-like footprint in the sand outside our property. Unfortunately, we’ll never know if it was a jaguar or not as were laden with our backpacks and no phones handy.
Jaguars do live in this area. We can confidently say this because some local science students set-up motion activated cameras on trees, and they regularly capture 8 local jaguars in the early part of the year, and another 9 visit during turtle season. Jaguars main diet consists of turtles 😦 Having said all that, Charlie had never seen one in 25 years of living there.
We had a little chuckle when we saw the picture below; clearly in order to be less invasive and more blended in with the village surroundings the telecommunications tower was disguised as a palm tree! It still stood out like a sore thumb but at least some effort had been made!
Another very noticible thing within the village is the sound of what can only be described as an 80’s video game. We heard it straight away and thought it was something out of Mario or Sonic, we discovered however it was the Montezuma Orependola birds who build very strange nests and do acrobatics on branches. You will hear these before you see them but they are fascinating to watch.
We’ve met a few Costa Rican people who don’t speak too highly of their comptriots. “Lazy” and “They don’t like to work” are two of the common phrases used. Clearly this is not true of all Costa Ricans, we met a great deal of very hardworking people too. I personally met with a couple of people who appeared to be unemployed. Firstly was a man who engaged me in conversation when I was just admiring the view on the waterfront, and I have to say his English was excellent. He asked if I wanted to see iguanas, and at this point I hadn’t seen many so I said yes. He took me to a nearby tree, where I saw the largest male iguana I have seen to date, and a female iguana that had climbed down the tree to give me an excellent photo opportunity.
He asked me to bring Carol over to show her too, and after we finished admiring them, he asked me if I had any change I could spare him, as payment for his showing us some local wildlife. I had 400 Colones in coins in my pocket and handed it over, this equates to less than 50p but he seemed delighted to have earned some money. His English was so good though, he was clearly well educated and was at least bilingual, so he seemed to me to be highly employable, especially in such a touristy area.
Perhaps the answer as to why he didn’t work, was given to us by the next local we got in conversation with. This was a man who slept rough, although he was very proud of the ‘home’ he had built for himself consisting of an old sofa and a single sheet of corrugated tin that acted as some kind of roof in amongst the bushes close to the beach. The smell of weed was very strong, which perhaps explained why he claimed to share his home with a large boa constrictor and several of her babies. He called me in to show me, hidden in amongst a banana plant, but I couldn’t see them even when he pointed directly at the large boa and told me “there, right there!” I think he was hallucinating.
Again though, this guy’s English was superb, I asked him how come he was homeless and didn’t work. He asked me what I saw when I walked down the main street. I said “shops, restaurants, tour agencies…” “No” he replied. “You saw Nicaraguans” He claimed that he was the only Costa Rican in the entire village, and that everyone else had crossed the border from Nicaragua, and they have all the jobs because they’re happy to work for less money. Basically a case of “I blame the immigrants, they come here and steal all the jobs” Now where have I heard that before? One of the downsides of travelling so much is you do come across some shocking levels of poverty at times, on a plus people like Michael have lived a very interesting life, and have plenty of stories to tell.
Living in the wild as he did, Michael had learned to do some great imitations of some of the blocal wildlife. He appeared to be talking to the parrots as we looked up in a nearby tree and got some geat photos of some Green Great Macaws. I know how that name offends our English sense of order, where we would always put size before colour when describing something, but no, they’re not Great Green Macaws, they are Green Great Macaws. Anyway, I digress, the birds were beautiful and they put on a great show for us, including appearing to have a snog at one point, though how that works with very tough beaks in place of luscious soft lips I don’t know 🙂
Thoughts on Tortuguero
On a tight timescale, it would be possible to see Tortuguero with a single overnight stay if the weather is in your favour. One day to travel there and enjoy the evening, perhaps including a night time trek in the nearby national park, get up early the next day for a boat tour and then if you had to be, you would be done. We did meet one traveller who had stayed there a single night, but it rained heavily and they saw nothing at all there! We stayed there for 5 days, and personally, I enjoyed every minute. And by the way, we did manage to find a restaurant that accepted payment by card, so our lack of cash here didn’t hinder us too much. Our hotel also took card too! Don’t expect too much in respect of food quality here; we tried a few different places and were mostly disappointed however the incredible nature more than made up for it.