Taking the Scenic Route to Tortuguero

tortuguero boat dock

I swung myself up over the side of the narrow ten passenger boat, that would take me into the unknown or at least to “the lesser known.”  The boat wobbled unevenly as I made my way to my seat and I immediately noted the absence of life jackets and paddles, as well as the beer in the hand of our “captain” as he fired up the engine.  It was 9AM and this was already shaping up to be a ‘Captain Ron’ experience.  He had all his eyes but less teeth than Grampa Simpson. 

It's not that difficult to get there.....
It’s not that difficult to get there…..

In all my time in Costa Rica, I have stuck to visiting places that can be reached by car and maintain some resemblance of civilization.  This time, however, I wanted a little more adventure.  I had always heard about Tortuguero, a small community on the northern Caribbean coast. It was in the middle of nowhere or as the locals say, “the anus of the world”. Therein lies Tortuguero’s appeal: its proximity to the ocean and the surrounding rainforest, and the fact that it is only accessible by plane or boat.  I would soon

realize that just the journey to Tortuguero alone would highlight the trip.

The journey to get to the boat had started in the capital city of San José on paved roads and then continued through a side-winding, hair-raising mountain pass. The route forms a part of a majestic national park, but the scenery is difficult to enjoy when you have to be prepared for landslides, rain, fog, or a broken down vehicle at every turn.

After a couple near misses, we came down the mountain pass and hit the hot and sticky  Caribbean lowlands.  From there the towns became fewer and fewer, the paved road eventually dissipated into gravel, then dirt, and finally, we were at a small boat landing in the middle of a banana plantation.

We pushed off from the boat dock and made our way down a narrow waterway with the rainforest

See the croc?
                                    See the croc?

teeming on all sides, muddy waters, and crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore. The waterway was littered with rocks, trunks, and submerged tree branches. Some of the trunks that had been brought to shore had tribal faces carved into them, almost as if to warn the boaters of their trespassing.  From the incessant Cicada bugs to parakeet canopy chatter, the sounds were amazing…  The only thing not Jurassic about this experience were the missing dinosaurs.

Everything was going well until we had to make a tight pass between two tree trunks.  Our boat was about halfway through when there was a big clunk and the motor killed.  An eerie, dead silence shuddered through the boat. The casual chatter came to an abrupt halt.  We were stopped dead in our tracks, no paddles/lifejackets, and muddy waters with who knows how many predators.   I was recalling the tribal carvings and wondering if this was a trap when I heard a splash.  Our “captain” had just abandoned ship.  Maybe he knew something we didn’t know? 

Instinctively, I was waiting for an ensuing crocodile attack, however, the captain emerged the splash, standing in water that was barely knee deep.  How could this be?  We had just seen Jesus Christ lizards that could run on the surface of the water, but this was unprecedented. Was he an X-men living in exile? He must be on a tree branch or something, I thought, but then he walked right up along side the boat and began washing the place where the clunk had happened.  “I don’t like it when they critique me.” he chuckled, as he passed by on his way to the front of the boat, whereas as if were the routine, he grabbed the front of the boat and pulled us through the rest of the pass.

What could possibly be in that water??
         What could possibly be in that water??

After a while it turned into a guessing game as to how he would navigate the hazards.  I began to notice how he instinctively stayed away from the sandy side of the canal and kept us close to the rocky edge.  You could tell he had some experience, or at least instincts when it came to this waterway.  I’d find out later that the water level was at a record low, and that only suffering one engine killing clunk was actually pretty impressive. 

Shortly after that, we exited the narrow waterway and entered a more traditional river way.  We began to notice scant signs of civilization along the banks which were mostly boat landings surrounded by a few homes on stilts.  We pulled into one of the landings to drop off some passengers and the silence was deafening.  There were no noisy motorcycles, or loud busses that I had grown accustomed to in my town.  There was peace and quiet.  This would continue as we made our

Tiny towns...
                                       Tiny towns…

way to Tortuguero, with the exception of a few single engine fishing boats, we were the only ones making a wake.  The fisherman all used canoes and the most sophisticated ones had small electric motors to drift in and out of the river inlets and marsh areas.

When the captain docked us in Tortuguero, we could all let out a sigh of relief, this officially concluded our adventure for the day.  I cherished that sigh as I knew it would only last a few days until we got back on the boat to journey out of Tortuguero and back to the paved land. 

Tortuguero itself was rather boring in comparison to the arrival.  Here are some pictures from the stay:

           Like I said, a relatively boring town
                               Tortuguero beach
         Night critter in downtown Tortuguero
                        Main Street
                  Getting gas for the boat
        Power lines over the river, only source of                                      electricity for town
                             Welcome man?
       When you reach the end of the                                 trail….

3 Monkeys and then some in Caño Negro

Note: This publication was from a trip to Caño Negro in February 2015.  Written by Dustin

You wouldn’t think much from the surface, but it was hard to believe I could see so much wildlife floating down a dirty, sooty river in the middle of a flat, wetland region.

Strange that a place like this could be an attraction, when the country has numerous

Welcome to caño negro?
Welcome to Caño Negro?

rainforests, crystal clear rivers and both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans from which to take in real beauty.

But there it was.

We had turned off the highway and onto the gravel road leading to the river a few hours earlier. The sky was threatening rain. We were surrounded by muddy marsh waters on either side of the elevated road.

All of a sudden the guide got really quiet. This person – who could talk your ear off about anything on the side of the road – now seemed a little perplexed.

I wasn’t sure whether today was a bust – maybe we had turned down the wrong road or the animals had just decided stay in bed today. I wouldn’t have blamed them, given the weather.

I could tell our guide – pulling out his binoculars – was looking to find anything he could talk to us about. At this point, all he had was mud or clouds.

And then, almost as if God had answered his prayers, the first signs of wildlife appeared.

Swooping over our van and landing harmlessly in the brush was a pink stork, or something like that. It stood on its stick legs and incessantly picked the ground for food like a hen eating feed.

You could almost feel the air pressure drop as the guide let out a huge sigh of relief. He

was probably thinking, “Well, at least we saw a bird today.”

Since this was my first time visiting this river, I really had no expectations and would have been fine with any outcome. After that and before getting on the boat we found ourselves a few hundred feet from some caimans sunning themselves on the edge of the river, I figured the guide would had been elated, but he seemed unimpressed.

His focus was showing us things you couldn’t pick out with the bare eye, like a line of bats sleeping perfectly camouflaged against the backdrop of a tree trunk. He found turtles on all sorts of terrain.

Do you see the bats?
Do you see the bats?

He knew the route quite well and knew how to literally get the boat rocking with little effort. Just by motioning his hand to one side or the other, it would cause tidal wave as people moved from one side of the boat to the other. His enthusiasm was genuine, but you could tell he had seen these animals many times before.

We moseyed our way down the river, stopping to point out more things the guide had seen countless times before, when we heard a shriek. Not from the forest, but from our boat as our guide was anxiously directing our boat driver to the bank.

With his binoculars, he observed a tiny ball of fur perched up in the branches. It was a sloth, one of the slowest-moving creatures in the world, scratching himself on his head like a monkey.

I’d seen quite a few sloths in Costa Rica, but never one even moving at turtle speed, let alone head-scratching speed. They digest food so slowly that food they eat today won’t be used as energy for a few days, so they have to calculate every physical exertion that they make.

I felt the guide’s excitement.

Shortly after spotting this creature, the whole riverbank appeared to come alive. We heard the booming howl of the howler monkeys, and shortly after, we found a group of them playfully munching on leaves. After that, we stumbled upon a troop of spider monkeys practicing acrobatics in the branches (my first time seeing these in the wild).

Size doesn't matter: they are one of the loudest animals on earth
Size doesn’t matter: they are one of the loudest animals on earth

Our content guide decided to call it a day and take us back to the dock for lunch. The sun had come out, and life was good.

We put the boat into high gear, when all of a sudden the driver cut the engines, threw it into reverse and swung us back into the bank to stare at the brush.

I can’t imagine what kind of sixth sense guides have to pick out things while traveling down the river at high speeds. But sure enough, after a few moments, we began to notice the branches moving up and down and then saw the unmistakable white face of the capuchin monkey looking out at us to see what the big commotion was.

There are four types of monkeys in Costa Rica, and three can be found on this river. I don’t know if a tour group had ever hit the trifecta in one day, but we pulled off what seemed to be a remarkable feat.

After cautioning the group for hours that we might not see many animals, the guide could safely let his guard down, knowing we got our money’s worth and then some.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, being there is worth a million. It’s just not the same as going to the zoo and seeing caged animals. Seeing them in their natural habitat is amazing.

I’m pretty sure our guide went home that night to brag about all the wildlife he saw that day. It must be a big ego boost for them. Even on the drive back to town I overheard him arguing with the other guides, saying how he too had also predicted it was going to be a sunny day.

Dustin lives in Costa Rica and offers immersion experiences through the website costaricafrika.com.  Find out more about him here.