Not so Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tortuguero was the only place we chose to visit in Costa Rica other than a quick stop off and night in San Jose. This was a decision we had to make due to the expense, it wasn't the initial plan but spending so much time in Central America now made us realise how much of an expense Costa Rica would be. The original plan had us touring Costa Rica for an entire 10 days but our backpacking budgets wouldn't allow this and it became apparent upon our first taxi ride in San Jose from the bus station. 

Costa Rica simply isn't your typical budget friendly Central American destination, I doubt it ever will be. We worked out through the extra we spent every day above our daily budget that Costa Rica was was 3 times pricier than its neighbours Nicaragua and Honduras especially. Buying our first drink came as a small shock to the system after leaving budget-loving Nicaragua and noticing we had just paid European prices. I could be being a little tight fisted but I guess when you're budget travelling it helps to become stingy. I was in budget backpacker mode during our time in Costa Rica and its important to remember that throughout this article.

Tortuguero at a glance

 ✓ Language: Spanish

✓ Currency: Costa Rican Colón - US Dollar is widely accepted but should only be used under emergency circumstances as it is unsustainable to not use a countries official currency

✓ Street food: Limited street food options - Fast food outlets do operate

  Restaurant food: $10-20

  Drinks: $3-$5

 ✓ Where to stay: Upon arriving a member of the Tourism Board will find you accommodation

 ✓ Accommodation: $15-$20 per person

✓ Turtle Tour: $20


All Prices in US Dollar

Tortuguero is only accessible by boat or by air - there are no direct buses 

The cost of Cost-a Rica

The prices of all your necessities are much higher in Costa Rica. Food, drinks including alcohol and even water prices. I thought I'd be able to bypass this factor and when we chose to head on from San Jose to Tortuguero we assumed prices would only decrease leaving the large capital.

To put this into perspective take this example. $20 for a meal doesn't sound like a lot of money to your average person and its not, but when you've eaten exactly the same for $5 and less a few days ago you naturally feel almost ripped off. Why is Costa Rica so much more inflated than its neighbours? Is it because of the mass tourism from the US?

Coming to these small realisations in San Jose and later finding prices did not in fact decrease at all in Tortuguero we regrettably, but sensibly we only spent 4 days in Costa Rica.

Visit Costa Rica when you aren't on a strict daily budget and can be flexible with spends to get the full experience

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Arriving in Tortuguero looks a little like this

Arriving in San Jose - Hotel Bristol

We arrived in San Jose at night and I'd booked us into the cheapest hotel I could find, Hotel Bristol. Hotel Bristol is too funny for words. I don't recommend you stay here, but please feel free to find it on TripAdvisor so you can accurately imagine my face when I was shown to my stale smoke scented room. A budget hotel is a budget hotel and we spent the night without a fuss. There's a Pizza Hut on the street and a few small shops selling all your amenities before heading to the bus station for Tortuguero.

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They don't call it the rainforest for nothing - Costa Rica during a day of nonstop rain

Getting to Tortuguero

We chose Tortuguero whilst on the road, it was that or cloud forest in the north and I heard the world turtles, hatching, hatchlings, baby turtles and tiny turtles and I was sold on Tortuguero.  I personally believe we chose the most appropriate setting to get a real glimpse of Costa Rica. As a country Costa Rica is renowned for its luscious rain forests, national parks and diverse animal and plant life. Tortuguero is a natural breeding ground for all of the above so we were able to indulge in the real and pure version of un-touristic Costa Rica. 

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The most spectacular boat journey through the rain forest to get to Tortuguero

Getting to Tortuguero from San Jose

We left San Jose San Jose earlier by hopping into a taxi and heading to one of the bus stations close by.

Make sure the bus station has a terminal with busses heading to the Caribbean and The South.

Contrary to anything you may read getting to Tortuguero isn't as difficult as all the guides may tell you. It sounds like a mission and although we did have ti jump on a couple of different busses and a boat it was quite simple.

Tortuguero is only accessible by boat or air. Once you reach your first stop Cariari from San Jose the trip begins. Busses leave frequently from San Jose to Cariari for $3/$4. There isn't much in Cariari for tourists but there's an ATM so take. This is crucial as it's the last ATM for hours in both directions. Our card didn't work in the bus station at San Jose so this was our saviour.

A guide from the National Park will meet you at Cariari and take you along with other through the rain forest to the main boat dock

The busses to the boat dock from Cariari are perfectly in sync with the arrivals from San Jose. As one arrives from San Jose it is filled with tourists and sent to the main boat dock. (This isn't the same on the way back).

A guide wearing an official uniform from Tortuguero National Park will meet you at the station to assist you with the remainder of your journey. From Cariari to the boat dock then onward to Tortuguero. This same guide will find you a hostel upon reaching Tortuguero as I mentioned earlier.

The addition of a guide made the experience a breeze its also nice to have a locals insight on the impact of tourism to Costa Rica and the Tortuguero National Park. Our guide spent the journey highlighting the importance of conservation efforts across Costa Rica. Getting to Tortuguero takes several hours, dedicate a certain day to travel and be prepared to arrive later than anticipated.

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The Costa Rican jungle

The journey through the jungle

I'd go back to Tortuguero for the boat journey alone, it's dreamlike. A total surreal experience being on a boat, deep in the overgrown river and deep in the beautiful Costa Rican jungle. The Cariari bus drops you at the boat docks. There's just enough time to visit the restaurant in the middle of no where. A Central American theme. Where there are tourists there will be a restaurant, no matter how deep in the rain forest you may be. We boarded the boat.

Don't be surprised if your bags are taken first on to a separate boat. There's one for luggage and one for people

We boarded our boat and set of down the chocolate looking river. Quietly aware of crocs and the lack of other human presence. There's no one around you for miles, you are indeed alone with nature. Immersed in the rain forest and it's actually as peaceful as you can picture. Sailing along slowly and steadily is something you've seen on a documentary but never thought you'd find yourself doing. We were on the look out for crocs, monkeys and sloths the whole time.

You travel roughly for an hour by boat to get to Tortuguero. The boat ride along the river somewhere on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica instantly becomes a once in a life time experience and you'd be a fool not to enjoy and appreciate every second. 

The dense jungle to your left and again to your right, the humidity and the silent hum of the boat engine carefully moving you along all to cautious of disturbing the natural environment. The landscape is everything you would hope to expect from a mixture of dense rainy rain forest and tropical Caribbean coastline. Without exaggerating we got to see plants and trees I've only ever seen on TV, we were engulfed by nature and I have never felt more untroubled.

When you arrive at the foot of the National Park its all go. Find a hostel and plan your activities. The tourism board is keen to get you booked on as many excursions as possible, most will cost you between $50-$100. Its island-like being surrounded by water and sand, but the ever present tranquility of the rainforest is always around you.

It's wet, actually wet is probably an understatement, but what do you expect from the rain forest in Costa Rica - the title is a give away. There's so much wildlife it's difficult not to get over excited, visiting a protected area of National Park like Tortuguero is eyeopening. Nature lives so comfortably with the human population. 

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The vicious coastline. If you get caught in one of those rip tides you're gone forever

Turtle tours and beach walks can be booked at the main tourist centre by the boat dock. There is usually always someone there

No tortugas?

We booked our turtle tour in advanced for $20 and our guide gave us a welcome talk. He told us when and where to meet and the items we would need to bring. A rain coat - this is the rain forest after all.

We met with out group and headed out on to the beach. Quite quickly my Tortuguero dream came crashing down. The lack of turtles disappointed me and it wasn't due to seasonality. We had visited slightly out of season but made sure there would be opportunity to see some hatchlings in their natural environment. We knew we'd missed the peak turtle nesting season but after doing some research we learnt you could still catch late hatchers all the way up until the end of December. 

During our first turtle tour there was a buzz in the air. It felt like every single person in our small group was there for a reason. Right now, this was our purpose to be on a turtle tour and watch these incredible late hatchers find their way to the ocean to begin their lives.

We were bitterly disappointed very quickly when all that we found were empty nests of recently hatched turtles eaten by local stray dogs. I'm not just talking about or two nests but hundreds of them, some scattered with empty turtle shells and even the most gruesome half-eaten baby turtles. Our second turtle tour - the night tour was exactly the same. A bitterly disappointing end to a Tortuguero love story.

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Exploring Tortuguero

National park?

This got me thinking, surely a National Park as well preserved as Tortuguero couldn't allow this. A world famous hatchery that attracts thousands of tourists annually would intervene and stop the stray dogs devouring the turtle hatchlings? Now, I'm not advocating interfering with nature, if the birds were eating the turtles I'd be less disappointed. But, during our time on Tortuguero we found out that the stray dogs only inhabit this area due to the human population.

To me this case is a real non-natural disaster. I was under the impression that areas protected by a National Park status had procedures in place to prevent such things happening.

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The beach at Tortuguero is always wet and battered with storms

Still not tortugas

Tortuguero is an intensely beautiful place. Costa Rica is from what we managed to see in our short four days there. The reality of what is happening in Tortuguero in the off season is hard to fathom. A National Park that cares so deeply about the natural area but does nothing to influence a clear destructive issue.

I'm not ready to make up my mind about Tortuguero just yet, I'd never write an entire country off for one small bad experience. I just feel that when you brand and market yourselves on your amazing turtle hatchery and sanctuary you should try and look after your turtles.

Before I go any further I do believe that there are times in the turtle season where people get to spend lots of time watching little hatchlings scramble to the see. I believe that Tortuguero for us was simply a bad experience, perhaps in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were unlucky.

Tortuguero from everything else I witnessed is an exceptional National Park filled with unique nature and total wonder. From the unpaved streets to the small fence church to the parrots in each tree. The adventure to reach Tortuguero makes even the simplest of bus journeys an adventure.

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Is this the only actual turtle in Tortuguero?

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