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 made us realise how much of an expense Costa Rica would be compared to its neighbours. Our 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. 


Tortuguero, Costa Rica 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

The cost of Costa Rica

I can only speak from my personal experience but Costa Rica isn't your typical budget friendly Central American destination. After spending time in Costa Rica's budget friendly neighbours Honduras and Nicaragua I was slightly biased too.

We worked out through the extra we spent over our daily budget that Costa Rica was was 3 times pricier than its neighbours.  Buying our first drink came as a small shock after leaving budget-loving Nicaragua.

The price 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 backpacker perspective take this for an 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 ripped off. Why is Costa Rica so much more inflated than its neighbours? I suspect the inflation is due to the popularity of Costa Rica as a vacation destination by US tourists.

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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. 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 our $6 night without a fuss.

We had limited time to spare in Costa Rica's capital and on hindsight a few days in the city would've been wise. The most we saw of San Jose was from a taxi window.

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They don't call it the rainforest for nothing - Costa Rica during a day of nonstop rain
The bodies of water that surround the Tortuguero National Park peninsular


Getting to Tortuguero

We chose to visit Tortuguero over The Monteverde Cloud Forest in the north of Costa Rica. Tortuguero is a natural breeding ground for turtles and the word 'Tortuguero' literally means Turtle Catcher in Spanish. The National Park of Tortuguero is a national park and conservation area situated in the Limon Province on the peninsula of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast.

Without a zoomed in map its difficult to see how remote this area is

The National Park of Tortuguero is a protected area and his home to a magnitude of different eco-systems and a whole host of wildlife including the turtles. We chose Tortuguero over the popular Caribbean surf paradise of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Although we did pass through on the way to the Costa Rica-Panama border crossing.

Perhaps I was teased with the idea of seeing turtles hatch too many times and that's what led to my obsession with 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. We assumed Tortuguero would give us the chance to indulge in the real and pure version of  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, Costa Rica

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.There are several bus terminals in San Jose - Look out for the word Caribe which means the bus is heading to the Caribbean. 

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 to 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, Costa Rica for $3/$4. There isn't much in Cariari for tourists but there's an ATM. This is crucial as it's the last ATM for hours in both directions once you get to Tortuguero there are no cash machines. 

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 that will then take you on a journey through the rainforest to Tortuguero. 

The busses to the boat dock from Cariari station are perfectly timed with the bus arrivals from San Jose. As one arrives from San Jose it is filled with tourists and sent to the main boat dock. They are not as well timed on the return journey. 

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 for no extra cost. This same guide will find you a hostel upon reaching Tortuguero as I mentioned earlier.

The addition of a guide is important to understand the impacts 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 from Costa Rica's Capital takes several hours, dedicate a  day to travel and be prepared to arrive later than anticipated.

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The Costa Rican jungle

The journey through the jungle in Costa Rica

I'd go back to Tortuguero for the boat journey alone. It's a total surreal experience being on a boat, deep in the overgrown river and deep in the beautiful Costa Rican rainforest.

The bus from Cariari drops you off at the boat docks that take tourists to Tortuguero. There's just enough time to visit the restaurant in the middle of no where. A Central American theme. Where there's tourists there will be a restaurant, no matter how deep in the rain forest you may be. We boarded the boat and began our long boat ride towards Tortuguero.

Our baggage was sent don't the chocolate river ahead of us and we watched as our only belongings floated off through the mangroves.

During our boat ride we were always quietly aware of crocs and the lack of other human presence in the literal middle of nowhere. There's no one around you for miles, you are completely alone with nature in the rainforest. Its very peaceful.

Sailing along slowly towards Tortuguero in complete silence is something you've seen on a documentary but never thought you'd find yourself doing.

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 lifetime experience and you'd be a fool not to enjoy and appreciate every second. 

The dense rainforest to your left and right along with the humidity and the silent hum of the boat engine carefully moving you along. 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.

When you arrive at the foot of the National Park it's 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 in Tortuguero (actually wet is probably an understatement), but what do you expect from the rainforest in Costa Rica. There's so much wildlife it's difficult not to get over excited, visiting a protected area of National Park like Tortuguero is eye opening. Nature lives so comfortably with the small human population here.

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

No tortugas in Tortuguero, Costa Rica

We booked our turtle tour in advanced for $20  a discounted price due to the low season status of our visit. During our booking the guide gave us a welcome tour and told us when and where to meet and the items we would need to bring. A raincoat and a torch - this is the rain forest after all.

We met with our group that evening for the tour to start, just after dark. We headed out on to the beach which is a rough and vicious coastline with stormy shores and dangerous riptides. It was a far cry from the Caribbean coast we'd experienced so far in Central America but still beautiful.



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 so timed our visit to make sure it was before this time.



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. Our whole purpose to be on this very turtle tour and watch these incredible late hatchers find their way to the ocean to begin their lives.

We were bitterly disappointed  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 and conservation area

This got me thinking about the conservation and protected area of Tortuguero, surely a National Park as well preserved as Tortuguero couldn't allow this. A world famous hatchery literally named because of the thousands of turtles that choose to nest here would surely prevent the local dogs from eating the hatchlings? Another bitterly disappointing reality that we came to learn during our time in Tortuguero was that he stray dogs only inhabit this area due to the human population.

To me this case is a real disaster. I was under the impression that an area protected by its National Park status had procedures in place to prevent such things happening. It was truly disappointing after hearing of all the efforts the Tourism Board had made to prevent mass tourism and overcrowding in Tortuguero.

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The beach at Tortuguero is always wet and battered with storms

Still not tortugas in Tortuguero, Costa Rica

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

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 sea in Tortuguero and I think in this case we were very unlucky. I believe that Tortuguero for us was simply an unlucky experience and a case of  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. I truly hope in the future this issue can be dealt with before it becomes out of hand and Tortuguero, Costa Rica can always remain the Turtle Catcher.
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Is this the only actual turtle in Tortuguero?


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9 comments

  1. I understand your frustration with not seeing any turtles. I volunteered at a turtle hatchery program on the pacific coast for two weeks. The only time any babies hatched was 3 days out of these 2 weeks, and apart from once we only saw adult turtles under nightfall which meant no photos. The stray dogs are a major issue all over the country and its hard when the turtle eggs are their only real source of food. Once the dogs had finished eating the vultures would come over and finish it off. This meant a whole beach full of animals trying to find turtle eggs. Though, on that beach the locals also eat the eggs so who knows

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    Replies
    1. It was so frustrating for me especially because I had passed the opportunity so many times in Central America and this was really our sole purpose of visiting Costa Rica. I guess from what you've said that this is a much bigger issue that really should be dealt with by the tourism authorities.

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  2. I spent a week in Costa Rica last summer and couldn't agree more about the prices. You could do everything in the neighboring countries for one third (sometimes even one fifth) of the price and I didn't feel like Costa Rica had anything more to give for tourists than the rest of the Central America. It was the least favorite Central American country for me and I doubt I'll be going back.

    I feel your pain about the turtles. I was also travelling during the shoulder season when it came to turtles but was told it would be possible to see turtle nesting in Guatemala. Well it wasn't - I spent three hours one night wandering across empty Guatemalan beaches with my guide and couldn't find a single sign about the turtles - not even the egss. To be fair I'm quite happy about not seeing anything after reading your story. I would have been so shocked to find parts of baby turtles laying around. Hope you managed to find turtles somewhere else in the end!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. I think during this shoulder season the resorts and hostels are still trying to profit from tourists and our lack of understanding of the nesting season meant we truly believe you could catch them right up until Christmas. Looking back I don't think that was true at all. It wasn't a great experience especially after we'd missed out in so many Central America countries previously. I'm heading back to Costa Rica and Nicaragua on a holiday at beginning of November so I'm hoping to have more of a positive experience of Costa Rica. This time I'll be seeing the Pacific Coast rather than Caribbean!

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  3. I've never travelled in Central America but it's a shame this country is so much more expensive than others. It looks beautiful though!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment! I hope you get to see Central America soon.

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  4. Costa Rica is my most desired country to visit ever since I saw a documentary about it at the age if 10. This is where I imagine being proposed or going on honeymoon! Haha I told my boyfriend about this!

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    1. Its funny you say that because when I was in Costa Rica a lot of the plant life and wildlife reminded me of so many documentaries I've watched. I kept thinking to myself - this truly is so remote I felt like I was in a documentary when I was on a boat in the rainforest in the literal middle of nowhere. I hope you get to see Costa Rica soon.

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  5. I know how you feel about the turtles! Every time I dive, I am the only one that doesn't see any! I definitley need to get to Costa Rica though, Still haven't been!

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travelsandmore was originally just an outlet to document my travels. It turned into something much more and now its more of an obsession for me than anything else. Thanks for stopping by. Don't forget to subscribe, I'll only ever send you my latest travel related blog posts right to your inbox.