Red-eyed tree frog in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica (Kevin Schafer)

Sea turtle in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

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What to do in Tortuguero National Park

Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast is rainy, humid, often buggy, and sometimes hard to reach, but continues to lure visitors to its beaches, and to Tortuguero National Park, about 50 miles north of Limón. From March through October, visitors can observe the centuries-old ritual of sea turtles laying their eggs.

At Tortuguero, "turtle catcher" or "place of turtles" in Spanish, three species of marine turtles nest in the dark sands of the park's 22-mile beach, the highlight of the more than 46,000-acre national park. The leatherbacks, the largest reaching up to seven feet across, tend to arrive in March and stay through May. The Atlantic green sea turtles lumber ashore from June through October and the hawksbills appear July through September.

Accessible only by small boat or plane, Tortuguero makes up for any transportation woes once you arrive—especially for animal lovers. If you have time, book the three-hour boat trip from Moin along the rivers and canals created by loggers to the park and return to San José on a 40-minute flight. On the boat ride, you'll likely spot monkeys, toucans, parakeets, kingfishers, and hundreds of butterflies.

Once in Tortuguero, lodges offer daytime trips on 70 miles of canals. Float past bamboo, mango, and spiny cedar trees. Boat-billed egrets, tiger herons, and two-toed sloths may be found. Guides, great at spotting critters, maneuver close enough to a Panama tree to reveal that the row of black bumps actually is a line of long-nosed bats and that the gnarly, half-submerged log near the bank is actually a crocodile snout. Be prepared for rain as Tortuguero receives about 200 inches annually.

Local guides lead the evening turtle watches. Reserve these ahead and be sure to wear dark clothes and shoes that don't reflect the light. The most successful watches take place on moonless nights or when there's just a sliver of shine, as the turtles are more likely to nest then.

Follow your guide as he leads your small group, searching the beach for critters. When the guide points out a turtle, you may only see a shadow at first, as it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Stay quiet amid the pounding surf and the sea spray, and listen for the turtle's labored breath and the scratchy sound of her flippers as she pulls herself to a spot above high tide level. Satisfied with her site, the turtle painstakingly whips the sand out from under her with her back flippers, then drops scores of eggs before methodically tossing the dirt back into the nest with her front flippers. Afterwards, she slowly lumbers down the beach to disappear into the waves. You and your kids will long remember this mesmerizing natural ritual.

 

  • Tortuguero National Park Travel Q&A

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