Published: February 10th 2014February 8th 2014
On the Boat to Tortuguero
Pablo, from Nicaragua, is a big Celtics fan. Bad timing...
US$ ≈ 500 Costa Rican colones (col)
Tortuguero National Park lies on the remote Northern Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. From April to May and July to October 2 species of sea turtles return to the shore to lay their eggs. During these seasons there are programs for tourists to take guided night walks on the beach to look for egg-laying turtles and hatchlings. According to my canoe guide, Costa Rica hosts 75% of all the world's sea turtles which astounds me. Even though I came here out of season I really enjoyed Tortuguero. The weather's nice but not oppressively hot like Corcovado and the accommodation suits all budgets. It's got kind of an Afro-Caribe vibe so it's very relaxing... definitely not a party scene but plenty of places to chug a cold one.
The sea turtles are obviously the big draw but there are quite a few activities outside of turtle season. I went on a 3+ hour canoe trip from 6:00-9:00 with a great guide named Luis (trip was actually set up by Wilfredo Sanchez who bases himself at Casa Marbella near the Princesa - ask around, everyone knows everyone). The boat turned out to be a
On the way to Tortuguero National Park.
motorized dinghy with the quietest electric motor you never heard. These small boats can get into canals that the large, 20+ passenger boats with 100 hp outboard engines can not access. The 6:00 trip is definitely best for wildlife viewing as even by 8:00-8:30 (start time for second round of boat trips) it is already getting pretty hot and the animals duck into the thick jungle for shade. Not only was Luis an amazing guide who spoke excellent English and could spot animals all over the place, he charged a bit less than most others - $15 vs. $20 (park entry not included). There are also day and night walks but I passed because: a) it was too hot to be walking around the jungle for 3 hours during the middle of the day; b) I was headed to a reserve in Nicaragua where the night walks were reported to be great. These guided Tortuguero walks are outside the park on private land and require a $5 entry fee + guide fee while the canoe trip is in the park where the entry fee is $10/day (payable only in US$, colones, or by credit card).
I tried to use
the same day ticket for the canoe trip to walk a short loop in the park after lunch but the ranger told me I could not walk in my own hiking boots and had to rent rubber boots. This was reminiscent of the no stoves regulation in Corcovado which I and many others thought was a way to force tourists to take a high hard one at the massively overpriced park comedor
. The no hiking boot rule exists simply to make tourists rent rubber boots. The ranger's explanation was that hikers in their own boots would make the trail wider which is total b.s. as I don't see how wearing rubber boots could possibly preclude that. Accommodation and food
Both were taken at Princesa del Mar (maybe also called Princesa Resort but far from one) who had a deal for a room with full board for $30/person/night (or 15,000 colones). The cabinas are a bit tattered but OK and the bed was hard as a rock which I sorely needed after the flimsy piece of foam serving as my mattress for 2 nights at the hostel in San José. The room had a fan which was surprisingly unnecessary as
Adjacent to Tortuguero National Park.
it was nowhere near as hot on the Caribbean as the Pacific Coast. I had a private bathroom with a hot water shower and there was especially good WiFi given the remote location. The food was fantastic, a drink was included with each meal (coffee or fresh blended fruit juice), and there's always cold drinking water available gratis
. Princesa is on the beach side of the village which is really beautiful but dangerous to swim. However, there is a pool. There are a lot of places to stay in Tortuguero but standards and prices vary wildly. Transport
A bit of a pain to get to Tortuguero on public transport from the capital but worth it for the bargain price of a bit more than $8 total. First useful bus leaves San José for the 2 hour ride to Cariari at 9:00 from Caribeños bus terminal for 1,660 col. There is a short pit stop in Guápiles, the approximate halfway point. Very little waiting in Cariari for the bus to Pavona which departs from the same stop at 11:15 then from the old terminal a short distance up the street at 11:30 for 1,100 col. Upon arrival in Pavona ~1
Takes about 5 minutes to walk from one end to the other.
hour later there are boats waiting to transfer passengers to Tortuguero for 1,600 col for the 1-1½ hour river journey (duration depends on water levels and could take up to 2 hours). I arrived in the village ~14:00.
Leaving Tortuguero for Los Chiles was an all day painful epic commencing in near darkness with the 5:45 boat departure which actually left at 5:15. Many birds, quite a few caimans, and a large crocodile were on the river in the early a.m. Arrived at Pavona at 6:15 which was enough time to drink a coffee (500 col) and use the facilities (free but maybe another 500 col depending on staffing levels). The bus to Pavona finally left at 7:10 as I think it was scheduled to meet other boats leaving from Tortuguero at the correct time of 5:45. Got to the local bus station in Cariari (stay on the bus to the second station for San José) at 8:15 and waited 15 minutes for the bus to Guápiles (495 col, arrived 9:15) where we had a long wait which was a perfect time to finally eat breakfast at one of the many sodas
where pinto con huevos
(rice, beans, tortilla,
and scrambled eggs) and blackberry juice was 2,100 col.
Left Guápiles for Puerto Viejo Sarapiquí (there are 2 Puerto Viejos, the other on the Caribbean) at 10:30 for 1,210 col, arrived at 11:30, and left at 12:15 for San Carlos (a.k.a., Ciudad Quesada) for 1,540 col. That bus arrived at 14:45 just as 2 buses were boarding for Los Chiles. There was a direct bus which filled quickly so I had to take the local bus at 15:00 which was agonizingly slow and took more than 3 hours for a pricey 2,400 col.
The whole trip cost a bit more than $16 and the same route can be taken to La Fortuna, the only difference being the last bus from San Carlos. For La Fortuna there are also $55 direct shuttles from Pavona leaving at 10:30 timed to meet the boats that depart Tortuguero at 9:00 (almost 4 hours extra sleep at that time may be worth the extra $40). These shuttles arrive in La Fortuna at 17:30. The public transport route is really time consuming but the weather was very rainy almost the entire trip so I didn't miss much. I think better might have been to
take the 9:00 boat from Tortuguero and buses only as far as San Carlos and sleep there instead of Los Chiles then take a direct morning bus the last 2 hours to Los Chiles for the boat to Nicaragua. Los Chiles
My last night in Costa Rica would be spent at this frontier town a short boat ride from San Carlos, Nicaragua. After arriving in Los Chiles at 18:15 my French amigo
, Antoine, and I quickly found Hotel Jabirú where a small apartment cost us 10,000 col. WiFi did not work, the shower was cold, and the mosquitoes were voracious. There's also an unnamed hotel at the plaza next to Restaurante Shadia where a huge pinto con huevos
, coffee and a blackberry milk shake (I was famished) is 3,000 col. Vaco Pizza near the hostel has casados
with tamarind juice for 2,500-3,000 col in addition to pizzas and pastas. Money changers at the "port" (and also in San Carlos) offer crummy rates for turning excess colones into Nicaraguan córdobas. Border Crossing to San Carlos, Nicaragua
Right now the departure point at the "port" in Los Chiles is a scene of organized chaos and there is apparently a new
bridge and road being constructed for this border crossing which will make it much easier and faster. We stopped by the Costa Rican immigration office early this morning to get the 4-1-1 on bugging out of Dodge. Getting stamped out was easy and outside the office was the man in the red Toyota who organizes the passenger list (and is also one of the boat pilots). Finding him early was key as we were the first 2 people on the list and would therefore be on the first of many boats to Nicaragua starting to depart at 13:30 for the one hour ride so San Carlos. He also sold us the ticket which was an extortionate 7,000 col (or $14) for the trip. By contrast, our 1½ hour boat ride to Tortuguero was only 1,600 col. We were first told that the boat would be leaving at 12:00 and we should show up at 11:00 because sometimes the boat leaves early. Fat chance of that ever happening. We did get there early and paid the 600 col "port tax" collected by the town which is outright robbery because the "port" is a litter strewn slicker than snot concrete slab where
Little Blue Heron
Not a "little Blue Heron" but a particular species, Tortuguero National Park
everyone huddled under 2 barely adequate corrugated tin roofs while it poured.
Eventually our bags were loaded ~12:30 (extra 1,000 col if carrying more than one large bag) and calling of the passengers from the manifest commenced for boarding before finally departing at 13:30. There were a lot of birds along the river and a black howler monkey roared as we passed him (although I suppose it could have been a her). After the Nicaraguan army performed a brief, cursory search of hand baggage en route, presumably for illegal contraband, we arrived at the immigration facilities in San Carlos at 14:30. Luckily my backpack was right on top of the pile and I was first in line to get stamped in. There is a $10 entry fee (+$2 for "overtime" which I gather is anytime outside of 8:00-10:00, Monday-Friday) and a $1 customs fee the form of which is typed by hand with blazing speed by one woman for each passenger.
San Carlos seems pretty nice, Toña beers go for less than $1, but Nescafe might be the only coffee available which is a severe shock after the great café natural
from Costa Rica. Plan to head to
Tortuguero National Park
a wetlands reserve tomorrow morning for a few days before coming back here to catch another boat to Isla Ometepe on Lago de Nicaragua.
There are more photos below