Tortuguero and Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Published: August 6th 2012
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Tortuguero and Arenal Volcano

We are nearing the end of our month long visit to Costa Rica. It is our 5th country and 6th move in 6 months. Costa Rica is the most touristy and most expensive country (by far) that we have lived in during our time in Central America. Apartments, groceries, and entertainment are nearly double what they have been in other countries. The tourist infrastructure is much better developed here and, because of the number of tourists, they are able to, and do, charge more money for things. Costa Rica has many beautiful areas but at times it seems like an adventurous traveler could find the same things in other Central American countries for much less money. Costa Rica does have friendly people who all seem to speak some English and it does feel “safer” than some other countries in Central America. It seems like the people of Costa Rica have a higher standard of living than other Central American countries (Panama and El Salvador are close).

Because of the cost of things we have had to pace ourselves more than normal on the number of adventures we have been able to do while visiting. We live in the town of Heredia which is just north of the capital of San Jose. Heredia is a modern town with all the conveniences of the capital but has a much more suburban feel. The town square is quite nice and always has many people enjoying the park area. Heredia is unfortunately located quite some way from most of the “major” attractions of the Costa Rica and as such has necessitated a couple of overnight trips to visit them. The cost of hotels has limited the amount of things we could visit also.

Our first adventure was to visit Tortuguero National Park. Tortuguero means “place of the turtles” and the turtles are the main attraction. From Heredia we crossed the mountains toward the Caribbean coast. We drove through the beautiful jungles of the Carrillo National Park to the town of Guapiles. We continued on the paved road through banana plantations until we reached the small town of Cuatro Esquinas (Four Corners) where the road became dirt. We drove about 1 ½ hours on pavement and then a slow hour on the dirt road to reach La Pavona where the boats to Tortuguero are located. Tortuguero is only accessible by plane or boat. We had to stop once on the dirt road to wait as load of bananas passed over the road on a conveyor system that carried many stems of bananas to the processing area.

We reached the boat loading area and enjoyed a couple of cold Imperial beers while we arranged a tour once we reached the park. We made our way to the boat which carried about 30 people. Our boat was one of 3 leaving at the same time. Our guide told us that about 800 people visit Tortuguero each day and Tortuguero town only has about 900 people living there. It was interesting to compare the people coming back from the park (dirty, wet, and tired) to the people getting on the boat (clean, dry, and nervous). The boat passed through curvy small channels surrounded by beautiful jungle on the way to the main river. We saw a pretty large crocodile lounging in the sun on a small sandbar along the channel. We reached the river and watched as the jungle changed to different types of trees than in the channels. After a little more than an hour we reached the dock at Tortuguero. Our original choice for a hotel was full but our guide told us of another close by the soccer field and after a short walk through the dirt streets of town we found our room for the night. There are no cars in Tortuguero so everyone walks or rides bicycles. Our room was small and only had a half working fan, but it was clean and would be good for the night. We made plans to meet our guide in a couple of hours and headed out to get something to eat.

We heard rumors of good Caribbean food at a small restaurant in town. We found Miss Miriam’s a short walk away. After checking out the menu on the board we both decided on the Caribbean Chicken. It came with salad, and 2 kinds of rice dish and some unknown starch food like potatoes (yucca?). All was absolutely delicious, especially with the spicy salsa picante added.

We met our guide who loaded us onto his canoe for a sunset ride around the local area. We saw Howler monkeys along the shore of the main river and then travelled into a couple of small hidden areas nearby where we saw frogs, toucans, snakes and some spider monkeys. It was fun, if mostly for the canoe ride itself.

Finally after the long drive, boat ride, hurried dinner and canoe trip we got a chance to rest for a while and clean up before our 10 PM trip to the see the turtles.The turtles are only viewable with a guide and only for a two hour block of time either at 8 or 10 PM. We waited for our guide at the designated spot outside our hotel at 9:40 as arranged. Many other groups passed by but no one stopped for us. Finally at 10:10, just as we were about to give up, the last group passed and it was ours. Our guide apologized and explained that he had to locate two people in a bar, two in a restaurant and two were sleeping. Now we had to nearly run to go the couple of miles to the turtles inside the National Park. After a few minutes of the pace the guide stopped and came back for Nanci. He said he wanted to hold her hand. Nanci was very flattered and I didn’t want to ruin her fun by telling her it was more because she might be slowest instead of true love. Nanci said she and the guide saw a jaguar along the path but I really didn’t believe her. I asked her what color it was and she didn’t know, which added to my disbelief. However later on the beach, a coconut fell near us and the guide about jumped out of his skin thinking it was the jaguar returning so I changed my mind and thought it was true after all.

We arrived at our section of the beach and found our 2 turtles. The turtles are green turtles and they come to the beach nightly. They are huge, almost 300 pounds. They come up the beach and dig a hole and then lay their eggs, about 120 in all. While they are laying their eggs they go into a kind of trance and people can approach them without disturbing them. We weren't allowed to take pictures, use flashes, even to light a cigarette for fear of disturbing the turtles. The guide had a red light so we could view well from just outside of their holes. When they are finished we had to move a few feet away while they were burying the eggs and camouflaging the hole. Then they return to the sea. We watched them for about 1 ½ and then made our way back through the jungle to the hotel. Nanci ran to the front with the guide and held hands with her new beau all the way back. All in all, an excellent, adventure full day.

We woke early and grabbed a great breakfast at Miss Miriam’s and then made our way to the dock to get our return tickets. We had an hour to kill so we decided to walk around town a little. It began to rain a little and then we really had a torrential downpour with hardly anywhere to hide. The rain let up not long into the return boat ride and we had a good ride back. The ride home seemed longer than the trip to Tortuguero but gave us a chance to reflect on our great adventure.

We hung out at home for about a week before we were ready to go anywhere else. We busied ourselves watching the Olympics. Quite fun and we were glad that it was covered nearly 24 hours a day. We enjoyed also that it was on the Spanish language stations and we could watch it from another countries point of view instead of just from a US standpoint.

After saving money for the week and enjoying the Olympics we decided to head out on our next adventure to Arenal Volcano National Park. Arenal is the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica and has intermittently been erupting since 1968. We were warned that it was best to not expect much activity and that it was best to plan to visit the hot springs and many other activities in the area. Because we are here in the rainy season it is common to not even be able to see the volcano due to clouds that often cover it.

We again drove across the mountains north of Heredia about 3 hours to reach the town of La Fortuna near the volcano. The road was good, but winding and passed through the beautiful countryside with terraced farms and dairies on the hillside passages through the mountains. It reminded us of pictures of Switzerland. We passed through many small towns and crossed lots of one way bridges across the rivers.

La Fortuna was very hot and humid after spending most of our time in the Central Highlands near San Jose. Luckily our hotel was really nice with great air conditioning and a nice view of the volcano when it came out of the clouds.

We decided to visit the National Park for the afternoon and drove the 20 minutes to the park. We had to drive down a bumpy dirt road for the last couple of miles to the park which is never good for our poor Saturn. Lots of tourists passed by with their rental SUV’s but we stayed to the side and eventually made it. We got our map from the ranger and headed down the trail to the lava fields. After passing through a large bamboo forest we reached the lava field and made our way as far as we could before the trail became too rough. We had great views of the volcano and the large manmade lake (Lago Arenal) that is close by. We chose a different trail (El Ceibo) for the return trip. This trail was much more interesting and led through a deep jungle towards a huge Ceiba tree of a couple hundred feet that the trail was named for. The weather was rolling in and we basically had the trail to ourselves. We saw some bats, squirrels and several birds and lizards on the trail. As we approached the Ceiba, the jungle began to get very dark almost as though it was night. The trees began to move and it was obvious a big storm was coming. The rain began and it seemed to fall everywhere except under the Ceiba. We stayed virtually dry for about 20 minutes while the rest of the jungle turned into a river of mud. It was really quite amazing. The rain began to let up and we decided to make a break for it. Of course we still got soaked and our shoes were a mess, but we were happy for the Ceiba or it may have been much worse. We got back to the hotel and were happy to get cleaned up and enjoy the air conditioning for a while before dinner. We went for a walk after dinner through the pretty town square of La Fortuna and were treated to some beautiful views of the Volcano as the clouds cleared just as the sun was setting. It was really pretty, even though we did not have lava views.

The next day we decided to visit an attraction called Hanging Bridges. Hanging Bridges is a series of suspension bridges that are located in a beautiful bit of forest and jungle with some good views of the volcano. It was very expensive and unfortunately we arrived just as about 10 busloads of tourists showed up. It was no fault of Hanging Bridges but it really was not a fun 2 hours. We haven’t been to very many touristy places on our trip so far and this was not a pleasant experience. I had forgotten how obnoxious and poorly behaved tourists could be. Despite many signs explaining proper behavior while in the area, these people were absolutely horrible. They were loud, obnoxious, whining and fat. I’d like to say it was all of them, but honestly I have to say it was unfortunately mostly the Americans. They truly should have just gone to Disneyland, Vegas or Branson. Disgusting. It truly ruined what could have been what could have been a nice place.

We had a nice trip home in the afternoon and arrived back in Heredia in the late afternoon.

We have enjoyed our stay in Costa Rica and are looking forward to our next stop in Mexico. We are planning about a 10 or 11 day drive north through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. We are looking forward to visiting the Mayan Ruins at Copan, Honduras on the way and a brief stop in Belize before we reach or new how in the Yucatan City of Merida. We hear that there is a hurricane coming now and hope it passes before our trip begins on Friday. Wish us luck!

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7th August 2012

Brilliant Blog
Hi guys, I am so glad you discovered us because that meant we discovered you. Love your blogs. We were so hoping to get to Panama and Costa Rica, but unsure if the money will strecth that far. You have confirmed everything we have heard about the place so it will make it even harder for us if we don't make it. Isn't it great seeing the Olympics from another country, back home got so sick of hearing "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" so nice seeing other sports Australia doesnt compete in. As for "tourist swarms" they really can ruin your day. Looking forward to your next blog Shelley and Scott
7th August 2012

Congratulations on Blogger of the Week! We do not have a long-term plan, per se. As I said in our Bio, we're going to stay out until either our health or money runs out. As it stands right now, we're probably going to stay out for another six years - a continent a year! As it stands right now, we're heading north to Mexico to work on our car. You can only stay for a month in a country in Central America, but you can stay for six months in Mexico. After a few months and a "new" car, we'll ship it to South America and go from there, that is if it doesn't crap out on the way to Mexico. If one thing we've learned, it's how to be fluid! Again, congratulations on being Blogger of the Week! Nanci and David
11th August 2012
Blue Jean Dart Frog

Beautiful frog!
What a great photo - it is difficult to photograph smaller frogs.

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