It’s just you and exotic animals on a trip into Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park.
I like to say I took the road less traveled on my wildlife tour of Tortuguero National Park but, in fact, there weren’t any roads at all.
Because I have a contrary streak in me, I refused to tread the typical tourist route on a recent trip to Costa Rica. I was determined not to see a single American hotel chain on the trip, nor a fast food restaurant.
So I planned the trip to hit the less-developed Caribbean side of the nation, including the northern Tortuguero region, just below Nicaragua, which can only be reached by boat or plane.
“The closest thing you can find to an Indiana Jones adventure in Costa Rica,” one guidebook read about boating through the Tortuguero area, and that was enough for me.
Some online research led me to the highly regarded Riverboat Francesca Tortuguero Nature Tours, and I booked an overnight trip for myself and my two teenagers. It’s named after Francesca Watson, an American who with her husband, Modesto, has been taking tourists on wildlife safaris here for years.
Many people come to Tortuguero in July and August, when sea turtles show up to lay their eggs on the beaches. Unfortunately, we’d missed that season, but Francesca Watson promised me in her emails that we’d see plenty of other animals up close.
We spent our first night in Costa Rica in the capital city of San Jose, waiting for our jungle adventure to start.
Modesto and Francesca picked us up from the Don Carlos Hotel promptly at 6 a.m. We staggered out, groggy and coffee-deprived, bringing our luggage and crawling into the van half asleep.
I thought I’d fall back asleep, but the beautiful drive through the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo and its cloud forest kept me awake. Francesca pointed out the outline of the dormant Barva volcano before we stopped for breakfast at 7 a.m. at an outdoor restaurant.
As we waited for the restaurant to open, we walked a short trail through the cloud forest, alongside a rushing river where even the stones were alive, covered with bright green lichen.
We crossed a bridge over the river and watched a small waterfall. We squealed with delight when two huge, blue morpho butterflies flew around our heads, their fluorescent wings shimmering and sparkling in the sun. It seemed like a good omen for our trip.
My 19-year-old son, Michael, was ahead of us on the trail. Never much of a nature lover, he surprised me by announcing that he loved Costa Rica, loved the rain forest, and wanted to stay.
“The air is so fresh here,” he said.
We retraced our steps, watched a few more butterflies, then had breakfast on the deck.
Traffic was heavy when we got back on the highway, and it took 90 minutes to reach our destination: the small port of Moin, where riverboats depart upriver.
Warm tropical rain had begun falling, and the crew bundled our luggage into Hefty bags so it wouldn’t get wet, then pulled out heavyweight ponchos for our journey.
Modesto had another commitment, so he passed us off to one of his experienced boat captains, Cornelio. Francesca came with us for the duration.
The boat did have a roof for shelter, but we still got plenty wet as we began to head upriver.
The rain was disappointing, because most of the animals were hiding. We just traveled along a series of canals and waterways, past small hamlets and through virgin rain forest. Occasionally, another boat would pass us, but otherwise we glided silently along the water (motorboats here are required to use quiet electric engines).
Francesca assured us rainstorms here never last long, and that there is a new microclimate around every corner.
We entered Tortuguero National Park and, now, instead of small homesteads along the river and clearings, all was thick, virgin rain forest.
Trees were layered with vegetation— there was never a single tree that wasn’t covered with a thick blanket of vines. Even logs decomposing in the river were sprouting new growth from the top, as if nothing could lie dead here for long.
As promised, about an hour into our ride, the sun came out and so did the birds.
Clouds of snowy egrets flew by, with long beaks and elegant black legs with bright yellow feet. A long-necked anhinga looked black until he opened his wings to dry, showing the white pattern on the underside.
The bare-throated tiger heron. Roseate spoonbill. Ospreys, turkey vultures, pelicans. We heard toucans in the trees with their distinctive cries, but couldn’t see them through the green canopy.
We heard the howler monkeys long before we saw them, their cries echoing through the forest, sounding to me like the roars of lions.
Our boat captain had an uncanny ability to steer the boat, watching for river hazards, and simultaneously spot wildlife nearly invisible in the verdant vegetation.
“Crocodile,” he would say, and point to the riverbank, while maneuvering the boat to get us closer. We’d grab the binoculars and peer hard. Then, finally, we’d see it — a reptile lying on the bank, covered with grayish-tan mud.
Then he showed us black termite nests the size of beach balls, hanging in trees. We stopped to see where two rivers met and spilled into the Caribbean Sea.
At about 1:30 p.m., we passed the hamlet of Tortuguero and arrived at the Laguna Lodge resort where we were spending the night. We docked the boat and climbed out just in time for a buffet lunch at the rustic outdoor restaurant overlooking the river, where a huge iguana wandered around, amusing the guests.
Francesca showed us to our little cabana, which reminded me of a nice summer camp: clean and basic, with comfortable beds and a private bath. A front porch held a couple of rocking chairs. An overhead fan helped cool it off.
The resort is perched on a spit between the river and the Caribbean, with two swimming pools, open-air dining and bar, a Gaudi-esque gift shop and 17 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds.
Michael and his 17-year-old sister, Sandy, weren’t happy that they couldn’t get Wi-Fi on their iPhones, a fact that made me extremely happy.
Francesca and Cornelio had offered to take us into the little town of Tortuguero, about a mile away. But by now I was hot and sweaty, so decided to pass and instead lie around and read by one of the swimming pools, which felt delicious and refreshing in the muggy air.
That night, after a buffet dinner and a couple of cocktails in the bar, Francesca took us to the “frog garden,” a moist environment favored by tiny red tree frogs, which were fascinating to see.
That night, I slept deeply, with the sounds of the rain forest all around. None of the windows had glass in them. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by rain banging on the tin roof, but then fell back asleep.
MORE ANIMAL SPOTTING
We got up at 7 a.m. and packed before eating a filling breakfast of omelets, rice and beans, fresh sliced papayas and pineapple.
It began raining again as we boarded the boat and we put our ponchos back on. Re-entering the national park, Cornelio took us on a different route, through narrow tributaries that were inky black, the water stained from the tannin in the dead trees, making a perfectly reflective surface.
After the hard rain stopped, it was so quiet, we couldn’t hear a sound except bird calls. Cornelio pulled the boat over to show us a colony of fruit bats — so tiny you could put one on your fingernail — resting on tree trunks. We saw a colony of Capuchin monkeys cavorting in the canopy overhead, so tiny and cute, scurrying around eating insects and ignoring us as we stopped the boat for a while to watch them.
As we headed back to civilization, we saw more crocodiles, a caiman, sloths hanging in trees and Jesus Christ lizards, so named because they seem to walk on water. We also saw what looked like huge orange fish in the trees that turned out to be male iguanas, which turn orange in mating season.
Francesca stopped and pulled a blossom off a ylang-ylang vine, so we could smell the rich fragrance that is the basis of Chanel No. 5 and many other popular perfumes.
As we approached the docks at Moin, we saw people being loaded into large tour boats. Francesca told me they were cruise-ship passengers who’d signed up for a wildlife tour of Tortuguero.
“They only take them for a short run into the river, so they don’t see much,” she said, though that day there were sloths and monkeys hanging from trees nearby, so at least they got to see those.
As Francesca and Cornelio put us in a taxi for our next destination, Puerto Viejo farther south on the Caribbean coast, I knew taking the river less traveled had been the right choice for us.