Cruising the Jungles of Costa Rica

by Nancy Bestor

On our boat ride out of Tortuguero, a sleepy village on the north Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, our nine-year old daughter Sarah said, “This is just like the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland.” Her sister Emily, age 11, replied, “Yes Sarah, but everything here is real.” I’m not certain I could have described this three-day trip any better.

Bob and I knew that Tortuguero was not the easiest place to get to, but with three weeks to spend in Costa Rica this past March, we wanted to see as much of the country as possible. Most tourists choose to book a package tour to Tortuguero, paying more than $600 (for two people) to be bussed, boated and hand-held to a high-end lodge across the canal from the village itself. The package deal includes transportation, two nights accommodation, and meals at the lodge. As budget travelers on the lookout for a little adventure, we decided that creating our own trip to Tortuguero would save us money and get us closer to the locals by staying in one of the small, locally-run hotels in the village proper.

After consulting both our guidebooks (Lonely Planet Costa Rica and Rough Guide to Costa Rica) we booked a hotel sight unseen via telephone from San Jose and prepared for an early wake-up the next day.

A taxi dropped us off at the Caribe bus station in San Jose at 8 am. There we purchased tickets ($2 each) for the first leg of our journey—a one and a half hour bus ride to the town of Cariari. In Cariari we bought tickets ($10 each) for another bus and then a boat that would deliver us to our final destination of Tortuguero. Both buses were filled with locals, who got on and off at many stops along the way. We drove through banana plantations, past ranches and farms, and more. The last 30 minutes of the second bus ride (about an hour total) were on a very bumpy and rocky road. We’d later learn that gravel roads are the norm in Costa Rica, and this one was not bad compared to others we would travel. We arrived at our “boat station,” and I use the term “station” loosely, and boarded our lancha (small boat) for the final leg—down the river and into Tortuguero.

This part of our journey (a two hour ride) may have been worth the entire trip all by itself as we sped down the narrow winding river shooting past downed trees, large rocks and small rapids. Local families fished and lived on the banks, turtles sunned themselves, birds whizzed by and howler monkeys bellowed from unseen positions within the jungle.

Tortuguero is entirely surrounded by protected forest and water, and is only accessible by boat or plane. The population lies somewhere around 700, and the village’s claim to fame is the green sea turtles that hatch on its sandy beaches July through September. Our boat dropped us directly at our hotel, Miss Junie’s, in Tortuguero village. The village sits with the canal on one side and the roaring ocean on the other. Only a handful of budget rooms are available in the village, while the more expensive and more touristed lodges lie across the canal. Miss Junie’s was clean and friendly, with fans in each room, a lovely garden, porches looking right out onto the canal and a relaxed Caribbean feel. Our two rooms were $30 each per night with a large breakfast included.

There’s not much to see in Tortuguero village itself, just one dirt walkway through town, a handful of restaurants and a couple of stores. And while the rest of Costa Rica is working hard to clean up it’s beaches, the effort has unfortunately not seen much cooperation in Tortuguero, as little bits of paper, plastic and such are just about everywhere.

But the main attraction here is Parque Nacional Tortuguero, a pristine coastal park made up of many canals, dense jungle and a stunning array of wildlife. We booked a sunrise guided canoe tour with local legend Castor Hunter Thomas. Castor has led canal tours for 17 years and before that assisted his father who was the first licensed guide in Tortuguero. We met Castor at 6 am, the best time, he said, to see the most wildlife. Castor did the majority of the paddling on our three-hour tour and thanks to his amazing and experienced eyes and ears we were treated to a morning full of wonderful jungle wildlife. He pointed out howler and spider monkeys, blue herons, caimans, toucans, parrots, iguanas, river otters, osprey, turkey vultures, and more. We canoed silently through the jungle, hearing only the calls of the wild animals. As we returned to the village, several motorized boats from the expensive lodges sped across the canal and entered the jungle. We all wondered just how much they would see with their rumbling motors and relatively inexperienced guides. Our tour was outstanding, and very much worth the price ($15 each for Bob and I, the girls were free, plus $16 total for entrance into the National Park), and waking up at 5:30!

Tortuguero is unlike any other place we visited in Costa Rica. In many ways it felt more like an island in the Caribbean. It was VERY humid, there were lots of mosquitoes, and people were not in much of a hurry. The food was different from the rest of Costa Rica as well, spiced with Caribbean flavors. In fact Miss Miriam’s in Tortuguero produced the most memorable meal of the trip. We feasted on large plates of cabbage salad with vinegar, french fries, rice with vegetables, and gallo pinto (rice and beans) with coconut. These side dishes all went very well with our main courses, Caribbean spiced chicken, fried filet of white fish and steak. The $26 price also included three sodas and two beers. Great food at an excellent price.

The total price of our independent trip to Tortuguero was $325, more than $300 less than the cost of a package trip. Would we have seen as much wildlife, eaten as good food, and got as good a feel for local Tortuguero living if we had booked a package deal? I doubt it. And we’re $300 richer as well. On top of that, taking the trip local style made the journey itself an incredible experience.

The next day we returned to San Jose by lancha and two buses again. Along the waterway, in the small boat, we saw a 12-foot long crocodile sunning on the shore, then silently slipping into the water as we slowed down to watch. The only things missing from our Jungle Cruise were the corny Disneyland jokes.

—Nancy Bestor is the co-owner of Travel Essentials. She once dreamed of working in Disneyland, either on the Jungle Cruise or the Pirates of the Caribbean.

Planning a trip to the tropics? A personal mosquito net could save you a lot of itch and annoyance. Or, a Steripen could save you money on bottled water (not to mention having to lug it around!) And when you’re packing your sunblock, bug repellent and hand sanitizer, we love the GoToob Squeezable Travel Bottles – leakproof and easy to use and clean (and in carry-on friendly sizes!)