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Tortuguero National Park
At various times of the year, four species of sea turtles—green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and giant leatherback—lumber up the 35 km (22 miles) of beach to deposit their eggs for safekeeping.
In 1975 the Costa Rican government established Tortuguero National Park to protect the sea turtle population, which had been decimated after centuries of being aggressively hunted for its eggs and carapaces. This is the best place in Costa Rica to observe these magnificent creatures' nesting and hatching rituals. Still, despite preservation efforts, less than 1% of the hatchlings will make it to adulthood.
Turtles may be the name of the game here, but keep your eyes peeled for non-turtle species, too: tapirs, jaguars, anteaters, ocelots, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, three-toed sloths, collared and white-lipped peccaries, coatis, and blue morpho butterflies also populate the park. You can wander the beach independently when the turtles aren't nesting, but riptides make swimming dangerous, and shark rumors persist.
Best Time to Go
The July-through-October nesting season for the green turtle is Tortuguero's most popular time to visit. It rains here (a lot!) year-round, so expect to get wet no matter when you go. February through April and September and October are a tad drier.
One of nature's mysteries is how turtles find their way back to the same beach years later. It's thought that the sand leaves a biological imprint on the turtle hatchlings during their scurry to the sea, which directs females to return here years later to nest.
Best Way to Explore
Bird-Watching and Wildlife
This is a birder's dream destination. Some of the rarer species you'll find here include the snowy cotinga, palm warbler, and yellow-tailed oriole. Waterbirds and herons abound. On a recent foray, members of the Birding Club of Costa Rica were treated to a close-up view of a wide-eyed rufescent tiger-heron chick sitting in his nest, squawking impatiently for food. You'll also see iguanas, caimans, and sloths. Bird-watching and wildlife spotting sometimes collide: while watching two beautiful agami herons feeding on a muddy bank, birders were shaken up by the sudden splash of a crocodile attacking the herons. Happily, the herons were quicker off the mark than the birders were!
It's not quite The African Queen, but a boat ride along the narrow vine-draped canals here is close. Once you're off the main canal, the specially designed, narrow tour boats glide relatively quietly—using mandated electric motors—and slowly, which makes for better wildlife spotting and less waves that erode the lagoon banks. Another alternative is to rent a kayak and go at your own speed along the canals.
Most visitors opt for a fully escorted tour with one of the big lodges, because you're looked after from the moment you're picked up at your San José hotel until you're dropped off a day or two or seven later. All include a couple of standard tours of the park in their package prices. It's entirely possible to stay at a smaller in-town place and make à la carte arrangements yourself. No matter which way you go, your park tour will be on foot or by boat. Remember: You'll find no four-wheeled vehicles up here.
Top Reasons to Go
Luxury in the Jungle
Don't let tales of Tortuguero's isolation dissuade you from making a trip. No question: The place is remote. But the lodges up here package everything (overnight lodging, meals, tours, and, best of all, guided round-trip transport) into one price in true "leave the driving to them" fashion. You won't lift a finger.
Plane or Boat Only
Whoever coined the old adage "Getting there is half the fun" might have had Tortuguero in mind. Plane and boat are the only ways to get to this no-road sector of Costa Rica. If you have the time, the fully escorted boat trips to and from the jungle give you a real Indiana Jones experience.
Tortuguero takes its name from the Spanish word for turtle (tortuga), and here you'll get the chance to observe the nesting and hatching of four species of sea turtle, and to ponder one of nature's amazing rituals.
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