Tortuguero National Park
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Parque Nacional Tortuguero extends north along the coast for 22 kilometers from Jaloba, six kilometers north of Parismina, to Tortuguero village. The 19,000-hectare park is a mosaic of deltas on an alluvial plain nestled between the Caribbean coast on the east and the low-lying volcanic hills.
The park protects the nesting beach of the green turtle, the offshore waters to a distance of 30 kilometers, and the wetland forests extending inland for about 15 kilometers.
The park—one of the most varied within the park system—has 11 ecological habitats, from high rainforest to herbaceous marsh communities. Fronting the sea is the seemingly endless expanse of beach. Behind that is a narrow canal, connected to the sea at one end and fed by a river at the other; it parallels the beach for its full 35-kilometer length.
Back of the canal (and the lagoon to its north) is a coastal rainforest and swamp complex threaded by an infinite maze of serpentine channels and streams.
Tortuguero shelters more than 300 bird species, among them toucans, aracaris, oropendolas, herons, kingfishers, anhingas, jacanas, and the great green macaw; 57 species of amphibians and 111 of reptiles, including three species of marine turtles; and 60 mammal species, including jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, cougars, river otters, and manatees. Tortuguero’s fragile manatee population was thought to be extinct until a population was found in remote lagoons.
A decade ago a study indicated that about 100 manatees inhabited the area. The population seems to be growing, as indicated by an increase in the number of collisions with boats (in 2005, several “manatee sanctuaries” were created, where boats are prohibited or velocity is restricted, although boat captains still whiz through these zones at high speed).
The wide-open canals are superb for spotting crocodiles, giant iguanas, basilisk lizards, and caimans luxuriating on the fallen raffia palm branches. At night you might even spy bulldog bats skimming the water and scooping up fish right on cue. Amazing!
The western half of Tortuguero National Park is under great stress from logging and hunting, which have increased in recent years as roads intrude. The local community is battling a proposed highway sponsored by banana and logging interests. Rubbish disposal is a problem: leave no trash.
Planning Your Time
Rain falls year-round. The three wettest months are January, June, and July. The three driest are February, April, and November. Monsoon-type storms can lash the region at any time. The interior of the park is hot, humid, and windless.
Take good raingear, and note that it can be cool enough for a windbreaker or sweater while speeding upriver. Take insect repellent—the mosquitoes and no-see-ums can be fierce.
Tortuguero National Park protects a vital nesting ground for green sea turtles, which find their way onto the brown-sand beaches every year June–October (the greatest numbers arrive in September). Mid-February–July, giant leatherback turtles arrive (with greatest frequency Apr.–May), followed by female hawksbill turtles in July.
Tortuguero is the most important green-turtle hatchery in the western Caribbean; annually as many as 30,000 greens swim from their feeding grounds as far away as the Gulf of Mexico and Venezuela to lay their eggs on the beach. Each female arrives 2–6 times, at 10- to 14-day intervals, and waits two or three years before nesting again. The number of green turtles nesting has quadrupled during the last 25 years; that of leatherbacks continues to decline.
During the 1950s, the Tortuguero nesting colony came to the attention of biologist-writer Archie Carr, a lifelong student of sea turtles. His lobby—originally called the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle—worked with the Costa Rican government to establish Tortuguero as a sanctuary where the endangered turtles could nest unmolested. The sanctuary was established in 1963 and the area was named a national park in 1970.
Local guides escort Turtle Walks at 8–10 p.m. and 10 p.m.–midnight each evening in turtle-nesting season ($10, including guide, who alone can buy tickets to access the beach at night).
Note: No one is allowed on the 22-mile nesting sector without a guide after 6 p.m. (10 people maximum per guide per night). Each of the five sectors has a guard post.
No cameras or flashlights are permitted. Keep quiet—the slightest noise can send the turtle hurrying back to sea—and keep a discreet distance. You are asked to report any guide who digs up turtle hatchlings to show you—this is absolutely prohibited.
Volunteers for Conservation
Sea Turtle Conservation (tel. 506/2297-6576; in the U.S., 4424 NW 13th St., Suite #A1, Gainesville, FL 32609, tel. 352/373-6441 or 800/678-7853, www.conserveturtles.org), formerly Caribbean Conservation Corps, needs volunteers to assist in research, including during its twice-yearly turtle tagging and monitoring programs. The Conservancy also invites volunteers to join its fall and spring bird-research projects at Tortuguero. No experience is needed. The fieldwork is complemented by guided hikes, boat tours, and other activities.
The numerous other organizations that seek volunteers for environmental, social, and developmental work include Planet Conservation (tel. 506/2772-4720, www.planetconservation.com) and Projects Abroad (U.S. tel. 212/593-5825, www.projects-abroad.org).
Trails into the forests—frequently waterlogged—also begin at the park stations at both ends of the park; the number of people permitted at any one time is limited. The two-kilometer-long El Gavilán Trail leads south from the Cuatro Esquinas ranger station south of Tortuguero village and takes in both beach and rainforest. Rubber boots are compulsory in wet season, when the trail is often closed due to flooding. Rent boots at Ernesto Tours (tel. 506/2709-8070, $1) or book a hiking tour ($15).
A two-kilometer section of Sendero Jaguar is accessible with a guide; the other 16 kilometers are accessible at night for turtle viewing.
You can hire dugout canoes (cayucas or botes) at Ernest Tours ($10 pp for three hours, $15 pp with guide). Check on local currents and directions, as the former can be quite strong and it’s easy to lose your bearings amid the maze of waterways. Skippered pangas (flat-bottomed boats with outboard motors) and lanchas (with inboard motor) can also be rented; try to rent one with an electric or non-polluting four-stroke motor. And don’t forget to pay your park entrance fee before entering Tortuguero National Park.
If you want to see wildlife you absolutely need a guide. The local guides—there are about 40 trained guides organized into a local cooperative—have binocular eyes; in even the darkest shadows, they can spot caimans, birds, crocodiles, and other animals you will most likely miss. You can hire local guides in the village for about $10 per person per hour.
You can also book guided trips at any of the lodges or through tour companies in San José and Tortuguero village. Costa Rica Expeditions (tel. 506/2257-0766, www.costaricaexpeditions.com) is recommended.
Tirtuguero National Park is open 6 a.m.–6 p.m. daily; last entry is at 5 p.m. The $10 admission also includes access to Caño Palma, in Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge. The fee is payable at the Cuatro Esquinas ranger station (tel./fax 506/2709-8086), at the southern end of Tortuguero village; at Estación Jalova, at the park’s southern end (45 minutes by boat from Tortuguero village); or at Aguas Frias (tel. 506/8394-0203), on the western limit of the park and accessed by driving north from the Guápiles highway via Cariari and Pococi. No fee applies if you’re in transit.
Cuatro Esquinas has an excellent information center. You can camp ($2 pp) at Jalova, with outside showers and toilets. (Crocodiles are often seen sunning on the mud banks immediately south of the Jalova station.)
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition