Gardens and Nature of Costa Rice, Day 4

(I’m back to my blog about the trip to Costa Rica after an absence of two days… because of the lack of Internet at the hotel. Even here, in Sarapiqui, where I’m supposedly back in the civilized world, the Internet is very slow, like molasses.)

Starting a little earlier this morning (7:15), but after a good breakfast. We quickly leave San José for the Caribbean coast and my favourite place in Costa Rica, Tortuguero. To get there, we went through Braulio Carillo National Park, along highway 32, the only highway in the Caribbean area, the one that cuts the park in two. It was foggy and rainy in the beginning, but as we descended towards the coast, the temperature improved significantly. And I wasn’t surprised: Braulio Carillo is one of the rainiest places in the country: you can hardly ever cross it in full sun. All around us the forest (i.e. jungle) was so dense and lush, it seemed to spill onto the road, like it was trying to take over!

We left the main road at Guacimo for a secondary road that became a very bumpy gravel road as we got closer to our destination. The landscape by now has completely changed. Gone are cloudy mountains and twisting roads: the ground here is flat and the roads are essentially straight, for we’re now on a vast alluvial plain. All around were banana plantations, oil palm groves or pastureland. Sometimes there were tiny villages inhabited mainly by workers from the banana or palm oil plantations. Each house seemed to have a small flower garden!

Before a closed banana packing plant (it was Sunday), an old man had installed a small display where he sold coconuts . He pierced a hole in the end and inserted a straw: an instant cup of coconut milk! When you finished your drink, the man cut the nut open wider so you could scoop out the fresh coconut flesh: delicious! But getting fresh coconuts was not the real reason we stopped here. You see, the man is there everyday with his pet rhinoceros beetles on pieces of sugarcane stem: it’s one of the largest insects in the world. Despite their size and their aggressive-looking horns  they are peaceful beasts and you could touch them or even pet them . Curious! A great photo opportunity!

Rhinoceros beetle

Shortly afterwards, we arrived at Caño Blanco, a small port that serves as a gateway to Tortuguero. You see, there is no road that reaches Tortuguero: one can only get there by boat , like us, or seaplane!

Our boat was one of those flat-bottomed boats you see in TV shows about the Amazon. And why not: is not Tortuguero often called the Little Amazon? By now the weather was downright beautiful, thin and high clouds were everywhere, leaving little patches of blue sky here and there. So we were in what I would call “bright shade”: lots of light for photos, but protected from the full baking tropical sun! Anyway, when the boat is started to move, the temperature dropped considerably. Normally, in this area, it is always a hot and humid 30?C (85?F), yet it felt about 21?C (70?F).

Flat-bottomed boat


Boat trip through the jungle.

How to describe the journey: remarkable , extraordinary, peaceful? We followed the little river Parismina at first, with its pastures dotted with zebus and horses, and a series of canals increasingly dominated by dense jungle: huge palms, giant trees, lianas, water hyacinths, etc. . Towards the end, the boat could only move at a snail’s pace: the canal was so narrow you could literally touch the trees on either side from the boat! We saw great egrets, snowy egrets and blue herons, Jesus Christ lizards ( a medium-sized lizard with a ridge like a dinosaur that can walk on water!), freshwater turtles, butterflies of all colours and many others. This 2-hour boat drive was supposed to be strictly travel time, but our pilot did slow down or stop sometimes lets us admire some interesting animals.

Typical jungle scene.

Turtle Beach Lodge has a most unusual “driveway”. Of course, there is no road, so you get there by boat. So after traveling along the already dark and narrow Canal Palmas (like a scene out of the African Queen), having seen no sign of human life for ages, there is suddenly a sign with the hotel’s name and it’s turtle logo sticking out of the water, telling you “turn here”. Effectively, there is an even narrower private canal beside the sign. From there, you simply turn and follow it straight ahead. The hotel is at the end of the canal… which takes you even further into the deep jungle. The hotel is the most isolated one in Tortuguero: the very last one, essentially in the middle of nowhere. When you do see it, it’s a delightful small hotel on the shore of the Caribbean Sea: sun and sand on one side, jungle on the other.

Freshwater turtle.
Little blue egret.
Giant jungle tree.

Our bagage was quickly unloaded and, after a cocktail to welcome us to the hotel, off we went to our rooms to drop off our bags, but then we quickly headed back to the dining room because it was almost 2 pm and we were very hungry. All meals at the lodge are buffet style with a good ol’country cooking: Costa Rican country cooking, that is! Delicious, yet always with some unusual fruit or vegetable to talk about!

Turtle Beach Lodge is exactly as the name says: a lodge. A very simple hotel with rows of wooden cabins. Comfortable, but without air conditioning: instead, there was a ceiling fan. But that’s because is an eco-friendly resort: they try to protect nature by trimming off the excesses. Thus everything is simple and natural. There are not even telephones, television or Internet! And in spite of these “privations”, everybody loved it! It feels so far from the rest of the world and in such a beautiful spot. I swear, Tortuguero is my favourite spot in the world: I’ve been there nearly a dozen times and I would go back anytime! The only luxury the lodge allows its clients is a swimming pool: turtle-shaped, of course, and the water is unheated… but there is no need to heat the water in this hot tropical climate: it was nearly soup temperature! And there were beautiful gardens all around with plenty of unusual plants, many labelled!

The beach is a wild beach, 21 km (13 mils) long , if I understood correctly, a dark sand beach where sea turtles lay their eggs. Strong waves, strong currents and sharks put you off any idea of swimming, but you can dip your feet : the water is warm ! (Remember, I’ve from the “far north”: where I leave, the ocean is frigid, so warm sea water always impresses me!).

In the late afternoon we took a trip to the village of Tortuguero, next to the National Park of the same name  We went by boat , of course! This is the only way to get there unless you don’t mind swimming 8 km (5 miles) is caimin-infested waters! Again, theoretically it was a travel time, not a nature expedition, but the captain sometimes slowed to let us see birds and Jesus Christ lizards. Suddenly, I saw a spider monkey just above the boat, then two, then three, then four… but by the time I could cry out, they were disappearing into the trees and few of my fellow travellers saw them. This became the recurring theme of the afternoon: I’d see spider monkeys that few or none of the others did. Fortunately I could show them somewhat blurry photos (it was getting quite dark and cloudy, and in fact, it did rain lightly a few times: not good light for photos where you’re already in a dark jungle environment!

We visited the Turtle Museum where our guide Andrea gave us the history of the site, which is the first place in the world to set up a reserve to try and stop the decimation of marine turtle population. At the time they were being massacred by the thousands (and still are in other places around the world: I saw some horrible things in Cuba a few years back) and their eggs were a basic local food. The villagers were promised by American Archie Carr that if they protected the turtles, tourists would come. And that promise was kept: Tortuguero now lives almost entirely from tourism!

Of course, we hadn’t come to see nesting sea turtles. You’d have to travel but we were not in the right season to see turtles nesting: for that you’d have to go during the rainy season, between September and December. I chose the dates of the tour to correspond to the dry season in Costa Rica, for the comfort of all. Of course, there is no true dry season in Tortuguero, just a “less wet ” season!

Beach walk at Tortuguero village.

Still, we walked along the beach and found old turtle nests and bits of leathery turtle egg shells. But it is hard to imagine the beach crawling with turtles (good news! After 30 years of decline, the turtle population is now increasing!).

Afterwards, we walked through the small village of Tortuguero, where the main “street” is a sidewalk: there no cars, only bicycles and horses. The local church is smaller than most single family dwellings in North America. Nature itself invades the village everywhere. For example, in one yard there were dozens of hanging nests it a tall tree: a colony of Montezuma oropendolas, a crowlike bird with brilliant yellow on its head and tail and a very strong and bell-like call. Of course, as soon as the group left, I immediately discovered a family of spider monkeys swinging back and forth, right over the houses of the villagers!

Back at the hotel, we got out of the boat and the group quickly left for their rooms. I tend to dawdle when in a natural sight, so I again saw… spider monkeys! This time, many monkeys: a dozen at least. It seemed like the meeting of two groups and they began to scream: I did not know that the spider monkeys could be so aggressive! I called out to come back, but they were gone. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow!

Spider monkey.

And indeed, soon after, it was dark ad we had our group dinner in the hotel restaurant. I ate and went straight to bed, at barely 8:30 pm: I was exhausted!

More tomorrow!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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