Located on the narrow stretch of land linking north and south America, Costa Rica – literally “rich coast” – boasts beautiful tropical beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean Sea. With a quarter of its area designated as national park or nature reserve, it is a country brimming with rainforests, volcanoes and tropical jungles. Between July and September, Tortuguero National Park, in the north east of the country, plays host to an amazing natural event when the green turtles – enormous marine reptiles that, as adults, reach up to a metre and a half in length and 300 kilos in weight –return to the Caribbean shores for the biggest spawning in the Western Hemisphere.
Between February and July, the even bigger leatherback turtles come to the park on a slightly lesser scale for the same reason. These vast animals are truly marine creatures: leatherback males never leave the water, and the females, after their incredible migration across the ocean, do so just once every three or four years, with the sole purpose of spawning on the beach where they were born.
The unspoiled wilderness on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, laced with navigable waterways and lagoons, is a key nesting site for other endangered marine species including the hawksbill turtle, and the loggerhead. The almost prehistoric matrons emerge with great effort from the sea, usually at night, and drag themselves up the beach beyond the high tide mark. There, they use their great flippers to dig a hole in the sand about half a metre deep in which to lay the hundred or so eggs that each produces.
A few months later, there's yet another natural spectacle, when millions of young, straight from the nest, make their way down to the sea, guided only by instinct. The majority of the hatchlings will never reach adulthood. Even those that survive the early hazards of other turtles in search of nesting sites for their own offspring, and succeed in running the gauntlet of predators such as vultures and crabs – not to mention man – will still have to face the dangers that await them at sea. But those that do survive to reach maturity will return throughout their lives to these same shores to lay their own eggs.
The nesting and spawning is now carefully overseen to avoid disturbing the turtles, and tourists are offered supervised walks along the beach at night to witness the event. Visitors to the Tortuguero Park, home to a good percentage of the rain forest which until little more than fifty years ago carpeted most of the northeastern Costa Rica, can also admire the stunning biodiversity of a protected area of over 26 thousand hectares – not counting the marine area of over 50 thousand area dedicated to the turtles – created in 1975.
Aboard one of the boats that ply the channels and mangrove swamps, particularly at dawn and dusk, you can discover some of the area's four hundred species of tree – crabwood, santa baria, banak, passion fruit and ceiba, whose fibres provide kapok for stuffing cushions – or the more than two thousand other plants. More species of birds live here than in the whole of Europe, and there are mammals, too, some on the endangered species lists, monkeys, tapirs, manatees, sloths, caimans and even jaguars, one of the worst enemies of the turtles when they come to spawn.
From San Jose, continue on to Tortuguero by road or light aircraft with one of the local companies, Sansa or Nature Air, from about $130 round trip. You may prefer to take an organised package that includes other locations in Costa Rica as well as Tortuguero.
The only way to get around the Tortuguero Park, also known as the Costa Rica Amazon, is by boat, so the best plan, if you aren't on an organised trip, is to buy a package that includes transportation from San Jose and accommodation in one of the lodges in the area from which guided tours will be available.
Where to sleep:
The Manatus Hotel, the most exclusive in the park, is a boutique hotel near one of the waterways, surrounded by greenery. Facilities include a spa and a variety of activities centred around the Tortuguero flora and fauna.
The typical gallo pinto (rice with beans) is even served at breakfast, and, with the addition of fried egg, chicken, beef or fish is transformed into casadito for lunch. These are the quintessential Costa Rican dishes, but you'll find good fish and seafood along the coast, either prepared on the grill or in ceviche, as well as excellent coffee and tropical fruits. At the lodge restaurants in the park, international cuisine is also common.
Costa Rica Tourism