After nearly 20 years of traveling professionally, I’ve found very few countries that I would gladly visit over and over again. Costa Rica is the rare exception, thanks in large part to its friendly people, stunning natural beauty, and impressive biodiversity. And few places represent the best the country has to offer better than Tortuguero National Park, which Zegrahm visits as a stop on their Canal to Cuba expedition.
Located in the northeastern province of Limón, Tortuguero is a shining example of ecotourism in Costa Rica. Spanning 120 square miles and accessible only by boat or small airplane, the park is bound by 22 miles of Caribbean coastline in the east. To the north is the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, and to the south you’ll find the Cariari National Wetlands and the Sea Turtle Conservancy. In short, a visit to Tortuguero National Park ensures you’ll be completely surrounded by protected wilderness.
Most journeys to Tortuguero National Park begin with a shallow-draft boat ride down the river after which the park was named. Inside its boundaries you’ll find 11 different ecosystems, including riverine habitat, rainforest, mangroves, swamps, lagoons, and beaches. As a result, the park boasts a stunning array of flora and fauna. Its most famous attraction is the nesting grounds of the endangered sea turtles, which the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC ) established the park to protect in 1975.
Here’s an overview of the wonderful wildlife the winding canals of Tortuguero National Park have to offer visitors. (More of a visual person? Check out our infographic!)
Traveling down the Tortuguero River and its tributaries feels a bit like a miniature version of the Amazon, with a similarly diverse array of birds found along the way. Researchers have documented over 400 bird species within the Tortuguero Conservation Area, including a number of neotropical migratory birds found only at certain times of year.
These include two types of boobies, two ibises, two macaws, three trogons, three parakeets, four parrots, six kingfishers, six woodpeckers, seven owls, 13 herons and egrets, 14 hummingbirds, more than two dozen birds of prey, and countless Passerine species.
Among the more distinctive birds found within Tortuguero National Park are the vivid pink roseate spoonbill, the gangly wood stork, the colorful collared aracari, the chesnut-mandibled toucan, and the crested eagle.
Over 150 different species of mammals have been found in Tortuguero National Park. Some are best spotted while hiking through the forest, while others are commonly seen in the canals and the sea.
The rainforest is home to three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species—Geoffrey’s spider monkey, the mantled howler, and the white-headed capuchin. You can often see them feeding and playing in the trees while traveling by boat. You may also spot two species of sloths, three types of anteater, and dozens of bat species. On the ground you may find the agouti (a large rodent), white-nosed coati (a cousin of the raccoon), two types of peccary, Baird’s tapir, and—if you’re extremely lucky—big cats such as the jaguar and ocelot.
The Tortuguero canals are home to neotropical otters and the rarely-spotted West Indian manatee. The waters off the coast serve as breeding/feeding grounds for more than a dozen different species of whale (including orcas and the endangered blue whale). You can also see 10 types of dolphin, from the Atlantic spotted dolphin and common bottlenose to the Risso’s and rough-toothed dolphins.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Tortuguero National Park is also home to nearly 50 species of amphibians and over 30 kinds of reptiles.
The former come in a kaleidoscope of vivid colors that easily rivals those of Costa Rica’s birds. There’s the striking red of the strawberry poison dart frog, the verdant green of the parachuting red-eyed leaf frog, the coral pinks of the mahogany treefrog, and the bold patterns of the aptly-named Harlequin treefrog. There are three different kinds of semi-translucent glass frogs; Toads ranging from svelte (the leaf litter toad) to stock (cane toad); and limbless, serpentine amphibians known as Caecilians that look like oversized, alien earthworms.
But if you’re exploring the park by boat, you’re much more likely to encounter its reptiles. There are 18 species of snakes in Tortuguero, but we never saw any during our visits. We did see plenty of lizards, including the green iguana, black spiny-tailed iguana, and green basilisk, commonly referred to as the Jesus Christ lizard due to its ability to run on water. You may also see a massive American crocodile sunning itself on the banks of the river, or the much smaller spectacled caiman lurking right at the surface of the water.
If you get the chance to spend a night in Tortuguero National Park during sea turtle nesting season, don’t miss a chance to take a beach walk with a licensed guide. The park is home to the largest green sea turtle rookery in the Western Hemisphere, as well as important nesting populations of leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles. Having a chance to see these remarkable reptiles laying their eggs on the beach is a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience you won’t soon forget.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.