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A Jungle Crocodile Safari on the Tarcoles River

Destination: Jaco

Celebrated for its population of more than 2,000 American crocodiles, the Tarcoles River forms the northern border of Carara National Park. Also known as the Rio Grande de Tarcoles, it is one of Costa Rica's largest rivers, and is an important watershed for much of the Central Valley.

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This unique ecosystem is rich in avifauna, with more than 120 bird species living within its mangrove estuaries. The Tarcoles boasts one of the planet's biggest populations of American Crocodiles, with an average of 25 crocs per square kilometer.

Today we were joining King Tours for a Jungle Crocodile Safari to observe these prehistoric reptiles that can measure more than 12 feet from snout to tail. Our two-hour safari began in the marshy delta of the Tarcoles River, where our guide presented us each with a brochure identifying 56 bird species commonly seen in the area. We quietly motored downriver, the Tarcoles thick with mangrove trees and waterfowl wading in the shallows.

A snowy egret bobbed along the river bank, attracting fish with its yellow feet, and green kingfishers skimmed the water's surface in search of a meal. The region is home to six species of heron, including the great blue, little blue, tri-colored, boat-billed and yellow crowned species. We saw each of these spectacular birds in addition to the elegant tiger heron, which regularly feasts on juvenile crocodiles.

Our boat captain knew many of the older crocodiles, which wallowed along the muddy shores. We watched as he did the exact opposite of what our instincts told us to do, wading into the river, smacking a piece of raw chicken against the water's surface.

Within 30 seconds a 12-foot long ancient male sporting a broken jaw glided up for a morning snack. He swallowed the chicken in one neat gulp before disappearing beneath the murk. Our group was assured that only the older and/or injured crocodiles are fed so as not to disturb the delicate balance of the ecosystem.

I thought back to the "No Swimming" signs posted near our departure point, and wondered who, other than our meat-toting captain, would be crazy enough to go for a dip in these croc-infested waters.

That afternoon we had the pleasure of staying at Apar-Hotel Vista Pacifico, a boutique hotel with panoramic views of Jaco and the surrounding countryside. Rayna and I were greeted by welcoming Canadian proprietors Jan and Greg and their playful Weimaraner Mika, and shown to our split-level suite complete with kitchenette and private patio.

The charming rooms, several of which are handicapped-accessible, are set around a pool and BBQ area, which guests are free to use.

Jan and Greg are more than happy to recommend local restaurants and help book tours. We chatted about the upcoming reggaeton concert featuring Daddy Yankee that would be held in the fields below their hotel. A crowd of more than 25,000 was anticipated for this Jaco mega-event, and we wondered if it would bring complete chaos.

Tucked on a hillside on the outskirts of Jaco, Vista Pacifico offers the serenity of a mountain-top hideaway, but is just minutes away from the restaurants and nightlife that attract so many travelers to Jaco. After settling into our comfortable suite, we cooled off in the pool before heading out for dinner at Tsunami Sushi in town. We filled up on tempura shrimp and spicy tuna rolls washed down with warm sake -- my firewater of choice.

We returned to Vista Pacifico, where a cool mountain breeze had picked up. I opened up all the windows and joined Rayna for a chilled-out evening of popcorn and a movie.

A Jungle Crocodile Safari on the Tarcoles River in Pictures

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