Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 1: Traveling is Half the Fun

Destination: Tortuguero

river boat ride to turtle beachI don't know what it is about traveling that saps every, last ounce of energy from my body, but it does. I just woke up from a four-hour nap, and this is coming from someone who "doesn't take naps." Let me explain.

Michael from Turtle Beach Lodge picked me up at 5:20 this morning. The early pickup was part and parcel of our trip to Tortuguero, a sleepy village on Costa Rica's northeastern coast. Tortuguero is also the name of the surrounding national park, which hosts four of Costa Rica's sea turtle species: leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead and green sea turtles. (Before today, I didn't know that there are only eight species of sea turtles in the world -- six of them nest in Costa Rica; four on the Caribbean side and two on the Pacific coast.)

black water reflections

After picking up ten other passengers, we were on our way to Tortuguero. There are two ways to get to the Caribbean coast, but the fastest and most common is via Braulio Carrillo Highway, named after Costa Rica's third president. (Don Braulio, as he's called, was responsible for building the first highway between the booming Central Valley and the Caribbean coast, where trade ships arrived and departed.) For most, calling this a highway would be a bit of a stretch -- the two-lane road's posted speed limit is usually under 45 mph and potholes are part of its charm. However, each slow bump is worth it: the road weaves through cloud forest, lowland forest, banana plantations and, in my opinion, one of Costa Rica's most breathtaking national parks.

tortuguero central park

I could spend days just enjoying the ride through Braulio Carrillo National Park. Roadside waterfalls lie to your left and cloud-shrouded forest paints the landscape to the right. You can see both Turrialba and Irazu Volcanoes -- two of Costa Rica's seven active volcanoes -- in the distance, and it's an uncommon trip if you don't see some kind of animal near the roadside. Today, I saw an orange-kneed tarantula. (They're really not scary and besides, you're in the car.)

After stopping for a buffet breakfast, we took a detour to a banana plantation in Siquirres. Commercial banana farms have the process down to a science, albeit a manual, low-tech one. It's genius, and watching the mechanism at work will forever change my appreciation of the yellow fruit: in the field, men tie themselves to huge branches of bananas, at least 20 in a row, and run them on a pulley system into the main plant. From there, men cut individual bunches of the branches and throw them into a pool of water. Workers, mostly women, separate the bunches into smaller groups with four to ten bananas each. The whole process, from the big branch to ready-for-purchase bunches, takes mere seconds.

green-backed heron

When we arrived at the dock, we boarded a covered boat and cruised the Parismina River for over an hour. When we crossed the border into Tortuguero National Park, it was obvious -- trees, leaves and vines spilled onto the water, hiding the riverbank from view. The effect was magnificent: with no shore to break them, the waves from our boat's wake literally seemed to disappear into nothingness.

As we neared Turtle Beach, we turned into a pitch-black canal called Cano Palma. Tannic acid from riverside palm trees dyes the water black, and by black, I mean the color of coal.

red-eyed tree frog

The color created an incredible mirror effect; I have never before seen such perfect reflections on the water. Another upside to tannin-dyed water: no mosquitoes. They can't live in the acidic environment. Other animals can, however, and by the time we arrived at the lodge, we had spotted basilisk lizards, iguanas, egrets, a green-backed heron, and a black-necked stilt bird.

After a hearty lunch, I walked the beach. Though you can't swim here -- strong riptides, bull sharks, and stingrays are pretty good deterrents -- the dark sand was fine and soft beneath my feet. I walked for awhile, enjoying the zigzag patter of my footprints in the surf, before turning back toward the hotel. Turtle Beach Lodge has a medicinal plants garden and colorful plantings around the grounds, so I took a self-guided tour.

my room at turtle beach

Small blue-jeans dart frogs, also known as strawberry poison-dart frogs, and speedy lizards covered the ground and monkeys played in the trees just out of sight. The heat, compounded by my 4:30 a.m. wakeup call, was catching up with me so I headed back to my room. I closed my eyes for just a second, and when I opened them it was dark outside. Now I know why they don't schedule many activities for the first day!

A couple hours later, wide awake and sated from the dinner buffet, I went on a mini nature hike with Michael and a few other guests. We spotted a gaudy leaf frog, also known as a red-eyed tree frog. This frog is somewhat symbolic of Costa Rica and had been high on my hope-to-see-in-the-wild list. (One animal down, about a million to go.)

Day 1: Traveling is Half the Fun in Pictures