Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 4: Tortuguero National Park & A Zip-Line Canopy Tour

Destination: Tortuguero

Tortuguero wildlife watchingA thunderous chorus of howler monkeys woke me at 5 am It was another stunning day on the Caribbean coast. We joined the rest of our Mawamba Lodge group for a quick cup of coffee before boarding a boat for a two-hour excursion through Tortuguero's canals. The waterways are both natural and man-made and make up a large part of Tortuguero National Park.

Hosting more than 100,000 visitors each year, Tortuguero National Park is the third-most visited national park in Costa Rica. Created in 1975, it teems with wildlife, both aquatic and land-based, including the highly endangered West Indian manatee and the elusive jaguar. 

CaimanIt is also an important nesting site for the green sea turtle and, to a lesser degree, the leatherback and hawksbill.

We began in the wide Rio Tortuguero which connects to smaller lagoons and channels. Our boat motored through the series of narrowing, lush canals. Gallery forests flanked both sides of the water and were thick with waterfowl including the tiger heron, yellow-crowned night heron and aningha. Jorge identified a northern jacana poking around on a bed of water lilies.

With over 800 animal species, Tortuguero National Park is a must for wildlife enthusiasts. Slaty tailed trogonThe aquatic trails can also be navigated by kayak and canoe, and we spotted several visitors slowly paddling along the peaceful canals. Giant male iguanas sunned themselves in tree branches, and caiman lurked in the murky waters.

We returned to the lodge and raced to the breakfast buffet to fuel up for our trek through the park's hiking trails. Mawamba thoughtfully provides rubber boots for all guests. They are a necessity when rain drenches the paths, creating muddy bogs. Lucky for us, October is one of the drier months in the northern Caribbean, and the mud was at a minimum.

We walked the Gavilan trail, a two-kilometer loop that rambles through thick and humidrainforest and traverses a small section of beach. Spider monkeyThe dense canopy layer was alive with troops of howler monkeys, a keel-billed toucan and playful spider monkeys. Our group watched an endless line of leaf-cutter ants haul bits of vegetation up an enormous fig strangler tree.

It seemed that everywhere I looked, some industrious insect or spider was busy constructing a home or ambushing unsuspecting prey. Our guide also pointed out a slaty-tailed trogon, a close relative to the beautiful but rare quetzal. The park attracts over 14 species of herons, as well as kingfishers and ibis.

That afternoon, Vincent and I once again braved intimidating heights for a thrilling zip-line canopy tour. A ten-minute boat ride deposited us at the Evergreen Lodge, where we joined four enthusiastic guides for our Aerial Trails Tortuguero Canopy Tour. This would be my fifth zip-line tour in Costa Rica, and I kind of felt like an expert. No more butterflies or clammy hands; I knew that, despite my buffet-ballooned belly, the cables would support my weight.

Canopy tour scaling wallI was pleased to discover that Tortuguero Canopy offered a bit more than your usual zip-line cables. The tour included four suspension bridges, a scaling wall and, my favorite, the Tarzan swing. Our personable guides reviewed standard safety procedures and geared Vincent and me up with hats, gloves and harnesses.

After a short practice line, we soared through the sky, high above the treetops. The afternoon was sweltering, so each cool rush of air was a welcome relief. The climbing wall proved more difficult than I had imagined, but I scaled over half of its 40-foot height.

Our guides made safety their number one priority, clipping us in to secure cables between each platform. The company also sends along their own professional photographer who takes phenomenal pictures along the way. Guests have the option of purchasing a custom-made photo CD at the end of the trip.

Tarzan swingSomewhere between our fourth and final cable, I hooked into a small but amusing Tarzan swing. Guides positioned themselves on opposite platforms and took turns swinging me back and forth. I squealed loudly and they laughed because, finally, I had shown a little bit of fear. We finished the Tortuguero canopy tour in just over an hour and thanked our friendly crew for the jungle adventure.

We returned to Mawamba Lodge in time for another stellar sunset and refreshing drinks by the pool. After dinner we topped off the day by kicking back on the lodge's riverside dock and watching a thunderstorm roll in.

Day 4: Tortuguero National Park & A Zip-Line Canopy Tour in Pictures

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