Costa RicaCosta Rica

Hiking Cerro Tortuguero

Destination: Tortuguero

My alarm sounded at 4:45 -- I don't recommend Tortuguero as a destination for sleeping in -- and I hopped out of bed, oddly alert for such an early hour. Sun rays were beginning to peek through the trees outside my room, and I could hear the roar of the surf and howler monkeys just past my window screen. Waking up in a tropical, Caribbean paradise -- it's a rough life, I tell you.

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Cerro Tortuguero, or Mount Tortuguero, was closed to tourists just a few years ago; an influx of hikers had compromised the integrity of the rustic trails and surrounding ecosystem. In response, the CCC (Caribbean Conservation Corporation) tightened regulations and reopened the area to tourists on a limited basis. This morning, I was looking forward to hiking this ancient volcano.

Thousands of years ago, Cerro Tortuguero loomed over the area, expelling volcanic ash and lava. Today, the volcano is dormant and so eroded -- its crater collapsed on itself -- that locals refer to it as a hill. The joke was on me -- this modest "hill" boasts a 390-foot climb that, in some sections, measured 35 degrees (in other words, really steep).

Our hike began oceanside, and the sunrise painted the horizon with cotton candy-pink strokes. Red, volcanic rock covered the ground -- it goes for $4/pound in gardening stores -- and roosters sang their deranged tunes. (I don't know who settled on calling it a cockadoodle-do because it sounds nothing like that.) We turned away from the ocean and hiked into protected rainforest; our climb began almost immediately.

I suffer from eternal optimism, and as we began our ascent, I thought to myself, "oh, this really is a hill!" It didn't seem steep and my pulse was barely accelerated. Five minutes later, I was soaked in sweat. The rustic trails were muddy and, on some sections, I could hardly lift my leg high enough to reach the next foothold. (And I'm only a little bit short.)

And then we saw a my-first-time-in-the-wild animal, the perro zompopo, or smoothhead helmeted basilisk lizard. This small, brown lizard camouflages against sticks and branches, his flattened head mimicking a dead leaf. They are not a common sighting, at least not in my experience, and as soon as I laid eyes on him, the heat and humidity evaporated. That's the thing about traveling through Costa Rica -- you may have challenging moments of heat or exhaustion, but the second you spot an endangered animal or catch sight of a breathtaking view, all of your complaints just fade away.

My energy somewhat renewed, we continued our hike up the near-vertical trail. Soon, I was hot and sweaty all over again, but when our guide, Michael, pointed out the top of the mountain, I started to chant "I think I can, I think I can" under my breath. (Thank you, Little Engine That Could.) Emerging at the top, we had one of the most amazing views in Costa Rica.

Two of Tortuguero's canals stretched out in front of us, a thin slice of land between them. The Atlantic Ocean lay to our left and the land in front of us was covered by dark green foliage. Mist hung over the greenery like a scarf and I watched as it slowly drifted away. We stared. Then we took some photos. Then we stared some more. It was a beautiful, peaceful scene and would have been the world's best location for an early morning yoga session.

We got back to Turtle Beach around 7:15, just in time for a hearty breakfast. After packing, we hopped into a boat and headed over to Pachira Lodge. The lodge's groomed gardens seemed to luxuriate in the day's warm sunshine. After checking in, we walked to our rooms, and I was glad to find a large, comfortable bed in the center of mine. I don't mind early days as long as I have somewhere soft and warm to relax at night.

I settled in and grabbed the camera for an impromptu nature walk. Pachira's gardens are planted with colorful heliconia, ornamental ginger, and large palm fronds. Hummingbirds hovered near the brightly-colored flowers and small lizards scuttled across the ground.

Making my way over to the turtle-shaped pool -- feet-dangling is a favorite pastime -- our photographer Vincent pointed out an adult porcupine in the tree above. He seemed tiny, and his small, pig-like snout endeared him to me immediately. Porcupines are nocturnal, but he had his eyes open, observing the people who were observing him. When he scratched his nose, squeezing his eyes tightly shut, my heart melted. I never knew porcupines could be so adorable.

Hiking Cerro Tortuguero in Pictures

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