The joy and splendor of travel lost on one man

Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Rae had a week off from school so we decided to head to the Caribbean and check out the town of Tortuguero. We went with two friends of ours, Kathryn and Gary, who were visiting from the States. We piled into their rental car on Thursday afternoon and headed for the port town of Moin. We were scheduled to go to Tortuguero Friday morning.

Getting to Moin from Monteverde takes about six-and-a-half hours if you know where you’re going. It took us eight.

Things were going smoothly until we missed a turn for the seemingly nonexistent “San Jose business loop.” This error sent us straight into the guts of downtown San Jose. It was like flushing yourself down the toilet.

San Jose is impossibly crowded, and to make matters worse there are zero street signs. Navigating the city consisted of us driving two blocks, stopping to ask a gas station attendant for directions, then getting immediately lost again. I kept threatening to go back and strangle each gas station attendant with my bare hands, but I wasn’t sure I could find my way back to him. Kudos to Gary, though. He did an excellent job driving and managed to keep his cursing to an acceptable level.

Once we extricated ourselves from San Jose, we had two-and-a-half more hours to drive before getting to the coastal town of Moin. We arrived at our hotel around 9:30, grabbed a bite at the restaurant before it closed, then headed off for bed.

We caught our boat the next morning. (Tortuguero is a tad remote and can only be reached by boat or plane.) Our guide’s name was Modesto Watson. He owns this joint:

Modesto could not have been nicer or more informative. If you ever want to head to Tortuguero, look him up. He’s been running tours in the area for 21 years and is considered the grandfather of the river.

We had barely started our three-hour ride to the town of Tortuguero before Modesto stopped the boat and pointed out a group of howler monkeys in the trees, a basilisk (or “Jesus Christ lizard”) sitting by the water and a few ringed kingfisher birds flying around. This went on for three hours. We would be flying down the canals at 20 mph (yes Mark, I know that’s fast on water) when Modesto would suddenly stop the boat and point out some bats, lizards or birds that were all but invisible in the jungle. If nothing else, Modesto has a keen eye.

We zigzagged our way through various rivers and a few man-made canals before reaching the beginnings of Tortuguero. The first thing you see when you get to town are various small hotels and lodges lining both sides of the 250-meter wide waterway. There are also dumpy little houses scattered about. They aren’t much to look at. The town has only about 700 full-time residents, and they don’t seem to spend a lot of time watching Bob Vila videos. Then again, the nearest Home Depot is 2,500 miles away.

During our three days in Tortuguero, we spent our mornings and evenings going on boat tours with Modesto. Each tour was about three hours long. I was skeptical at first. I had visions of sitting in a swamp some place while mosquitoes the size of buzzards picked up Rae and flew her off to their mosquito lair.

I’m happy to report that not only were there no mosquitoes the size of buzzards, there were really no mosquitoes at all. Also, the tours themselves were as interesting as our original ride to Tortuguero.

I’ve been on similar types of tours before where you see one or two animals an hour, but Tortuguero never had a dull moment. The whole place teems with wildlife, especially birds. We saw multiple varieties of kingfishers, egrets, herons and toucans. In fact, you couldn’t swing the bat I brought with me to fight off mosquitoes without hitting at least two or three kinds of birds.

The birds helped pass the time between monkey sightings, which were our favorites. We saw three kinds of monkeys: howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins (the kind that tried to kill Rae in Monteverde) and spider monkeys. The howlers and capuchins were interesting to a point, but for the most part they just sort of hang out on branches and soak up the sun. I didn’t ride three hours on a boat to watch them watch me. When I see monkeys, I want those monkeys to perform for my amusement.

Which is where the spider monkeys come in. We had five or six spider monkey sightings, and they were all great. I don’t know where exactly those spider monkeys were going, but they were going there in a damn hurry. They were swinging and jumping like something out of a cartoon. It was excellent. Definitely a good show. Here’s a clip of a mother monkey giving her kid a piggyback ride through the trees.

We also saw a handful of two-and three-toed sloths. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of circuses featuring sloths in their acts. The only way you could spot one was to look for a dark lump growing out of a tree branch.

Straddling the line between colossally boring and extremely exciting were the spectacle caimans. Spectacle caimans are in the alligator family. They have a small feature around their eyes that makes them look like they’re wearing a monocle. (Imagine that Tick Tock the Crocodile ate Colonel Klink’s head instead of Captain Hook’s hand.) We saw a few of these sitting on the banks of the river.

The extremely exciting part of the spectacle caiman comes from the fact that they’re alligators, for crying out loud. Who doesn’t love to watch alligators in their native habitat? As it turns out, me. Watching caimans gets boring quickly because caimans simply do not move. We flew by one in the boat and swamped it in our wake. It didn’t budge. We turned the boat around and eased to within five or six feet of it. It didn’t even turn its head to look at us. I had Rae hop out of the boat and pull its tail as hard as she could. It didn’t even wince. I was about to accuse Modesto of planting a lawn ornament on the shore when the caiman, in an explosion of energy, slowly blinked one eye lid.

We came across one caiman that had an added twist. This guy had just eaten a porcupine and turned his face into a pin cushion.

These guy just ate a porcupine and has the quills to prove it.

We spent one short afternoon walking around in the actual town center of Tortuguero. It is, to be polite, a shit hole. A handful of small tourist shops sell beaded bracelets and turtle figurines carved out of driftwood. Some locals have opened little restaurants, but they aren’t much to write home about–unless a professor of infectious diseases happens to live in your house. One or two beat-up bars on stilts sit over the river. The local drunks cheerfully shout hello to you if you happen to glance their way.

The town can definitely be done in an hour. See it to say you’ve seen it, then head back to the river.

Now, as usual, the obligatory bad photos.

9 Responses to “Tortuguero, Costa Rica”

  1. Sue

    Sounds like you are making the most of your time in CR. Good for you! It’s a great place and there are many adventures to share with your trips on school breaks. Enjoy!


  2. Nick

    We miss you guys, too. We had a great time.

    The killer puppies may warrant their own story.

  3. Kathryn (& Gary)

    Ah, thank you for helping us relive our Costa Rica adventure. Unfortunately we got home yesterday and now we’re depressed, and 4 to 8 inches of heavy wet snow is coming. More depressed. We miss you already!

    p.s. How much did Pam pay you not to mention that she was attacked by tiny killer puppies?

  4. Nick

    Remember, the caiman’s face is actually made out of very durable, exotic cowboy boot material.

    Modesto said the caiman doesn’t even feel the quills. They just fall out after awhile.

    And you’re the second person to bring up the poor caiman. Let’s not forget the adorable, innocent wonder of nature the caiman is digesting in this photo.

  5. Michelle

    I feel so bad for the quill-riddled caiman, poor thing!!! Did anyone stop and pull out all those quills? Sad face!!!!

  6. Catherine

    The bats were my favorite. Until I saw the tiger heron.

  7. Nick

    Craig, I’m sorry to hear you ever had to spend any time in San Jose. I hope it counted as atonement for whatever sins you must have committed.

    Michael, jaguars are hard to find in these parts. They do exist, but they were heavily hunted for quite some time. They’re only found in protected reserves, and even then they’re hard to find.

    Pumas are more common, but they’re still difficult to spot. We did run into people who had seen them, though.

  8. Michael B

    Tortuguero sounds like a nice place… do they have any jaguars there?

  9. Craig Kaminsky

    Very cool, Nick! Glad you guys made it out of San Jose. I know I barely did last time I was there!

    Your bad photos were lovely, by the way.


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