Costa Rica – Tortuguero and San Jose

Tortuguero landing in Costa Rica

Our next destination in Costa Rica was Tortuguero National Park, a roadless area of rainy jungles and floodplains where several rivers empty into the Caribbean Sea. It was incredibly muggy and buggy, and I had miscalculated by booking us into a lodge in one of the inner lagoons instead of on the beach side, so we were very isolated once the boat transport left. At least there was a pool, though, and we had time to just relax.

Later that day a guide arrived to take us by boat with a German guy named Wolfgang and a few people from Spain on a walk through one of the park’s forest trails that led out to the beach. I didn’t feel so bad about not being on the beach when I saw that it was strewn with trash and the water was murky. We wound our way back to the village of Tortuguero, which turned out to be dull and dumpy, so we were just as well back at our lodge. One day in the area would have been plenty, but I booked three days, so let’s just say we had a lot of relaxation time.

Green heron in Tortuguero National Park

One day we rented an old canoe with decaying paddles to row around the outer lagoon a bit, immediately running aground on a sand bank as we paddled over to check out some water birds, like the green heron pictured above snagging fish from its perch above the water. We got our bearings, though, and were glad to be on the breezy water. We rowed past lodges that looked much nicer than ours, watching well-dressed people sip piña coladas on their thatched verandas as fans spun overhead to keep them cool. No one seemed to be scratching relentlessly at mosquito bites like Dennis and I were, either.

Another day we went for a second, this time unguided, walk along the main park trail and came across numerous groups of spider monkeys and roaring howler monkeys that gave us dirty looks. We had to keep moving to avoid being urinated upon by one cheeky howler who seemed to have it out for us, and to dodge the twigs a spider monkey kept throwing at us. We were just glad he didn’t pelt us with rotten figs, which we saw littering the trail. Perhaps he used all that ammunition on the day’s earlier hikers.

San Jose

Teatro Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica

The trip was coming to a close and we had two nights in a boutique hotel in one of San Jose’s historic districts near downtown. The city is relatively safe during the day, but once night falls, the place becomes seedy and dangerous.

We had made plans to connect with Wolfgang, the German friend we had met in Tortuguero, for dinner at the end of our trip. It was a good thing he chose a restaurant far enough away to justify a cab ride, because I would not have wanted to walk at night among the shadowy characters on the streets. Our cab driver pointed out a park that was a haven for sexual predators and drug dealers, and on the return trip when I asked if our neighborhood was the domain of the city’s ladies of the evening, as it seemed to be, he said, “Those aren’t women.”

Iguana in Costa Rica

The highlight of Costa Rica, of course, was the natural scenery and all the birds, monkeys, iguanas, butterflies and other tropical creatures we came across. We racked up more than 250 different bird species, slightly more than 100 new to us. That sounds like a lot, but given that the prime purpose of the trip was birding, we’d expected quite a bit more and high hopes from our guides. However, the colorful birds like the quetzal, macaw, toucans, trogons, hummingbirds and manakins made up for smaller-than-expected numbers and less-than-expert guides.

Where’s the Zing?

Costa Rica is a peaceful country with residents who are friendly to Americans (which was not always the case back in 2005), many of whom speak English and are happy to share their knowledge about their country. Costa Rica is also a great introduction to the tropics for travelers who are new to birding and want to experience adventure without danger.

Not much stood out to me about the food, the music, the landscape, or the culture, so I kept asking locals what they thought made their country unique. No one could answer with anything other than “Pura Vida” — the national motto that means basically “life is good.” Next time I think I’ll have to really get off the beaten track to experience the zing that was pretty elusive in Costa Rica.

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