A cool, tropical breeze gently rocks me in my hammock as I overlook the Tortuguero Canal, listening to the hush of the stormy Caribbean in the distance. It's overcast and mildly humid in this part of Costa Rica, almost chilly; linen pants and a shirt keep me just warm enough when the breeze stirs the air. Chirps and squeaks and whistles fill the air of the lush green jungle all around me. A bottle of Imperial sweats on the table next to me, a napkin wrapped around its neck. Tired from the day's journey, I lean my head back and close my eyes. I'm asleep in an instant.
Flashback - 7:45 am.
For those looking for a pulsing wildlife and wild parties, Tortuguero is not the place. For avid nature enthusiasts, lizard-lovers and bird-watchers, Tortuguero leaves little to be desired. The surrounding jungle is home to a variety of animal species, from rare ocelots, river otters, and manatees, to more common iguanas, caimans, and three-toed sloths.
The morning after our first night at Tortuga Lodge, we pile into a small motorboat to tour the maze of canals throughout the jungle. A hard rainstorms thunders down on us. Even with yellow ponchos issued to us, making us look like a batch of shrink-wrapped bananas being shipped down river, water begins to find its way down my neck and sleeves. I soon accepted the fact that nature had home field advantage here and I resigned myself to getting wet.
But by the time we reach the entrance to the canals, the rain has abated to a drizzle. We drift through the canals, surrounded by sheer green jungle growing from the water's surface. We witness wildlife emerging from the storm - caimans creeping along the banks, an aptly-named Jesus lizard skipping along the water surface (due to it's small size, these lizards can actually run across the water on their hind legs), and magnificent Morpho butterflies, with their vibrant coloration, fluttering across the canals.
I see more species of birds than I can count, from egrets to kingfishers to toucans, even cormorants, which due to a lack of waterproof feathers, look like they are offering free hugs when drying off.
Tortuga Lodge's location in the dense jungle provides ideal opportunities for wildlife viewing and jungle hikes. Curious explorers can be ferried to any number of local villages to spend the day peeking into small shops and pet stores, or a professional guide can lead them through the maze of canals in the area, where any number of bird and wildlife species can be spotted on a regular basis. For those looking for shorter hikes, a path in the rear of the lodge winds through the surrounding jungle, where fiery red poison dart frogs can be seen hopping along the path. And if searching for Morpho butterflies, caimans and three-toed sloths isn't enough, Tortuga Lodge is also the only fishing lodge in Tortuguero. World-record snook and tarpon have been caught just a short-distance from the lodge.
On the return trip we opt to take the two-mile walk back along the Caribbean coast. Forget white sand, cobalt water, steel pans and cocktails with little umbrellas. This is a rugged, grey, storm-washed coast.
A strong breeze blows in from the sea, churning the water into a dirty froth. Our walk takes us past a major nesting area for Atlantic green sea turtles made famous by the work of Archie Carr, who discovered the lost coast nesting grounds in the 1940s. In the 1980s scientists found that only a few hundred to a few thousand green turtles were nesting here, compared to tens of thousands in previous decades. Because of conservation efforts and Carr's work in getting Tortuguero protected, it is now estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 nest here annually. Although no turtles are presently nesting (breeding season is from February to November), we find dozens of abandoned nests with bits of white, leathery turtle shells scattered about from the recent hatching.
After two days of turtles and hammocks and caimans, it is time to move on to a new slice of Costa Rica - El Ocotal. When the 6:15 a.m. wake-up call arrives on our last morning, our previous night's decision to try to stay awake for the sunrise suddenly becomes a dumb idea. When we see the six-seat Cessna that will carry us out of Tortuguero, it becomes a very dumb idea.
No problem," our pilot, Julio, reassures us. "Issa good plane."
Plane? maybe! It's a lawnmower with wings. When Julio throttles the engine, I cringe, waiting for the engine to explode. But when we are airborne, climbing to 8,000 feet, my concerns instantly vanish as I became lost in the view. Below me the jungle looks oddly like densely packed broccoli, and I can clearly make out the network of canals we had explored the previous day. The geometric grids of banana plantations come into perspective and I can see how the fingers of the canals branch out and feed them (I would later learn that these very plantations are responsible for a large amount of pollution into the canals, as pesticides and plastic bags often find their way into the water.
When turbulence suddenly causes the bottom to drop out from under us, jolting us back to reality, we are reminded of where we are and what we are flying in. I watch as my buddy in the rear of the plane turns yellow then green then gray. But when we finally breech the clouds, and the sun has created two, brilliant rainbows in complete, concentric circle against the white backdrop of the clouds and the shadow of our Cessna is framed perfectly in the center, I am once again reminded of the natural beauty that Costa Rica offers.
By Misha Troyan, San Diego Correspondent.