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.

Rude awakening to say the least. With traces of Imperial lingering in my mouth, I board the small shuttle headed for Tortuga Lodge on the northern Caribbean coast and meet the half-dozen others already on board: a pair of quiet Swiss girls, an older English couple and an American couple from California. We drive through San Jose in a drizzly morning and before long we are climbing through a misty cloud forest in Turrialba National Park, one of the many volcanoes found in Costa Rica. It is exactly as I would imagine it: wispy white clouds shrouding steep green mountainsides. Prehistoric ferns lining small waterfalls cascading off sheer cliffs. The air is warm, a little stiicky, but by no means uncomfortable. The cool tingling rain on my skin keeps it fresh.

We eventually turn off the paved road onto a dirt road through the jungle which makes me regret the last round of tequila last night. Miguel, our guide, intermittently points out various birds and wildlife lurking in the trees, a howler monkey, an egret, a caiman. One particular sloth hunkered down against the drizzle, it's fur matted and green with moss, is not nearly as excited to see us as we it. We pass through banana plantations and several small towns, villages only in the sense that the scattered collection of small, faded houses are the only signs of civilization in the otherwise uninhabited jungle.

After we have sufficiently bumped and rattled our way down the road, we reach the landing where we adventure the last leg by boat (Tortuga Lodge is accessible by land and air only). The boat to Tortuga Lodge departs from near Limon, in the Caribbean lowlands; it's a small outboard motor boat with a capacity of roughly 10 -12 with a canopy roof. The trip takes 2-4 hours including a stop for lunch on the way up. Our river guide, Fernando, proves to have an excellent eye for spotting birds and reptiles, even while zooming along at 20 knots. He abruptly stops the boat from time to time and gazes intently into the dense foliage that lines the river; we follow suit, unsure of what we're looking for. Then Fernando shares his secret with us:

"Look down from that tree with the broken top to the bushes in front. That brown patch. Iguana."

"See the top of that tree with the big leaves? Sloth. (He whistles.) See?"

Second tree behind the big palm. Lower branch off main trunk. Spider monkey."

I'm not totally convinced that these aren't in fact props, house pets borrowed for the weekend to entertain tourists. But regardless, it is still a surreal experience to be immersed in such a lush, vibrant setting.

Tortuga Lodge
Tortuguero National Park

The Cabanas

Tortuga Lodge, named after the Atlantic green sea turtles which nest nearby. Set on 20 hectares of elegantly landscaped grounds amid the Tortuguero rain forest in the Caribbean lowlands, the lodge offers a relaxing, rustic retreat ideal for nature enthusiasts. The 24 river front rooms are screened, cross-ventilated, and feature cool ceiling fans and hot, private showers. While rates are offered on a nightly basis, some of the more popular packages are for one and two nights, which includes roundtrip hotel-airport transfers, roundtrip airfare, and all meals.

Despite it's success as one of the major lodges in Tortuguero and its recent expansion, Tortuga Lodge prides itself in keeping with Costa Rica's ecological conservation efforts. A number of measures were installed to preserve its eco-friendliness, including a solar energy system, water saving fixtures, and an environmentally friendly purification system for the pools. Even the small motor boats which ferry visitors around the local canals feature electric motors (unless a swift current requires the use of a gas-powered motor). Such measures earned Tortuga Lodge an honorable mention in Conde Nast Traveler's Ecotourism Award in both 1995 and 1996.

Extensive remodeling in 1996 included a new pool, upgraded bar and riverfront dining hall, where visitors can share a summer-camp like atmosphere with other guests, or dine alone while gazing out over the tranquil Tortuguero canal. Savory meals feature traditional Costa Rican dishes, including fresh seafood, fruit and the staple of every Tico meal, rice and beans. The servings are generous, which is an impressive feat considering most food is flown in to Tortuga Lodge.

Tortuga Lodge, named after the Atlantic green sea turtles that nest nearby, prides itself on being an eco-friendly resort. Rustic architecture and construction of natural materials give it the impression of something growing out of the dense jungle in which it's situated. A summer camp style dining hall opens onto the canal, providing visitors with a place to catch an exploding sunrise or to relax to the sound of the Caribbean across the canal over a cool drink. The bungalows, although set further back from the bank, also open onto the canal. The rooms are open, with screens and curtains covering the windows, allowing the feel of the jungle - the sound of tropical rain on palm leaves at night; a cool breeze wafting through in the afternoon, keeping out the insects. It is not common to hear the bark of howler monkeys early in the morning, echoing from miles across the dense jungle.

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.

Get Your Outdoor Gear HereNo 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.

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