Tackling Tortuguero National Park
Rec kayaking Costa Rica’s most watery national park
The caiman splash into the lily pads isn’t encouraging.
We just motored up the Rio Mora in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park and my two daughters, Casey, 12, and Brooke 16, are about to plop rec kayaks in on the same lily pads for a two-hour paddle back downstream.
“It’s okay,” says our guide Reinaldo, of outfitter Rios Tropicales. “We’re bigger than they are so they’re afraid of us.”
“Yeah, and I’m bigger than you,” Brooke chides Casey.
With that, the whites of their eyes casting nervous glances toward the white of the lily flowers, we climb over the rail, slide into the kayaks and push off.
Other wildlife quickly takes their minds off the beady-eyed caiman. Howler monkeys screech overhead, a whiteface monkey jumps from one branch to another, and a sloth watches our procession with lackadaisical amusement.
Later, we turn right up a tiny tributary barely wider than our paddles. We slalom through dangling vines and duck under giant frond leaves until our path is abruptly blocked by a 250-year-old mountain almond tree. It fell, says Rey, just two months ago and its wood alone is worth $30,000.
It’s these and other over-lumbered indigenous hardwoods, as well as the world’s largest nesting area of green sea turtles, that led to the region being preserved as a national park in 1978. With 25 percent of its land protected, Costa Rica — home to more than 500,000 species, 4 percent of the world’s total — is a shining star of the conservation movement. Located in a maze of jungle-lined freshwater easing into the Caribbean, Tortuguero is one of its crown jewels and the perfect place, I reasoned, to
instill a similar environmental ethos in my kids. What better way to see such habitat than from the seat of a kayak?
Arriving two days earlier in San Jose, we rose at 5 a.m. to drive over the Continental Divide’s cloud forest before descending 6,000 vertical feet in 30 miles to the Caribbean wetlands. At our put-in on the Rio Suerte, we unloaded a mix of sups and kayaks and began our paddle to Mawamba Lodge on the outskirts of the park. It didn’t take long for the jungle’s charm to take hold. Spider monkeys launched from tree to tree and yellow trumpet flowers and multi-colored heliconias popped out against deep rainforest green.
Two hours later we entered a canal paralleling the Caribbean from Nicaragua, comprising the heart of the park. Here, we loaded our craft onto a motorboat and shuttled to a lunch spot for a boardwalk hike through the selva. No sooner than our first step, Casey began whistling the bird song from the Hunger Games.
A hand-sized, female, golden orb weaver spider glistened in the strongest web in the world, one whose protein researchers emulate to make bulletproof vests. A tiny male the size of a papaya seed sat off to her side fixing the web, conceding the family’s pants-wearing title. A viper, toucan and poisonous red dart frog later, we emerged back at the river where we hopped back in the kayaks for the final push to the lodge. At the tiny community of Tortugeuro, we turned north and soon saw the green roofs of the lodge. A covered dock housed a fleet of motorboats used by the lodge’s more conventional-arriving guests.
Built in 1985 by entrepreneur Maurizio Dada, the 40-acre, 56-room lodge was one of the first ones established in the area and is as well appointed as our jungle environs. An open-aired bar, pool with bridge and waterfall, open-walled dining area and hammocks swinging from every porch quickly sent the kids scrambling. But its best feature is its location, sandwiched on a spit between the freshwater estuary and the sea. It’s a five-second hike to Caribbean waves on the east, and a mango’s throw from the fresh water of Tortuguero to the west.
Maurizio echos his government’s conservation ethos. That afternoon, we toured the lodge’s bio-digester, which heats the rooms’ hot water with human waste. Next, we visited his “ranarium,” or frog farm, and a butterfly pavilion filled with blue morphos and zebra longwings. The country has 10 percent of the world’s total butterfly species, and Maurizio is helping.
Walking back through a well-kept forest of paprika,avocado, lime, coconut and guava trees, we saw a three-toed sloth lounging high in a tree, prompting Brooke to ask for one as a pet.
At the bar, the kids basked in virgin piña coladas while we settled for soda and cacique, a triple-distilled sugar cane liquor. Then we loaded the kayaks and paddleboards on the motorboat and shuttled to the river mouth for a sunset photo sesh. When an amber glow radiated a wall of green under a flock of white egrets, we paddled over and posed before continuing to the river mouth where tannin train met the crashing waves of the Caribbean.
Waking to a cacophony of bird calls the next morning, we find local critters breakfasting before us. No sooner than we sit down, the kids spy the mouth of a green vine snake wrapped around the head of a clay-colored robin, Costa Rica’s national bird. The next tree over, an iguana the size of Casey’s leg placidly gnaws a leaf.
Fueled by thick Costa Rican coffee, we motor to the park office for our 8:30 a.m. entrance time slot. Heading south toward Panama, we turn up a tributary bordered by towering foliage and begin yet another paddle, this time down the Agua Fria. Today’s Mutual of Omaha moment involves a log standoff between a caiman and orange-eared slider turtle. Casey startles a Jesus Christ lizard, so named for its ability to run on water, using its tail as a rudder.
Plunging in to cool off and exploring tributaries winding like blood vessels through some of the most pristine jungle in the world, we eventually paddle back to the lodge. At sunset, on water the color and smoothness of the inside of a seashell, Rey and I paddle 15 minutes to the community Tortuguero. My wife and kids will hike over and meet us for what Casey’s had her eye on all trip: A coconut with a straw.
Pulling up to a throng of kids at the dock beneath two giant, toucan sculptures, we stash our boats and watch a pick-up soccer game on a palm-lined field. The yells of its players are drowned out by the sound of the Caribbean’s crashing waves. We stroll down a pedestrian-friendly walkway, taking in its “Don’t worry, be happy” Caribbean vibe, before we find Casey with her coconut. We toast Tortuguero and the craft that helped us experience it before Casey posits, “I wonder if caiman eat coconuts?”
If You Go: In San Jose, try the Hotel Oro de Grano (www.hotelgranodeoro.com), a restored mansion in the heart of downtown, or the Park Inn Radisson (www.parkinn.com), also downtown. For a guided kayak tour in, contact Rios Tropicales (www.riostropicales.com), which can also book your stay at the Mawamba Lodge (www.mawambalodge.com). The lodge offers kayaks as well as motorboat shuttles into the national park.
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