Tortuguero National Park
The flooded forests of Tortuguero National Park on Costa Rica's north Caribbean coast provide a unique experience. Boats take the place of cars, gliding along the narrow river channels between the trees.
Flooded forest is an intensely rich environment for wildlife and Tortuguero National Park has been successful in both conserving its wildlife riches and affording good access for visitors to experience this special ecosystem.
The Park protects a zone covering 14 miles of coast and extending 9 miles inland and 18 miles out to sea.
Tortuguero's flooded forest
Sheltering behind a coastal strip are forested wetlands crossed by a maze of rivers and channels that virtually guarantee superb wildlife viewing. There is much to see: sloths curled in the trees, monkeys galore, otters, river turtles, caimans, iguanas and other lizards, and a plethora of birds, from the secretive agami heron, to brasher toucans, aracaris, parrots and oropendolas. Green macaw is also found among the park's 500-strong list of birds. Though the park does hold jaguar and tapir, you would be exceptionally fortunate to see them. The innermost sanctuaries of the park are inhabited by manatee.
From the water, the forest presents a lush wall of green, a dense tangle of palms, mimosa, wild almond and morning glory. Sloths hang motionless in the trees by the river, warming their bellies in the sun to activate the digestion of their latest meal of leaves.
Family troupes of mantled howler monkeys exchange throaty roars, while white-headed capuchin monkeys pick delicately at fruiting trees above branches where large iguanas lie motionless in the sun. Their cousins, iridescent emerald green Basilisk or ‘Jesus Christ’ lizards, their long crests raised, prepare to skip and dash across the water’s surface, while tree frogs tuck in their blue legs and close their bright red eyes so all that remains visible is their leaf-green skin.
Stalking the water’s edge, tiger herons hunt for fish among tree roots and lianas.
In the rivers, caimans lose themselves in the tangle of branches along the shore and play a waiting game. When the coast seems clear, young river otters cavort in playful groups, their parents keeping watchful guard.
Among the more extraordinary creatures found here are garfish, ancient creatures with crocodilian snouts, and greater bulldog bats that glide across the water at night to catch dozing fish in their strong claws.
The beaches in front of Tortuguero's flooded forest is the most important nesting area for green turtles in the Caribbean, with hawksbills and leatherbacks also numerous in their seasons, between February and October. The turtles are strictly protected, but a local cooperative that helps to conserve them offers guided trips at night to see them come ashore and lay their eggs - often in large numbers.
Tortuguero's wildlife lodges
Just outside the small community of Tortuguero village on the coastal strip, several wildlife lodges skirt the park's flooded forest and offer boat trips, with naturalist guides, to explore its rivers.
Guests stay on a full board basis and are taken out each day on shared excursions by resident naturalist guides, mostly by boat.
There is a small landing strip with flights from San Jose, but most people arrive by road to a small river port and then by boat.
Though there is plenty of sunshine, Tortuguero’s rainfall is tremendously high all year round. The wildlife is prepared for this, as are the lodges which are well stocked with rubber boots, waterproof ponchos, and covered boats.
Costa Rica's newest national park, Maquenque lies in the deep lowlands of the San Carlos river which seeps slowly northwards to join the Rio San Juan.
The amount and variety of wildlife here easily rivals the more famous Tortuguero, although more effort and time are required to see it.
The emblem species of this area is the endangered, almost legendary, Great Green Macaw.
Maquenque Ecolodge is the place to stay here. Maquenque is a 4 hour drive north from San José.