Tortuguero National Park- Part I (How to Get to Tortuguero National Park)
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Tortuguero National Park- Part I (How to Get to Tortuguero National Park)

Tortuguero National Park boat ride
This was my view out of the boat from Tortuguero to Rio Suerte the morning after our sea turtle tour. The people standing outside were late risers who had partied too hard the night before at the Disco Bar about 20 meters to the right.

Last minute on Thursday night I decided that Tortuguero National Park would be our weekend destination from Atenas, Costa Rica. We were going to try to go to Nicaragua, but changed our minds because frankly, I’m still not sure why we’re going there. Once I identify our destination and the reason why we would go through the ordeal of getting there, then I’ll be able to put together the final details and we’ll just go. Tortuguero National Park was a good destination because there were sea turtles frankly that were currently nesting there. That’s all we needed was a good reason to make the trip and having never seen sea turtles in their natural habitat, Tortuguero made a lot of sense.

I am writing about our trip to Tortuguero in two parts because there are the pragmatics of how we got there, where we stayed, etc. and there are also my feelings and thoughts about the place. Both are rather complicated so I’m writing just about the pragmatics first. Lydian also wrote up her own experience of the trip to Tortuguero.

We rented a car in Atenas to get to La Pavona, which is essentially where the boat disembarks to travel the rivers and canals leading to Tortuguero National Park. We have a really good car rental “situation” worked out through a “friend” here in Atenas, so it’s actually more economical (in terms of both time and money) and definitely  more comfortable to rent a car than to take a bus.  John likes the challenge of driving in foreign countries (I think it reminds him of playing Pole Position as a kid at the arcade). The directions to this place are complicated, but we booked reservations at Casa Marabella ($55 per night for a very basic, but CLEAN room that sleeps five http://casamarbella.tripod.com/) and they provided us with very detailed directions on how to get to Tortuguero National Park from San Jose. See http://casamarbella.tripod.com/id6.html  for very descriptive maps on how to get from San Jose Costa Rica to Tortuguero National Park.

We didn’t have a printer, so I took a photo of the map on this web site and I also hand copied it. It was very helpful, but we still had to use some critical thinking skills to decide which direction to turn much of the way. That being said, however, I think we only took a “wrong” turn once and realized it almost immediately.

Drawing of Our Trip to Tortuguero National Park
This was a drawing of my impression of what we would be going to do at Tortuguero National Park. I desperately hoped it would be more interesting than this, and thankfully, it was.

Below are some detailed written directions to follow to get to Tortuguero National Park from San Jose, Costa Rica:

We left from Atenas, Costa Rica where we’re living out the last 6 weeks of our trip. John decided that it would be easier to travel through San Jose using the directions we had been given than to try to go through Alajuela and risk getting lost. We were going toward La Pavona/Rio Suerte to get on the river boats which leave at 7:30 AM, 1:00 PM, and 4:00/4:30 PM. The Casa Marabella hotel owner told us to arrive at least 30 minutes early for the 1:00 PM boat because it leaves when the bus arrives. Basically, if the bus arrives at 12:30, the boat leaves at 12:45 or so. They don’t wait until 1:00 PM to see if there are other people coming. You just have to wait for the next boat.

So we left at 8:23 from Atenas and it took us until 11:45 or so to get to our destination and park our car at the Rio Suerte parking lot (just down the road from La Pavona—a farm with another parking spot).

In San Jose we took Highway 32 to toward Limon. The roads are not marked well, but if you can download Map Factor GPS software, it will get you through the complicated twists and turns in the city. This software has been a big life-saver(sometimes literally) on all of our travels, even to places where there are no paper maps available. Once we got on Highway 32, the directions to Tortuguero got simpler, but the landmarks become a bit more obscure.

Outside of San Jose, we passed through the one and only tunnel in the country and then into the rainforests of Barrilio Carrillo National Forest. The roads are winding. It isn’t exactly a relaxing drive, which is true of most of Costa Rica, but the scenery is nice. Highway 32 took us to Guapiles. Guapiles is not an easy town to drive through. People and animals are along the highway and people are biking somewhat clumsily. On the edge of what appeared to be the town, we took a left/north at the Santa Clara gas station. The Santa Clara gas station is an important landmark. Don’t miss it.

After turning left/north, we traveled 8.1 kilometers (we set our odometer) to an intersection. Then we turned left so that we did NOT cross the railroad tracks yet. The road travels alongside these railroad tracks. We continued on this road for 0.7 kilometers before turning right (and crossing the railroad tracks) onto the main highway. This highway took us to Cariari.

The road to Cariari is paved, but a lot of people there apparently don’t own cars. They were walking and biking along the road and with all of the people on motorcycles and bikes and people driving wrecklessly in their cars, it took a lot of focus not to hit someone.

In Cariari, there is a gas station about 200 meters past the single lane bridge going into the town. We set our odometer here and traveled straight for 7 kilometers. There was a three way intersection 7 kilometers from this gas station with sign talking about the Base del Solidaritario. It was located in the midst of banana plantations on all sides and we sat there for a few seconds trying to decide if we should follow the road to the right or to the left here. We turned right finally and then there was a sign (about a kilometer past the turn) that said “Solidaritario”. Once we saw this sign, we knew we were on the right track. This road lead to Cuarto Esquinas. We had our odometer set and Cuatro Esquinas was about 14 kilometers from the Cariari gas station.

Along this road, we saw the first sign for La Pavona and Rio Suerte. If we had blinked we would have missed the sign, but seeing it was reassuring. The pavement ends outside of Cuatro Esquinas and we just continued on this road until we reached a tiny village called Palacio (23.4 kilometers past the Cariari gas station). About 50 meters past the general store, there was a road that goes off to the left and signs directing people to Tortuguero. This gravel road continues for 5.7 kilometers. La Pavona was a farm with some outbuildings that have “Welcome” painted on the side of them. We continued past La Pavona to Rio Suerte per the advice of Daryl at Casa Marabella. He told us that going directly to Rio Suerte would be much cheaper than going into La Pavona for boat tickets.

Part of this gravel road is truly treacherous. It’s a short stretch of poorly maintained gravel roads, but it was good to at least have a vehicle that couldn’t easily get high-centered.

The restaurant at Rio Suerte near La Pavona
The restaurant at Rio Suerte near La Pavona. Down the hill from this restaurant, the boat disembarks for Tortuguero.

We parked our car under an awning at Rio Suerte. There were restrooms and a fairly nice looking restaurant there. It was 11:45 when we pulled in and the fellow standing outside to sell us a parking spot told us that the boat would probably arrive around 12:30 and leave at about 12:45.

Inside the restaurant there was a cash register under a sign that read “Boletos”. We went a bought tickets for the boat ride. I knew nothing about this boat ride except that I thought it would last at least an hour. The tickets cost $8-10 (4,800 colones) for the three of us. The lady behind the counter gave us the receipt and we were told to hang onto it. The receipt was the ticket.

We sat in the restaurant for a little while waiting until we saw a crowd of people coming up over the hill. From the restaurant, we really couldn’t see what was beyond the hill, but the woman told us that the boat dock was down there. When the crowd arrived, we figured the boat had to and we gathered our things and made our way over the hill to see what was there.

The river was there, of course, and some flat topped river boats with multiple seating. We crawled onto the boat first and took the 3 seats in

flat topped river boat at Rio Suerte near La Pavona
The flat topped river boat at Rio Suerte that arrived at 12:30 PM. We were the first on board this boat which was headed for Tortuguero National Park. The boat ride was about 1 hour and 15 minutes long.

front. I was glad we did because the leg room on the rest of the boat was scanty and the ride was over an hour long (about 1 hour and 15 minutes). Plus, it was easier to see wildlife from the front of the boat. We also had easy access to our luggage, which was piled at the front of the boat.

Our boat smacked into the side of a cliff on our way to Tortuguero, but I don’t that usually happens. Needless to say it’s good to be paying attention and pull your limbs into the boat if it looks like it’s going in that direction. One of the boat drivers was missing his right hand and I thought more about the accident that might have lead him to lose it after our boat crash. The boats seem to be relatively safe, however, and the ride was peaceful besides that.

There were “river tours” offered at Tortuguero, but John and I looked at each other and said, “Isn’t that what we just did?” after we disembarked from the boat. The last thing I wanted to do was get back on another boat to take a “tour”. We had already seen howler and spider monkeys in the trees, a giant green lizard, and some rather interesting birds perched here and there. The river boat ride itself was really interesting, in my opinion. It’s incredible to see the little towns along these rivers. The people there have such a radically different way of life. Just watching their houses go by was entertaining to me.

Tortuguero
A view of Tortuguero village. Note that the streets are sidewalks because there are no cars in this village.

Tortuguero is a very small town. The culture here is completely different than that in Atenas. I wasn’t expecting to be awed by the different way of life of the people here when we decided to see turtles. I mean, the turtle tour was interesting, but the town itself and the people there were just as interesting. Indeed, I think that Tortuguero was my favorite Costa Rican destination so far.

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