Costa Rica's Caribbean coast explodes with life - from toucans in the trees to the mighty tarpon in the sea. And Tortuguero is the place to see it all
No doubt about it, the floor was alive. A shimmering green band cutting straight through the rainforest neatly divided the muddy path in two. Closer inspection revealed the source of this strange slow-motion landslide - an army of leaf-cutting ants were ferrying their fingernail-sized pieces of foliage through the forest. For hundreds of metres we marched side by side with this silent battalion until, finally, they disappeared into the sweaty undergrowth.
It’s the kind of thing you start to become a little blasé about in Costa Rica. Everywhere you look nature is going about its business in the most flamboyant fashion – flocks of scarlet macaws squawk overhead, howler monkeys bellow at you from the treetops, and, all the while, millions of unseen cicadas scratch away to provide that ever-present background hum.
It’s all so completely unspoilt that, were a triceratops to poke its head out from the nearest bush, you’d probably just raise your eyebrows, nod and carry on.
You can experience this kind of thing all across Costa Rica, but the area we’d chosen was Tortuguero – a tiny little village on the Caribbean coast named after the green turtles that come to nest here. Nestling among a network of canals and rainforests, it’s the kind of place where the line between the land and sea is blurred.
You have to really want to come here too as there are no roads in or out - a short internal flight or a boat up the river is the only way to get here. Fortunately, getting here is part of the fun.
We arrived from Puerto Limon in the south (although trips from the capital San José are equally easy to arrange) and spent three hours chugging along the river to reach our final destination, spotting birdlife, fish and crocodiles along the way. It’s hard not to miss them when you find yourself in the river, helping push the boat off a submerged sand bar.
Once you’re in Parque Nacional Tortuguero (www.costarica-nationalparks.com), you’ll find yourself in one of country’s best wildlife destinations. You could hire a canoe in the village and explore the canals yourself, explore El Gavilan Land Trail on foot (careful not to step on those ants) or do what many come here specifically for and watch turtles hatching on the beach at night (prime time is July-August). Alternatively, you can just sit about in the grounds of your chosen accommodation and let it all come to you.
Having chosen the Casa Marbella b&b, we had the best of both worlds. Owner Daryl Loth also happens to be one of the area’s leading nature guides, and leads tours for guests most mornings. It’s an early start mind – so early it’s not even breakfast time yet. Just a quick cup of coffee and it’s off in his silent, electrically-powered boat to explore the huge network of canals.
Pretty soon you realise why it’s imperative to have guide round these parts. As we drifted to a stop he’d whisper: “Look, over there, under that bush. It’s a cayman – you can just see the eyes peaking out above the water.” I don’t mind admitting it took me about two minutes to make it out. Five minutes after that: “Can you smell that? It’s kind of sweet smell… that’s wild boar.” A rustling in the bushes right on cue seems to confirm it.
And then we’d be off again. Fortunately, there was just time to see something I’ve been longing to get a closer look at - toucans. There are scores of them in this part of the world but up until now they’d been hiding. Then finally they appeared, dancing in the trees above us – just out of picture-taking range maybe, but with those beaks there was no mistaking them. So they weren’t just invented for a Guinness ad after all – a small part of me had always wondered.
If the turtle is the best known of Tortuguero’s aquatic residents, the next most famous must be the tarpon. Fishermen like me come here from all over the world, often staying in special fishing lodges to go in search of them. For the uninitiated, these fish, also known as the “silver king”, are something else – with a distinctive prehistoric look and growing to sizes in excess of 200lbs, they patrol the waters off Tortuguero looking to swallow up anything that moves, and that includes baby turtles.
Thanks to their ability to breathe air as well as water, you can often see rolling on the surface. And so, at 5.30 the next morning we found ourselves drifting along the Caribbean looking for signs of life. My guide for the day, Elvin (http://tortuguerosportsfish.tripod.com/), seemed confident. “Get ready,” he said knowingly. I thought he was probably just trying to keep me interested. Wrong.
Within minutes, a fish grabbed the bait. Now if you’ve never been fishing before, you’ve probably got a picture in your head of a tranquil pursuit, where long periods of snoozing are interspersed with the odd moment where an angler wakes up long enough to gently ease a fish out of the water. Not so with tarpon fishing.
Fifty metres from the boat, the water erupted as a tarpon rocketed from its home, silver flanks flashing in the early-morning sun. What followed was 30 minutes of acrobatics from the fish and a great deal of sweating from me. But, thanks to the great efforts of Elvin, we finally brought him to the boat. And what a sight – 80lbs of muscle, iridescent scales twinkling in the early morning sun. A true monster from the deep. We took just enough time to grab a picture and a moment of admiration before guiding him safely home.
Now I’ve fished in many places but I’ve rarely had a day like that. I can appreciate that fishing is not for everyone but I would defy anyone not to enjoy this type of excursion. Getting out on the water in a place like Tortuguero and coming face to face with such mighty beasts as these is a truly humbling experience, and connects you to nature in a way nothing else can. It was the perfect end to a perfect trip on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.