We travelled by luxury air conditioned Volvo bus from San Jose, Costa Rica over the continental divide, and headed downhill toward the port of Limon on the Caribbean coast. Along the way, there was some spectacular mountain scenery, including the Rain Cloud Forest. We stopped along the way at a local bar, and had a baby Toucan to chat with, as we sipped our cold drinks.
Before we got as far as Limon, we turned off the main highway and proceeded to Siquerres, where we transferred to smaller buses for the last 20 kms on a rough dirt road to the river boat dock. Most of this leg of the trip went through banana plantations run by Dole. It is easy to see why our bananas up here in Canada are so tasteless - the bananas are very green when they are processed. While the group was looking at the banana processing plant, a spaniel with a monkey riding on it's back wandered through the crowd. I found it hilarious that everyone stopped paying attention to the bananas and the processing plant, and ran after this dog and monkey - madly shooting off their cameras (myself included)!
The plantation workers live in poverty, and mainly consist of Guatamalan nationals, since the Costa Ricans aren't eager to do this difficult and dangerous work. The workers and their families are routinely exposed to large doses of insecticide. I noticed significant amounts of pollution in the rivers running beside the plantations, indicating to me that fertilizers are leaching out of the soil into the drainage systems. Not a pretty sight. We North Americans and Europeans get our perfect bananas, and the Costa Rican ecosystems and the plantation workers pay the price.
Everyone piles onto the river boats, and we start off on our little jungle adventure. The boats take an inland waterway which parallels the Caribbean coastline. Despite getting soaked by a tropical downpour, this was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip for me. We sweep by deep, tropical jungle along the whole length of the 4.5 hour trip.
At the half way mark, we stop for lunch at a jungle bar. The Jungle Lodge crew have a picnic lunch all ready for us, and do a great job of serving everyone as best can be expected under the cramped conditions. The bar isn't very big! I certainly got a kick out of the shot I took of the bar, the tourists, the chickens, and the boats. It's hard to tell some of the tourists from the chickens!! (a cheap shot at some of the "older" members of our group)
Along the way, we encountered a crocodile sunning himself on the mud bank of the channel, as well as monkeys and lots of birds. I noticed that the Great Blue Heron which we see at home on the westcoast of Canada migrates down to the shores of Costa Rica for the winter months. It's very difficult to get good pictures of the monkeys, since they hang out at the tops of 60 metre high trees. The guides warned us that the monkeys have been known to chuck their own shit at the tourists if you get too close!
The Jungle Lodge is located within Tortuguero National Park, and is across the channel from the village of Tortuguero. There are several other lodges in the immediate area, and there is also a small airstrip available. I think if I were to return to this area, I would fly in and out direct from San Jose (20-30 minutes). Driving from San Jose and taking the boats up the waterway was a 10 hour marathon I don't think I would repeat. Don't get me wrong...taking the boat trip through the waterway was a must see, I just don't see any point in repeating it.
The accommodation at the Jungle Lodge was much better than I expected after reading some of the guidebooks. The rooms had hot water showers, and were built in long, low buildings of a dozen or so rooms each. Verandas and chairs were part of each room, and the "windows" consisted of screens (to keep the bugs out). Ceiling fans were in each room - no air conditioning. The grounds were very well kept, and had a good selection of natural flora of the area, including the hibiscus, of course. The rooms were kept spotlessly clean. Food was included in the price, and consisted of a plentiful, buffet style presentation of juices, salads, soups, hearty main courses, and desserts. Everything was homemade and delicious. The dining room consisted of scout camp style long tables, and screens in place of windows and ceiling fans. Liquor was freely available in the bar, and was reasonably priced.
Going to sleep to the sound of crickets reminded me of other tropical vacations I had taken in the past. Waking up the next morning to the sound of howler monkeys was a first for me. The tour of the small village of Tortuguero was under-whelming, to say the least. There were a couple of tourist-trap shops with t-shirts and other knick nacs (over priced), and hey, I even bought a nice T-shirt! The people live very simply here, keeping pigs, chickens and other domestic animals, and they keep small gardens, growing root vegetables. Fruit is freely available for the picking, of course. Their houses are usually built on stilts, in order to avoid flooding during the rainy season.
The staff were very apologetic about the tropical rainstorm that soaked most everyone the day before, and continued well into the night. It made hiking some of the steeper jungle trails downright dangerous, and made others messy. Despite this, the staff volunteered to take anyone out on any of the hikes.
Many of us decided to hike in the rain. I chose a level hike into the jungle on the opposite side of the waterway, while others chose boat rides into some of the narrower channels, and still others were determined to hike up some hills. We all borrowed ponchos and gum boots from the supply the Lodge keeps on hand for just such occasions. The guides were very enthusiastic while taking us on the hikes, and despite coming back muddy, we were happy to have experienced the jungle up close and personal!
We saw some howler monkeys a lot closer than the boat trip afforded us, as well as some very interesting plants and small animals along the way, such as a Heliconia. Our guide was very knowledgeable about all the flora and fauna found in the jungle, and eagerly passed on this knowledge to us. As we walked out of the jungle onto the Caribbean shore, I was astounded to see the rough seas. This sure didn't look like the Caribbean I had encountered on other trips!
Our guide was also certified to take tours to see the turtles, when they lay their eggs in the sand on the Caribbean shore. Both Green turtles and Leatherback turtles lay their eggs here, and research tells us that of 26,000 turtles that are tagged, they exclusively use these beaches. Green turtle nesting season is from July through mid-October, and leatherbacks generally arrive March through May. Although we saw the big pits the turtles dig, we missed the timeframe to see any in action.
The stay in the jungle was all too short, and we made our way back down the waterway to our waiting buses. The boats went straight through for 4.5 hours. If you chose to travel this way, I would suggest that you bring along some granola bars, cookies, or other food. Also, you MUST bring along a supply of bottled water, since this is one of the few areas of Costa Rica where the water may be infested with organisms that could make you sick. You must use the bottled water for drinking and teeth brushing, however the local water is OK for washing ...just remember to keep your mouth and eyes closed when showering!