La Casona de Tortuguero

Once you arrive in Tortuguero, be expected to deal with people trying to sell you their cabinas, which are local lodgings that are quite similar to hostels.

Depending on how busy it is, there might be a few guides or poachers as I like to call them who will try and take you to a certain cabinas. They’re probably paid a commission based on the number of people they bring in.

Sometimes they can be helpful, but overall, I find them annoying. Personally, I like looking for lodging on my own time without being badgered or harassed by someone driven solely by money. So my suggestion would be to look around for lodging yourself. The village is quite small, the beach being only about a 5 minute walk away from the port. Just walk straight ahead from the dock, past the stores, and soccer field and you’ll hit the beach.

The village is divided into 2 main sections, the part facing north of the soccer field and the area facing south of the field.

My suggestion would be to stay at La Casona de Tortuguero, located next to the hospital, which is a huge, 1-storied pink building near the soccer field.

One of the nicest and cleanest cabinas in Tortuguero

The facilities are spotless, rooms clean, and staff friendly. A private room with private bathroom and hot water costs $20 total. Wireless is available, but sorry, no computers. No worries, though, as there is an internet cafe in the center of town.

One of the things that plagues the other cabinas in the village is dampness. The rooms feel stuffy, wet, and moldy particularly during the rainy season.

The rooms in Casona, however, did not suffer from this moldy malady, and felt well ventilated. Each room comes equipped with a celiling fan as well as a regular, plug-in fan, which also helps keep the room cool and circulated.

The manager, Sarah, runs the place with her brother, Andres, who is Casona’s main tour guide. I would highly recommend doing a canal tour with him as well.

Casonas also doubles as a restaurant and serves home-made dishes such as lasgana and pizza, as well as local Costa Rican dishes. Rooms with kitchens are also available.

Private bedroom with bathroom in Casona

Double-Dipping Costa Rica – To the Village of Turtles

As our travel itinerary involved us heading back to La Ceiba, Honduras, we began our journey back north from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Crossing the border from Panama into Costa Rica the second time around was much less painful. The whole process took about 2 hours as opposed to the 7 hours we spent the last time we tried entering Panama from Costa Rica.

Andres - our guide from Casona

Arrived in San Jose early afternoon. As we were collecting our bags, Jon casually asked one of the guys at the counter for advice on how to get to T0rtuguero. Luckily, the guy spoke a little English and had done the trip to Tortuguero quite a few times himself.

He suggested that instead of passing through Moin, as most tour books recommend you to do, take a bus to Cariari and ride the public water taxi down the canal to Tortuguero, thereby saving money and the hassle.

Unlike most places in Costa Rica that experience both  high and low seasons, Tortuguero is busy pretty much all year round. As a result, most guide books will recommend booking your lodging and transportation ahead of time.

This is not the case as both lodging and transportation is plentiful. Just make sure to arrive at the bus stop a little earlier to ensure a spot on the bus, and subsequently on the boat. But once you’ve secured your ticket for both the bus to Cariari and the water taxi to the village of Tortuguero. You can buy the boat ticket at the port, which lies at the end of the bus stop in Cariari.

If for whatever reason you need to make an overnight pit stop, as we did, then I suggest taking a bus from San Jose to Guapiles (about a 1 hour bus ride), staying in one of the locally owned Cabinas, simple lodgings that resemble hostels, for the night.The one we stayed in was quite clean and simple, costing us $22 total for the night.

It was a bit frustrating because none of the 3 travel guide books we had, including the Lonely Planet and The Rough Guides, made a note of places to stay in Guapiles, Moin, or Cariari, all of which are main stops on the way to get to Tortuguero. Perhaps it was a simple oversight, but be assured that at least in Guapiles there are plenty of Cabinas, and based on what the locals have told us, the same can be said for the two other places – Moin and Cariari.

As of October 2011, the bus from Cariari to the port leaves twice a day- once at 6:00 AM and the other at 11:30AM. (Ticket price: $3) The bus ride took about an hour and a half. Prepare for a grueling and hot bus ride particularly if you’re one of the unfortunate ones who don’t manage to find a seat.

You’ll get off at the last bus stop, which takes you to the mouth of the canal. There, you can purchase your boat ticket ($3). Make sure to water proof your bag as it tends to rain a lot particularly during the rainy season, and although you are covered by the boat roofing, most of the bags are left at the bow of the boat, and therefore, are not covered.

The boat ride can take anywhere from 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes, depending on the speed of the boat and the number of people aboard the boat. Prepare your camera as wild life spottings are quite common. Look out for crocodiles, herons, caimans, and kingfishers.

They’ll most likely make a few stops in the villages, letting the locals off before they pull up to the main village of Tortuguero. And there you have it.

To Spot a Monkey

Because our time in Costa Rica was short, we wanted to spend as much time exploring and less time riding the bus. Initially, the plan was to head over to Playa Samara, but as that would be at least a 5 hour bus ride, we opted for something closer to San Jose. After poring through 3 different travel guides, we finally decided to explore Manuel Antonio National Park, located on the Central Pacific side.

Less than a 25minute bus ride away from the town of Quepos, Manuel Antonio is home to beautiful picturesque beaches fringed by the tropical rainforests. Here, you can spot, among other things, herds of friendly White-faced capuchin monkeys, families of shy Agoutis, bats, sloths, colorful Toucans, and various different types of snakes including the deadly Fur-de-lance.

I would recommend that you stay in Quepos, which has more economic lodging and food options. The bus to Manuel Antonio costs .25 cents, and runs every 15 minutes, so getting to the park is no problem.

Entrance into the park is $10, however, I would advise you to hire a licensed tour guide, which usually costs around $20. These tour guides are quite easy to find. Once you get off at the last bus stop, about 10 km from the main entrance, you’ll most likely be approached by a local who will try and sell you a guide. Most of these guys are legit, but always ask for identification. They will walk  you to the entrance of the park where you’ll be paired with a tour guide. Make sure you ask the tour guide for identification proving that they are legit guides.

The trails themselves are quite easy to follow, so you could do the walk on your own, but the guides are very informative and knowledgeable and will be able to point out the different types of wildlife that you will probably miss. All of them carry high-powered telescopes which they use to spot toucans, howler monkeys, frogs, insects, etc. You can get pretty amazing shots through these telescopes as well.

The ticket is good for the entire day so my suggestion would be to make it a day trip. Take the guided tour, which lasts about 2 hours, and afterwards, explore the different trails on your own. The Cathedral hike, a looping trail, is highly worth it. Be mindful though, the trail can get quite slippery.

It was on this trail that we had a close, face to face encounter with 2 white-faced capuchin monkeys. We started the hike late in the afternoon, so we were the only ones on the trail. Midway through our hike, we spotted 2 capuchins sitting on a tree branch not too far from where we were.

We slowly backed away and took out a small bag of peanuts, which we left on the ground. I know you’re not supposed to feed them. One strike against my karma.

One of the monkeys, the ballsier one, climbed down the tree, and picked up a few peanuts before  jumping back onto the tree. Jon thought it’d be a good idea to leave his backpack on the ground in the hopes that the monkey might rummage through it looking for food.

The ballsy monkey crept back down, but ignoring the bag, went for a few more peanuts off the ground. The whole encounter lasted about 10 minutes, and was probably the highlight of that day.

White faced capuchin monkeys in this park are known to steal food out of bags left unattended on the benches. In fact, they are seen regularly preying on backpacks and bags left on the beach. The guide said that they usually come around 10 or 11AM in the morning and hang around the beaches all day hoping to steal a few things to nibble on.

There are several beaches within the National Park, all of which are gorgeous. The waves can be strong sometimes, so you might want to check with the guide or park officers to make sure they are safe to swim in.

Other tidbits:

The park is open from 7AM to 4PM and is closed on Mondays.

The town of Manuel Antonio is expensive. So if you can, buy your water beforehand in Quepos and pack your ownb lunch!

Up in the Cloud Rain Forest

If you ever want to experience the canopies of a Costa Rican rain forest, then look no further than Monte Verde. Located high above sea level, high up in the clouds, this town is famous for offering spectacular views of the canopy rain forest.

The birthplace of the original ecotourism movement in Costa Rica, Monte Verde offers a wide range of activities ranging from zip lining and repelling to hiking and nightwalks that would satisfy adrenaline junkies and nature lovers alike.

Leaf Cricket

If you’re interested in zipling, check out Extreme Canopy Tours, the only place that offers 13 ziplines. For $40, you get free transportation and 13 ziplines, including the superman and a tarzan swing, both of which were extremely memorable. The modern facilities are super clean; all the equipment are well maintained; and the highly trained English speaking guides are extremely professional meticulous.

I felt safe and well briefed while ziplining throughout the entire process.

If you’re looking for something less intense, then check out one of the many night walks. Most hostels and hotels will hook you up with a tour group. The night walks are exactly what you’d expect based on the name. Walks, not hikes, that take place during the night.

The guided walk usually lasts anywhere from 1:30 to 2 hours, and costs around $15-25. More expensive isn’t necessarily better. The overall experience depends on a few factors such as the group size, your guide, weather, and a little bit of luck.

The group that we were assigned to was quite big-ten people. The guide was informative and energetic, however, because of the large group size, I had to struggle to hear his explanations.

I would definitely recommend going with a smaller group, no more than 6 if you really want an experience that is worthwhile and worth your money.

With that said, we did manage to see quite a few animals. Within the first few seconds of the tour, we spotted a two-toed sloth hanging lazily from a tree. The guide also found a orange-kneed tarantula that was the size of a grown man’s fist.

The rest of the tour was not as exciting as the beginning. I did see several stick insects, a green viper, and a few green leafed crickets, but no BIG animals. Perhaps it was the number of people crowding the trails or just bad luck. (Maybe a bit of both)

All in all, the experience was worth while. We paid $20, but you could probably get the same experience for less. As mentioned before, the more money you pay doesn’t necessarily mean you’re guaranteed to see more things. That largely depends on a few, but quite important, aspects that are outside our realm of control.

Would I recommend the nightwalk? Perhaps. If you don’t really have much time to spend checking out the national parks in Costa Rica, then I would recommend doing the nightwalks. But if you’re not pressed for time, then my suggestion would be to skip the night walk and go to a national park such as Manuel Antonio where you’re more likely to see a lot more wild life.

If you do decide to opt for the night walk, my recommendation would be to go during the dry season with a smaller group, and don’t forget to bring a strong night torch.

Another cool thing to do is to visit the Frog Pond, aka the frog museum. For $10, you get entrance into the frog museum, and a 45 minute guided tour. If you’re a student, bring your student ID to get the student price.

One useful thing to remember is that you get access to the frog pond during the day and at night. So if you visit during the morning, you can go back at night, as long as it is in the same day, and see the frogs in their more active state as they are nocturnal amphibians. So don’t forget your ticket!

Red Eye Leaf Frog

Because we were the only ones in the museum, we pretty much had the whole area to ourselves. The guide spoke perfect English and was spot-on with his frog identifications.

I’d recommend this tour as it offers a great opportunity to come face to face with dozens of different species of frogs and toads, not to mention a face to face encounter with the famous Red-Eyed Green Leaf Frog that is pretty much Costa Rica’s mascot symbol.