If you’ve never been to Latin America, Costa Rica is a great place to begin. As it’s a small country, it’s perfect if you’re looking for a little bit of everything. I didn’t have long to explore so I chose to focus on the Caribbean coast for some wildlife and beach time, before hopping over to the Pacific Coast.
Visiting Tortuguero National Park was my favourite part of the trip and will stay with me for a long time. The town is a coastal village set on a stretch of coastline where a winding river joins the sea. The river has created large, wide and meandering canal ways that can only be accessed via boat.
The boat ride to get there is wonderful. We spotted all manner of bird life, alligators and monkeys on the way. Going along the river, we sailed past different lodges, from little resorts like Laguna Lodge to the more exclusive Mawamba Lodge. Whether you’re looking for something luxurious or basic, there are plenty of places to stay.
This area is a nestling site for green, hawksbill, loggerhead and leatherback turtles. Green turtles are usually the most bankable as their numbers are larger. There are a few places to witness turtles laying their eggs but Tortuguero is perhaps Costa Rica’s most famous.
Our turtle spotting guide Chico went through the rules very carefully, before our 2 hour evening trip which started at 8pm. ‘No flashlights, no cameras or phones, or the rangers will ask the whole group to leave immediately. No excuses and no refunds’. All pretty clear!
Park Rangers patrol the beaches and watch for the distinctive dark shapes that emerge from the surf and start their clumsy climb up past the high tide mark. The tourist groups are not allowed to approach the turtle whilst she is digging her hole, as apparently, they can get spooked and return to the sea without laying.
Once the turtle had started laying her eggs, we were allowed to approach in silence from behind, staying well out of her eyeline. We must have seen her lay over a hundred eggs and then start to carefully refill the hole and pat it down all with her rear flippers.
Whilst we were waiting for the turtle to dig her hole, we saw another 3 turtles come out the surf and start to make their way up the beach. Although clumsy they are surprisingly quick to make it up the beach and leave caterpillar tracks in the sand once they’ve gone. It was a really magical night, a highlight of my time in Costa Rica.
The next morning, we took a wildlife spotting canal boat tour for a few hours. The boat follows the canals upstream where they change from very wide to very narrow and overgrown. Our guide pointed out sloths, ant-eaters, dolphins, monkeys, toucans, caiman and lots of lizards. My favourite was the ‘Jesus Christ’ lizard, named because it can run so fast it can walk on water.
I’d recommend a minimum of 3 days and 2 nights to enjoy Tortuguero – there is so much to do and see, it’s definitely worth the time.
Puerto Viejo is a lovely town on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast very close to the Panama border. Traditionally it’s a surfer hang out but there are now some high quality accommodation options such as Le Chameleon or the newly opened Aguas Claras hotel. It’s brilliant because you can now have the best of both worlds, by staying in real comfort and enjoying the laid-back vibe of the town. We enjoyed some beers on the beach – it was great to relax after the excitement of Tortuguero.
Whilst in Puerto Viejo we visited the nearby Cahuita National Park and spent a few hours enjoying the wonderful beach with its stunning back drop of thick jungle. Whilst enjoying the surf, we were lucky enough to see a whale breaching only a little further out to sea. An incredible place to visit, tucked away in the corner of Costa Rica.
Around a 3-hour drive South from San Jose, Manuel Antonio is a small National Park on the Pacific Coast. It’s a beautiful spot if you only have a few days and want to base yourself on the coast. It also gives you easy access to a jungle and some wonderful beaches. I stayed at the Parador Resort, which has breath-taking views over the ocean and is perfectly situated to explore further.
If you haven’t got long to spend in Manuel Antonio, I’d definitely recommend a guided walk. You’ll get the freedom and joy of hiking through the park but with the added knowledge and experience of a guide. We learnt so much about the flora and fauna of the park, as well as spotting animals like coatis and howler monkeys that I would never have seen if he hadn’t pointed them out. It’s a fantastic place to see sloths, as well as the scarlet macaws that were once nearly extinct in this country.
Sloths, you’ve just gotta love them! Their lazy demeanour and naturally smiling faces make them so adorable and we were lucky to have 3 really good wild sightings during our week there. Our first was asleep, hanging in the jungle and relaxing in the heat. The second was a mother with her baby clinging to her tummy, tucked into a palm tree in our hotel grounds whilst we ate dinner.
The third sloth was by the side of a busy road trying to cross. Whilst the situation is loaded with potential jokes, it also highlights a real problem for such a slow animal in a busy modern world. Our guide carefully moved it, as he said it would have been roadkill within minutes if we hadn’t.
There are two distinct regions (the Pacific Coast and Caribbean side) and each has its own dry and wet season. However, if you’ve ever been to a tropical country, you’ll know it can (and does) rain at any time of year.
The best time to visit the Pacific Coast is in the dry season between December and April. The Caribbean side’s dry season is between March and September. With both sides fairly dry in March/April it makes Costa Rica a great destination for families for an Easter holiday break.
I visited in October during the ‘green season’, or the wet season to me and you! It was still very hot and we had both sun and rain most days. On the plus side, hotels were quieter and cheaper, while the national parks were noticeably quieter.
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