A Chronicle of Colors
Exploring Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park
Like a quill to an ink pot, I dip my paddle into jet-black liquid, sending licorice waves across an otherwise perfectly still surface. Peering over the side of my papaya-hued kayak, my face is a glassy reflection, framed by dense foliage so grasshopper green and verdant it looks sketched by a fluorescent pen.
Today, I am Alice in Wonderland, big-eyed in awe over the strange topsy-turvy world I’ve dropped into, where Jesus Christ lizards (named for their seeming ability to walk on water) fan out to dry in the sun, sloths doze off mid-climb, and yellow-crowned night herons pick daintily over ant-riddled buttress roots. Gliding through this natural fairground hall of mirrors (its inky tint caused by tannin leaked by rich, rich vegetation), I feel more like I’m flying than floating, and looking up to the sky, my imagination spirals to where I can gaze back upon this moment of happy disorientation deep within Parque Nacional Tortuguero.
Accessible only by air or water and located on the Caribbean coast, this waterlogged flood plain of 73 square miles, with four canals and a jigsaw of deltas, smaller channels, and lagoons, is known as the Costa Rican Amazon, with eleven habitats including rainforest, swamps, and mangrove.
The only way to explore the park’s smaller tributaries, such as Caño Palma and Laguna Cuatro, is by kayak, and my slender craft slips easily and silently through, creeping stealthily upon wildlife that might otherwise have been frightened away. I catch sight of the nobbled snout of a spectacled caiman (of the alligator family) amid a thicket of palms, and the sleek cinnamon-brown head of an otter pops up in front of me before disappearing below, leaving an ebbing circle of ripples.
The only way to explore the park’s smaller tributaries, such as Caño Palma and Laguna Cuatro, is by kayak”
An Idyllic Base for Exploring Parque Nacional Tortuguero
Tortuga Lodge, my base for exploration, sits in splendid isolation on the banks of the main canal. I’ve not quite lost the feeling of being cast adrift as I write in my journal, making a list of the wildlife I’ve so far encountered — ibis, northern jacana, green iguana, sloth, and anhinga (a cousin of the cormorant that has a startling blue ring around the eye)— quickly adding a bare-throated tiger heron when one flies boldly to settle on the adjacent grassy patch. As if on a sudden blind date, we exchange shy glances, wondering what might now be expected of the other.
As the sun dips, and a milky, blue sky morphs to tangerine, a flash of a rare American pygmy kingfisher—fleeting, dazzling, a blur of iridescent greens—brings me to my feet. Above me, bully-boy keel-billed toucans swagger in flight on one final raid, intent on stealing an egg supper from the nests of smaller birds. Montezuma oropendolas fluster around their curious long woven nests, swinging from palms like church bells, and the last stragglers from a troop of howler monkeys bellow their deep-throated calls to one another. While, just across from the lodge, on the other side of the river, fruit bats whirl as the night shift begins.
A Haven for Green Sea Turtles and Nesting Rituals
Hidden behind the rainforest-hugged river are the Caribbean Sea and the world’s most important nesting site for the endangered green sea turtle, from which Tortuguero (meaning turtle catcher) takes its name. From July to October each year, they come in their thousands to nest on this stretch of coastline as they have done for a millennium. Any tourist must buy a permit and visit with a guide, and I follow mine by dim infrared torchlight across uneven sands to where a green turtle is digging.
Under a clear summer sky smeared with shooting stars, she’s a breathtaking sight and, unaware of spectators, completely lost in her labor, softly grunting as she pushes away the sand with her flippers. “When she lays her eggs, she is in a trance-like state,” Mateo, our guide, tells us. “She has traveled far to come back to her birthplace, and now she is released from all sense of self, having reached her final goal.” And as the wet white eggs, the size and shape of ping pong balls, drop, and she begins to camouflage her precious cargo, I’m struck by what a reassuring sight she is in a world increasingly challenged by humankind.
A Volcanic Beacon and Breathtaking Views
Next day I climb 390 feet up Cerro Tortuguero (Turtle Hill), a small inactive volcano that is believed to act as a beacon for turtles, helping to guide them back to their birthplace. It’s a lovely story, easily believed in a land that leans towards fable, home to such curious creatures as three-toed sloths, whitefaced capuchin monkeys, and tongue-flicking strawberry poison-dart frogs (only toxic to humans if handled), which stand sentry on the 2-mile trail leading from ranger’s station to summit, crowned with monkey-pot trees. Above me, spider monkeys intent on games of chase and aerial larks send down a regular confetto of leaves while I gaze over the national park’s rich rainforest canopy where purple liana vines add patches of color, as do the flash of vivid blue and green feathers from squabbling great green macaws.
The biggest settlement in Tortuguero is San Francisco, with a population of 1,500. Elsewhere, tiny enclaves are dotted here and there, including a string of seaside casas located where one of the major river arteries meets the sea. Here, cattle graze under fruit trees, chickens are free to roam, and in my host Katherine’s outside kitchen, mango slices are roasting.
“¡Buenos días!” she says warmly as I arrive, handing me a spoonful of the vanilla rice pudding she’s making, which stokes such unexpected childhood memories that I feel immediately at home. This is comfort food at its most cheering, and there’s plenty more to come: pan casero (a white bread made in a wood-burning oven) stuffed with a pumpkin paste, freshly flipped tortilla, a jam made from squash, and Katherine’s homemade soft crumbling cheese, which she sells to make a living. Out to sea, great frigatebirds swirl in silhouette, and the fat apricot sun grows riper, and as well as my host’s delicious food, I’m getting a taste for something else. It’s for what Costa Ricans call pura vida (pure life), and under the palms, with a hen at my heels, is where I’d like to stay.
A version of this article appears in print, in Issue 1 of Álula Magazine with the headline: “A Chronicle of Colors, Exploring Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park”