Tortuguero is not overly promoted within Costa Rican travel guides – and for this reason, a lot of people who travel there do so on a fly in package that can cost hundreds of dollars a night …per person!
When reseraching Costa Rica we were enticed by the brief description of Tortuguero presented – that of a natural and unspoilt water world which offers a seducing array of wildlife and fauna. There was the promise of boat trips along the canals to spot wildlife such as sloth, monkeys, snakes, iguanas and jaguars. There was the option of night walks on the beaches to see turtles laying eggs or the eggs hatching (seasonal) and primary rainforest to explore. I was seduced by the idea of being in such a place where I could connect with nature in a way like never before and I was desperate to find a way to visit without succumbing to spa style hotels and re-mortgaging the house.
The main obstacle for visitors is the fact that there is no road entry, but this only made it more alluring to me. Unfortunately our research repeatedly threw up lots of costly fly in packages at 4/5* hotel complexes which, to me, seemed a little out of kilter with the place itself. Few guide books (if any we came across) even suggested independent travel. We therefore took to online forums, keen to ascertain if and how independent travel would be possible. That’s when we stumbled across the Tortuguero village website – a little gem which offered insight into the local accommodation and offered details of how to get there for independent travellers. One look the price of the boat journey ($7) and the accommodation and guiding on offer at the fabulous Casa Marbella ($55 a night for a superior room facing the river) and we decided it was a no brainer – we could get there under our own steam, stay in an amazingly friendly local B&B, choose our own accommodation and activities and save hundreds of pounds off the price of a fly in package! We booked it there and then. It was absolutely the right decision.
We drove to LaPavona (Carairi) from Arenal – a journey we expected to take about 5 hours. We allowed ourselves a window of a few extra hours too, wanting to ensure that we arrived in plenty time to make the 4pm boat. The directions provided on the Tortuguero village website are a little unorthadox, but incredibly useful but they certainly do the trick … Because you are travelling through the middle of no-where, the directions rely on an accurate vehicle mileometer (ours was not!) and navigation by local stores and handpainted signs along the way. Navigating in this way, it took us a couple of hours to travel from Guapiles to LaPavova, with the satnat offering little reassurance beyond Cariari.
It is also appropriate to highlight that the directions offered on the village website have not been updated in a wee while – so;
a) when you are asked to reset your mileometer at Cariari petrol station, be aware they now have two petrol stations, one before and one after the bridge – reset your mileometer at the second one.
b) when you are coming back through Cariari on your return journey, be aware that the main street is one way (and not signposted as such!)
c) The first mileage stated is 18 miles – we found it was a few miles less than this. If you hit the crossroads you have gone too far
d) When you arrive at the end of the road (quite literally) there is what looks like a car park and an outbuilding with tourist signange on it for tortuguero. Ignore this and drive past until you can drive no more – then you will see a selection of car ports on your right and this is La Pavona.
e) The rates for car parking (per night) are cheaper in the offseason (I think we paid $5 a night for secure parking). Many of the staff at the farm speak only spanish, but there is one young lady who speaks excellent English (The relevancy of this will become clear in a subsequent post!)
g) Allow yourself plenty time for the journey – the mileage as described on the directions might appear small, but the roads (if one can call them that) are in a terrible state. I cannot for one minute understand why car hire companies ban people from taking their cars to Monteverde but allow them to travel here – there is pothole after pothole. Our 4×4 had significant clearance, but we’d often find one side of the vehicle at a significant angle as we bounced from hole to hole.
h) If you are contemplating this journey, it also helps to know that LaPavona (where you get the boat) is the name of the farm and not a village, so you cannot find it on a satnav by name alone (trust me, I tried!).
We arrived a little battered and bruised from the journey, but extremely excited. We found ourselves in an amazing open sided building from which the most enticing smells of traditional food were wafting. We offloaded our luggage from the vehicle and settled down for a cold beer.
I had all kinds of ideas in my head about what LaPavona would be like, and I laugh to myself now when reflecting on it. I imagined a restaurant on a traditional seaside pier where we’d sip a cup of coffee over a nice meal, watching boats leave and arrive. In actual fact, the pier is a gentle slope of rubble from a raised grass embankment off a gravel driveway and the only boats that come and go are the timetabled ones – three or so times a day.
The boats depart once the public bus arrives, so shortly after 4pm we opted for the ClicClic boat from Lapavona (Cariari) and piled our (sensible, light and soft sided!) luggage onto an open sided long boat which rocked and rolled as passenger after passenger climbed aboard. Little did I know I was about to embark on one of the best boat trips in the world.
The boat trip took over 1.5 hours and stops as required to pick up and drop off locals at villages on route. The natural canals through which we travelled were narrow and flanked by primary rainforest. We dodged flotsam and jetsom in the waterways, meandered around tight bends and drove through hanging vines. It is incredibly difficult to describe just how amazingly beautiful the boat trip was. We were travelling through some of the most pristine forest in the world, miles from anywhere, heading to an exotic island filled with diverse wildlife. We scanned the water for otters, caimens and capybaras and were cooled by the spray from the speeding boat. Everywhere we looked tarzan style environments filled our vision. Trees seemed greener and larger than ever before. The water looked silken and undisturbed. I grew very envious of the local villagers living in such a paradise. However one thought kept ringing around my head – why on earth would you fly in and miss this incredible boat trip? Why?! I swear I would go back to Costa Rica if only to take this boat trip. In fact, when it came to the end of our three nights in Tortuguero, I desperately did not want to leave but I was so, so, so excited about the trip back along the canals. I pretty much ran to the pier and grabbed a front seat as soon as the boat arrived and sat there in the baking sun, smile on my face, $7 in hand….waiting.