Travels with the Pip part 3: Tortuguero

Sometimes, what starts as a mistake actually turns out to be the best thing you could have done. Now, neither of us have been doing terribly well this holiday actually READING the f*cking guidebook…Had I done so at an early stage I might have worked out that the small airline I found doing daily flights to Tortuguero from San Jose wasn’t actually the only one, nor that they didn’t fly from the main airport, nor that actually the with the other airline we could have dropped the car off and headed straight out from the international airport that’s, er, beside the car hire place because they had 3 convenient flights a day…

So before we go any further, a top tip would be to buy a guidebook each, since custody battling over the one copy leads to these mixups.

Nonetheless, it had provided us an anthropologically interesting night at the Barcelo San Jose, by far the swankiest and not far off the cheapest hotel we stayed in. After a somewhat intense breakfast experience battling the bony shoulders of several hundred German (and indeed French… a good degree meaner on the whole, when en masse) tour groups, we headed to Pavas airport.

This is closer in to San Jose than Juan Santamaria, and is worlds apart in terms of experience. Having flown from very small airports before, I was fairly relaxed about arriving on time for the flight, however felt I had to humour their “debes estar aqui” one hour before the flight rule.

Pavas airport…small

Pavas airport nativity scene: Confusing in late January

This turned out to be wildly pessimistic. Our 8.15 arrival for the 9.30 flight was comically early, as demonstrated by a big Caribbean guy who strolled in with his drybag and Hawaiian shirt around 9.20.

As we walked in a dog idly attended to his nether regions alongside the clearly under-used immigration counter. A couple of charming Costa Rican women checked us in, handing out the reusable boarding cards and then, somewhat embarrassingly, weighing us+luggage on the scales, for small plane reasons… Another rule that seemed to be fairly flexible was the luggage allowance, somewhat annoying since I’d deliberately worn baggy shorts and filled the pockets with heavy things to lighten my main bag.

Ticket to ride

And that was that. There was a restaurant upstairs but I didn’t quite feel up to anything after a few beers last night and the big jolly German buffet brekkie. Amazingly, there was a drinks fridge behind the check-in desk containing free cans of beer. Outstanding atencion al cliente for sure. I was starting to enjoy Central American domestic aviation.

About 9.20 all five passengers on the Tortuguero flight filed through to an anteroom for the DVD safety briefing, and then it was a gentle wander over the tarmac. No friskings, no x-rays, nothing…marvellous.

“Wait for the pilot”…sound tip

Our transport for the day was a Cessna Grand Caravan, updated slightly for general aviation with an underslung baggage compartment. Eeek!

Good to go…

With only 5 people on the flight, and Pips in front, we got the frontest seats behind the flight crew. That’s a proper view! There was also the option to keep a beady eye on the avionics screen, for anything particularly alarming about to occur… Big alarms, bonging, flashing lights… I don’t know what they do.

Seat 1A… A helpful position to give the captain flying tips  

Leaving San Jose 

Fields for a while….

the roads start to disappear…

And you’re over the canal system.

As we left San Jose, the landscape grew more and more rural, and the roads became smaller and more sinuous. And then, after a small bank of cloud, the roads disappeared altogether, from huge palm plantations to swathes of unbroken jungle. It’s not a long flight from San Jose, and around quarter of an hour after we first took off the canals of Tortuguero hove into view. These canals really are the lifeblood of the area, which previously was inaccessible even by water. Many of the canals were cut as recently as the 1970’s, and join up with some of the mighty rivers which crisscross the area.

Passenger boat making its way back towards civilisation

We touched down about 10 minutes ahead of schedule at the comically minimal airstrip- the sole piece of aviation-related equipment being a bag/passenger weighing scale, and an airline representative, waiting with the 2 passengers for the return journey. Behind her the hulk of a window/wall/doorless concrete building with seemingly nothing in it. 

The terminal building… Fire extinguisher depicted, famous for its efficacy against aircraft fires.

Return passengers ready to depart

These moments brought back memories of Dalanzadgad airport in Mongolia- The slight creeping concern of stepping out of the plane with no apparent infrastructure to greet you. Thankfully, some guests at one of the posh hotels were crossing the canal to their abode and we managed to hop on their boat and then could summon a water taxi into town. 

Right from the moment you touch down there’s a feeling that this place really is different and special. There aren’t many places where your airport transfer options are walking 3 miles down a jungle track, or getting a fast boat. We chose the latter…

Tortuguero’s been around for a while, and its destiny has always rested on the humble turtle- In the past for hunting them (Tortuguero means ‘turtle catcher’) but now for tourists coming in their droves to witness their hatching on the beaches around the marine park. Sadly we’d missed this time of year, but nonetheless Tortuguero is surrounded by a series of pristine rivers and canals, with wildlife in abundance.

I had imagined us spending up to 4 nights here, however once you arrive you realise that it is something of a one-trick pony, a place where tourists swoop in, see the wildlife that needs seeing, and swoop back out. It was also pretty quiet during the time that we were there. Our two evenings consisted of grabbing some food from one of the many restaurants (Once you’ve looked at the menus, you realise that actually they are all pretty much the same) and then trying to find which of the mainly empty bars might provide some form of entertainment.

Upon arrival to our accommodation, we got the standard ‘tours talk’ about how theirs are unique, their transfers are the best, nobody else does the same etc. This is completely untrue, almost all of the guest houses simply resell tours from the “Association of Guides” located by the main dock in town. And guess what? They hike the prices. 

So, we wandered along and booked a morning canal tour for the next day, starting at a fairly scary 6am. This came in at $20 rather than the $30 which the guest house fancied charging. 

Crack o’dawn on the canals

5.30am was a seriously rude awakening after a week of mooching around and not an alarm in sight. We arrived at the National Park entrance to find a suitably large bunch of tourists also waiting. This wasn’t going to be a posh tour day, it was a “Big man in canoe” day.

Taking one of the low-key canoe tours is definitely the way to go. It’s peaceful and relaxing, and the motorboats are only allowed on the big canals, so you also see more. There’s obviously a slight element of guilt in having another human paddling for you, but in fairness Cristobal didn’t seem to be struggling unduly.

Patient fishermen

As well as knowing his way around an oar, the man had an almost supernatural predilection for spotting well-hidden wildlife. Incredibly so. “Look over there!” “What?” “There..” finally spotting an obscure creature in a nearly invisible position like, indeed, this impressive green critter.

Shortly before we set off, with mercifully good timing, there was an absolute downpour, which managed to miss both our walk to the Park Headquarters and setting off on the boat. Once the sun started to appear all manner of birds came out to dry their feathers, and to fish for the day’s catch.

Sneaking around in the floating vegetation

Cristobal pushed us further and further into the small canals…all going swimmingly until we reached the downed tree. Just time then to turn around and gently paddle back towards the village, with a slight element of passenger assistance on the final long stretch back. We bid him farewell with a decent tip, for a long-anticipated and much needed breakfast.

Of course, I’d managed loads of other photos, but it’s a bit of a challenge to not end up with a blurry mess, when trying to take a photo of something moving from something moving, doubly so when your platform is a small canoe and the targets are monkeys in the trees above…

Later in the day we returned to the National Park entrance, determined to make the most of our $15 daily fee. Unfortunately in the case of this activity, we DID actually read the guidebook, and it couldn’t have been more wrong. “Boots are mandatory for the National Park walking trail, rent them from nearby shops…”

Pips: Proud of her new boots

We dutifully did so, paying our 3000 Colones (About £4) to the nice lady at the shop, after a good 15 minutes of trying to find some that fitted, or indeed a pair… Soon after re-entering the National Park we realised that this was completely un-necessary, as we were quite literally the only people wearing the bloody things. It wasn’t even remotely muddy.

It wasn’t the most scintillating of afternoons, apart from seeing some cool little lizards. I think the walking trail might be better at night or in the very early morning. Nuff said! You do gain access to the furthermost, deserted parts of the 22 mile black sandbeach though, which is somewhat of a bonus in itself. This really isn’t somewhere to swim though, the waves and obvious rip tides are absolutely savage.

There wasn’t much else to do other than hit the daiquiris again at the most engaging of the local bars (and indeed generous with the decent rum)… Dinner at a really decent local restaurant, only slightly disturbed by a bizarre badger-style animal legging it across the outside dining area. All attempts at identification failed.

Hopes of a good night’s sleep were somewhat dashed due to an utter cretin having a loud speakerphone conversation directly outside our “window” (Hole in the wall with mesh) at 5am.

Off on a boat…

So, as soon as our Tortuguero adventure had begun, it was over, and by midday we were preparing to depart… Naturally, the guest house’s transfer service was by far the most expensive option, so we again visited the guide association and secured minibus/boat combo tickets for $45 each. This too was the more interesting route where you spend longer on a boat up to Moin rather than just a quick hop to La Pavona and then hours in a bus…

Pips, unfazed by impending 90 degree hard turn

This ended up being a bit of a white-knuckle ride due to our youngish ‘captain’ who enjoyed cornering at speed… sometimes very enthusiastic speed for a virtually flat-bottomed and well loaded boat, and a river with loads of semi-submerged logs scattered around. There were plenty of turns as we wound our way up through the system of waterways, including one where he completely misjudged another boat’s wake and therefore completely drenched me. Loud verbal advice was given at this point, since I had momentarily forgotten the presence of a cutesy Flanders-style American family behind me. Whoops. Loud public swearing is a habit I need to get in check.

“What’s the man saying, Daddy?”

After a couple of hours zooming up the canals, with the constant ominous presence of the sea at various inlets (I really didn’t fancy this boat’s chances in surf) we started emerging back into civilisation, and the deepwater dock at Moin became visible just over the riverbank.

We lucked out, rather than the amusingly-named “Willy tours” minibus we were instead herded into a brand new taxi for the remaining hour and a half…the yin and yang of transfer services, most times I end up perched over the rear wheels of a small Japanese minibus, holding on for dear life and with my legs concertinaed beneath me.

A comfortable ride to our next destination… Cahuita.


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