Slicing through the canals, the river spray rocketing around our vessel, we were feeling energized, carefree, in complete control of these waterways. This is why we’d come to Costa Rica. We were experiencing the oft-mentioned spirit of pura vida in its purest form.
And then, with little warning to the untrained ear, our boat’s motor sputtered and died. Did I mention that caimans prowl these canals?
The temporary pit stop — punctuated by our fumbling attempts to eavesdrop on the men trying to restart the boat — occurred at the midpoint of our journey along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, and it came to symbolize our shoreline experience in this eco-centric country. Life moved a little more slowly than expected, and maybe some aspects were a bit difficult to understand, but the entire adventure was undeniably exhilarating.
Costa Rica’s eastern coast, which provides a welcome respite from the hustle of the capital San Jose and the megaresorts lining the Pacific, is a boon to the independent traveler. The shoreline, stretching 132 miles between Nicaragua on the north to Panama on the south, remains largely unspoiled, with a personality that demands to be explored one small, dusty (or muddy, depending on the season) community at a time.
An early-morning, four-hour bus ride from San Jose delivered us to backpacker’s haven Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, about 25 miles north of the Panamanian border and the start of our coastal journey.
Puerto Viejo has an eclectic, hippie-ish feel. Tie-dye seems the rule rather than the exception in this laidback little town. Backpackers descend upon tented-and-hammocked campsites. The surf culture is especially strong: The famed Salsa Brava break draws wave-worshippers from around the globe. We moseyed to the beach in the late afternoon to observe many rows of bronzed boarders roll — sometimes not so gently — into shore.
While the town is small and quite easy to navigate on foot, visitors should obtain a map, as there are no street names; addresses are often rudimentary directions describing the relation of one place to another.
Our lodging, Cabinas Casa Verde, included a pool primed for stargazing and a hammock on our porch, from which we admired the lush foliage growing on the grounds, the candy-colored mosaic trails and dozens of electric-blue sand crabs, which scuttled into hiding as we padded past.
If surfing, swimming and hammocking aren’t enough to keep you occupied, Puerto Viejo offers plenty of outdoors activities. Visitors can rent bikes and ride toward the Panamanian border. The Finca La Isla Botanical Garden offers all manner of flora and fauna. A butterfly garden southeast of town cultivates dozens of species. Tree-studded beaches are perhaps the biggest attraction, providing miles to weave through and explore on foot.
Given Puerto Viejo’s multicultural population, its food options were welcomingly diverse. Be sure to sidle up to a “soda,” the term for a casual Costa Rican restaurant, serving traditional specials of the day. At one, breakfast was gallo pinto, a traditional rice-and-bean dish scrambled with eggs. On the side, we were entertained (and a bit baffled) by a wandering tableside magician whom we suspect was hoping to sell some herbal accompaniment to our meal. Lunch was the classic Costa Rican casado, a marriage of chicken, beef or fish with rice, beans, salad and plantains.
For something different, dinner was at Chile Rojo, an Asian-fusion spot. The owner, Andrew Bacon, is the son of British parents who was born in Kenya, lived in Canada, got tired of the cold and moved down to Costa Rica. At some point, he studied cooking in Thailand for six months, and opened Chile Rojo because “I wanted something different than rice and beans and pizza,” he said.
Across the road from Chile Rojo was an Internet café, where we were amused to observe a 20-something update his Facebook status indicating he was “in the jungle.” Puerto Viejo isn’t the jungle, but it offers some of the off-the-beaten-path exoticism and restorative space without the artifices of many Latin American beach towns.
From Puerto Viejo, a bumpy bus ride took us north to the port city of Limon; there, we split a cab ride with other travelers to the docks at Moin, and purchased tickets to travel up the canals to the isthmus of Tortuguero. There are no roads into or out of the region; the narrow strip of land must be accessed either by plane or by boat, either from Limon, as we did, or near Cariari, where we alighted upon our departure.
One three-hour, slightly harrowing boat ride later (yes, after a few minutes of aimless floating, our “captains” got the boat’s engine working again), we made our Tortuguero approach. We docked under the glow of a luminous sunset and the watchful gaze of gigantic, whimsical parrot-shaped statues.
Our simple, dockside bed and breakfast, Casa Marbella, is owned by Daryl Loth, who was born in England, raised in Canada and lived in Europe and Africa before settling in Tortuguero and marrying “a local girl.” He came to the area initially to work at the biological station run by the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation, and was eventually asked to manage a lodge in the area. In 2000, he and his wife turned their thatched-roof home into an inn. A local activist, he’s helped raise funds toward the construction of schools in the village.
Loth is also a nature guide who offers boat tours of Tortuguero National Park. Our 5:30 a.m. wake-up was softened by the coffee brewing on the back porch, the bracing morning air and the sunrise peeking over the treetops as we boarded our small barge with two other couples and launched into the canals. This, in actuality, was being “in the jungle.”
“You have to use all of your senses to find animals,” Loth explained, perched atop the back of the motorized boat, his eyes scanning the rainforest canopy for anything that looked out of place. “It’s not a zoo, where you can look at a sign and say, ‘Oh, a howler monkey.’ ”
Soon, we spied an elegant, almost adult-sized yellow-crowned night heron crouched on a branch. As he quietly maneuvered the boat closer, Loth explained that the heron’s broad beak and red, telescopic eyes allow it to catch fish at night.
Loth’s detailed knowledge of the region’s native inhabitants revealed itself in sightings and explanations of howler, spider and white-faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, caimans, iguanas, a heron “toasting its wings” in the sun, several other species of birds and more. His enthusiasm was infectious as he shared stories about the animals’ migration patterns, hunting habits and history in the region. I came away from the tour with a strong appreciation for the importance of preserving the park — and some parrot poop on my shorts as an inescapable souvenir.
Daytime was spent wandering Tortuguero’s dirt pathways, gazing at the tumultuous waves crashing in from the ocean, and visiting the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s small research museum.
Tortuguero also boasted the best Costa Rican food we consumed on our trip. At Miss Junie’s, it was chicken, fish, coconut rice and yuca, served in a bright orange dining room whose early customers reportedly included Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Loth also pointed us toward Miss Miriam’s, a somewhat ramshackle little structure, which offered the meal of the trip: fresh chicken and fish surrounded by rice and beans, cabbage, cucumber slivers and other accoutrements. At the end of our dinner, we were presented not with a traditional paper check, but a calculator screen indicating the meager number of colónes owed.
There was one more must-do in Tortuguero: an up-close-and-personal with the region’s famous namesakes. You must join a tour to see the giant sea turtles nesting at night. Around 9 p.m., a guide led our small group to the dark shores. It wasn’t long before we spied the smooth, hulking carapaces lumbering toward shore, dragging their mammoth bodies up the beach to fulfill their reproductive mission.
We got much closer to the turtles than I had anticipated. Our guide explained that sea turtles enter something of a trance when laying their eggs, although humans still must be careful not to disturb them. From our viewing spot, we witnessed a mother dropping her eggs into a burrowed hole, and had a front-row seat for when she flippered sand back over her nest — close enough, in fact, to receive a face full of dirt.
One after another, the turtles then lumbered back out to sea. The hatchlings would emerge in about 60 days. Those that survive head out to sea themselves, some eventually returning to these same sands to lay their own eggs.
The next morning, after pancakes on Casa Marbella’s back deck overlooking the canal, we left Tortuguero to begin our journey back to San Jose. No motors stalled this time — although the juncture where we were asked to switch boats, luggage and all, in the middle of the canal was a tad discomforting. It was the proper bookend to our Tortuguero adventure.
And, just like those majestic sea turtles, we intend to find our way back to these peaceful Caribbean shores again.