It was a bit of a mad dash from Galapagos Islands to Costa Rica. With a little more than 3 weeks left in Latin America, we decided on our 2 top countries to visit: Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The travel to get to the Caribbean coast consisted of 3 flights via Quito, Bogota and Panama and an overnight bus across the border.
It wasn’t all straight forward travel as missing documents delayed us in Bogota for an extra night, but that gave us the opportunity to check out an interactive exhibition about Van Gogh, his life and of course his art.
Once in Panama, we had a few hours to kill before the night bus and used the time to visit the Panama canal. We met a couple on the way and enjoyed their company whilst we awaited the arrival of the large container boats into the Miraflores docks. Sandra was expecting something a little more dramatic (like a water slide) but was disappointed with the slow progress as the ships approached the docks and once the ship was in place, it dropped down pretty quickly. The engineering behind it is impressive, as are the ships that use the canal.
A relative easy bus ride delivered us to a small town in the north east of Panama and from there a quick shuttle ride across the border into Costa Rica. In the early afternoon we finally arrive to the town of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast.
The tropical heat was one of the first things that impressed upon us. After the cold temperatures of South America and the warm climate of the Galapagos, it was great to shed our winter clothes.
Establishing ourselves, we enjoyed a bit of this new age hippy town, seeking out more traditional restaurants that aren’t necessarily targeting the health conscious traveller. With the rain gathering strength, we decided on a siesta which continued while the intensity of the rain increased.
The rain continued into the next day and dampened our beach time so we used the opportunity to move lodgings and get a bit closer to the jungle. At our guesthouse, we could hear hundreds of insects and see birds and the occasional howler monkey troop throughout the days.
With a clear weather window, we hired bicycles and rode to the smaller town of Manzanillo. This town is surrounded by the beach and national park and makes for a great day trip. We hiked into the national park on a sloth finding mission. Using the expertise of another group’s guide, we spotted 2 sloths quickly. They blend in to the canopy easily and if one of them wasn’t moving, we might have missed it.
We continued the walk along the coastal trail and located a quatsi (same animal we saw in Iguazu falls and the Pantanal) and a solo mother monkey. On the beach, we enjoyed the warm Caribbean waters and some sun before pedalling back home. High above us, troops of spider and howler monkeys were on the move for the evening and regarded us quickly before moving on.
In the cooler hours of the morning we again used the clear weather to get a good look at the native species of Costa Rica. This time we visited the Jaguar Rescue Centre. Here animals that have been injured, rescued or found are rehabilitated and ultimately released back into the wild.
It’s a popular activity and being northern hemisphere school holidays, that place was very busy. Still they distributed guides to smaller groups and we were given a detailed but brief tour of the facility. We could tell they were not struggling with funding with clean, spacious and well maintained enclosures for all their animals. There was also a large amount of volunteers helping out around the centre.
It was the sloths and monkeys that provided most of the entertainment but there were plenty of other animals including many different snakes, caimans, crocodiles, frogs, birds and cats. As we walked through the centre, our guide gave us good information about the origins of the centre as well as the different animals and their habitat and how they come to be part of the centre’s story.
It was the younger sloths that we were intrigued by. Having an opportunity to see them up close and appreciate their uniqueness. Some baby monkeys were being cared for and we both suddenly were missing the playfulness of Horace and Hamish from Twala Trust animal sanctuary in Zimbabwe.
It was a good experience and we loved what the centre was doing and the fact that it could do all this good work without major funding issues, but we also felt like a number being churned through the machine.
On the way home, a group of people were interested in a wild sloth who was struggling to climb a concrete electricity pol. One on looker took the decision to move this interesting creature to a tree and it enjoyed the freedom from the crowds as it slowly ascended to the safer canopy.
We enjoyed discovering the Caribbean side of the Costa Rican coast and the flora and fauna on offer. Our time wasn’t over on the east side of the country as we decided to venture north to the small isolated town of Tortuguero. 3 public buses and a boat ride later, we were deposited on this long island that is bordered by the brackish canals on the west and the Caribbean sea on the right.
It is for the jungle that most people come to this destination, where monkeys, sloths, sharks and reptiles are so often spotted. But what Tortuguero is really famous for, is the nesting turtles that come to shore during the middle of the year and also the babies that hatch a few months later. As it was nesting season, we decided to take the opportunity to see Pachamama (mother nature) at her finest.
After settling into the small town feel (there are no cars in town), we sorted our tours and filled our bellies with the traditional casado (set meal on meat or fish, rice, beans and a salad). That night, we drifted to sleep listening to the waves crash against the shore.
We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning for a canoe tour amongst the dense jungle. Spread across two boats, our guide and his son were very knowledgeable about local flora, fauna and traditions. When we weren’t spotting animals, he would describe how plants were used as shampoo or as cure-alls.
Being in the canoe allowed us to get into some smaller, shallower inlets and we could see some nesting birds as well as birds out looking for breakfast. High in an elbow of a tree, a sloth slept, not caring for all the noise (coming mainly from our guide) and the attention it received.
Beneath the tranquil mammal, an iguana clung onto the dense jungle, sunning itself and watching for the hunters that soared overhead. Howler monkeys could be heard but not seen. Our guide managed to locate a small lizard which we were allowed to examine from close and he also found a red poisonous dart frog and using a leaf we could get a better look at this colourful yet deadly reptile.
We were also very lucky to have a river otter slip past us and take a short break on an exposed log. Looking as much at home on land as in the water, we enjoyed watching this creature until it slipped away.
We spent the remainder of the morning sleeping under a palm tree on the beach. Having sufficiently recovered from the early start, we walked a small jungle trail that leads into the national park. We didn’t see many animals apart from spiders, a sloth and a small rodent but it was still nice to stretch our legs.
Late that night, we teamed up again with another friend we had met on the journey to Tortuguero and took our chances with a guide in seeing a green turtle arrive on shore to lay her eggs. These beautiful creatures swim thousands of kilometres to then be harassed by males who take up to 12 hours to mate with them. 2 weeks after they haul themselves onto the beach to lay their eggs.
We were lucky this time as we only had to wait a few minutes before we were ushered to a stagging area. It was here we came across a huge green sea turtle already in the process of depositing her 100 eggs into a deep hole. She was over 1.5 metres in length and had an estimated weight of about 250 kilograms.
Seeing her shudder, squeeze and push her way through delivering 100 ping pong sized eggs was very impressive. We felt a little uncomfortable at the proximity in which we could view this amazing occurrence, but we liked the way the tour was managed. With 3 groups rotating and keeping a distance when we weren’t up close and personal.
We all sat back as she camouflaged her nest and then we had front row seats as she, visibly exhausted, clambered out of the nest and headed to the respite of the open sea. Finally seeing her slip into the darkness we gave our thanks to her and headed home grateful in being given an opportunity to witness this natural wonder.
While our time on the Caribbean coast was short, we enjoyed the few days we spent here.
Next Stop…..Playa Del Coco on the Pacific Coast.