Adopt the pura vida attitude and discover Costa Rica's attractions out of season and without the crowds. Lyn Hughes goes in search of nesting turtles, rapid rafting, and rainforest walks
Ahh! Now it’s raining,” wailed my walking guide. It was as if a tap had been turned on, as the already heavy rain increased in volume still further, blinding me as I followed the rainforest trail. Thunder reverberated around the river valley and occasional flashes of lightning were the only source of illumination in the gloom. I focused on my feet as deep puddles formed along the track, and scurried my way back down to Pacuare Lodge as quickly as possible.
It had been a day dominated by water. A three-hour drive from San José had taken me and five other guests of the lodge from Costa Rica’s capital to the rushing waters of the Pacuare River. There, several companies were taking their charges through the basics of rafting as we donned our safety gear, jumped into a bright blue raft and headed to the opposite bank for our briefing and tutorial. They soon departed and we had the river to ourselves.
“There has been a lot of rain, so the water is high,” said our rafting guide, Olger. “Perfect conditions!” We were all a little nervous as we approached the first rapid. “One-two, one-two,” Olger yelled to get us paddling in time: “Left side, back, back, back… and rest.” The rapids on this stretch of the Pacuare were Class II or III (novice to intermediate; the scale goes up to VI), but they were adrenaline-boosting enough and we celebrated the successful passage of each with a high five of paddles.
Each side of the river was cloaked in thick green forest, with occasional glimpses of camps. We pulled in at a quiet inlet and took a quick dip in the water before heading off again. Olger pointed out a cable contraption across the river: “That is for local, indigenous people to cross the water. They get into the basket and it takes them and their goods across.” Further on was another, similar contraption. “This one is used by the lodge. If someone can’t arrive by raft then they are brought by car and are winched across here.”
In truth, I had been expecting rain on this trip. I was visiting Costa Rica in late September, supposedly out of season. Numerous websites advised that my intended visit was at the very worst time of year and that I would have unremitting rain. However, when I asked a tour operator friend for their opinion, she reassured me: “Hey, you’re going to the rainforest – there will always be some rain!”
In fact, Costa Rica has a range of weather patterns depending on a number of factors: the Caribbean coast may be dry even when the Pacific coast is wet. For me, this meant a golden opportunity to see the country’s wild reaches away from the crowds.
We arrived all too soon at Pacuare Lodge, exhilarated and wishing we could carry along the river a little longer. But this luxurious eco-lodge offers much more in the way of activities, including a zip-line experience, rainforest hikes, canyoning and visits to indigenous communities. Or, if you need to relax and have a willing partner, the spa also offers, ahem, an organic chocolate massage.
The lodge’s environmental credentials are pretty impeccable, too. Founded in 1995, it now owns 3.4 sq km of land. Howler monkeys have been reintroduced here and a jaguar research programme has also been started. The buildings are even constructed from naturally fallen wood, while electricity use is kept to a minimum.
Naturalist guide, Luis, was born here. “Thirty years ago, this was grass used for cattle,” he said, gesturing to thick native bush bordering the trail we were taking. “My boss bought it and planted trees.” I exclaimed surprise at how quickly it had regrown. Luis shrugged philosophically: “We have everything here that the trees need to grow quickly: sun and rain, rain and sun.”
Back at the lodge, he showed me camera-trap footage from the jaguar research programme that they support. Three jaguars have been recorded, plus at least two black panthers, the name commonly given to black jaguars. These big cats are so secretive that they’re rarely seen in the flesh, although Luis had come face to face with a black panther once. He also revealed that pumas are very common here.
“I see the tracks in the sand along the river, just under the rooms, and out on the trails,” he confirmed.
The camera-trap footage had also recorded a whole array of other rainforest creatures: armadillo, tapir, jaguarundi, agouti and ocelot. But my first close encounter with the local wildlife caught me completely by surprise. Supping a glass of wine in the candlelit bar that evening, a movement caught my eye.
“What’s that?” asked a puzzled guest. “Is it a cat?” No, it was a kinkajou, a furry rainforest critter that looks like a cross between a mongoose, a cat and a monkey. It casually sauntered through the bar before heading down the beams and into the restaurant area, leaving me mulling over possible ‘A kinkajou walks into a bar...’ jokes.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised at nature interrupting my evening. Costa Rica has built a reputation for its environmental sustainability, its wildlife experiences and its natural wonders. It has mountains and volcanoes, rainforest and cloud forest, and is lapped by two different oceans. With a dozen different microclimates and a range of habitats, it is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, counting at least 205 species of mammal, around 900 birds and 1,500 butterflies.
After a couple of nights at Pacuare, my skin was dewy soft and I realised that I felt energised, possibly due to all the oxygen from the trees. The Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, constantly use the phrase ‘pura vida’, which literally translates as ‘pure life’. It struck me that this was just what I was feeling.
It was all good preparation for my next stop, which promised an even closer brush with nature. Not only was this the driest time of year at Tortuguero – another tick for off-season travel – but the advantage of September was that green turtles would be nesting on its beach.
But first I had to get there. The Pacuare River was running too high and too fast to raft out, so I took the hanging gondola across the river, where guide-driver Juve was waiting for me. He filled me in on the volcanic activity that had been taking place in the previous few days. “There’s a lot of ash in San Josè,” he said. And some flights have had to be cancelled.” I asked which volcano was responsible. “It’s from Turrialba, over there.” Looking across bucolic rural scenes to the volcano dominating the horizon, it dawned on me that what I had thought was cloud was actually a plume of ash.
Turning off the highway, unpaved roads took us through farmland and crops, and then banana plantations and packing plants. Blue bags covered the bunches of bananas as protection against fertiliser. Instead of a level crossing, we had to pull up at a banana crossing, as a worker pulled a dozen or so of the huge bunches across on a pulley system attached to his belt.
Tortuguero can only be accessed by water, so at the port of Caño Blanco we transferred to a motor launch filled with people wanting to experience one of Costa Rica’s most unique national parks.
Situated on the north Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is a watery paradise for nature lovers, with a network of canals bisecting the rainforest here, as well as a river and coastline. Even the area’s name means ‘Land of the Turtles’, and for good reason – three species of turtle nest on its 35km of beach. Indeed, it is the second-largest nesting population of green turtles in the world, and plenty of other wildlife calls the forest, canals and coast home.
Tortuguero village is situated on a car-free sandbar island, and has one narrow main street of shops, cafés and small businesses, mostly connected to tourism. Wandering through on a sultry afternoon, there was scarcely anyone around to buy the ‘pura vida’ T-shirts; the only sign of life was the occasional dog snoozing in the shade. However, down on the beach a group of schoolkids of all different ages were beating out popular chart hits on drums.
My first call was to the visitor centre and museum operated by the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), an organisation that was founded in 1959 to protect the turtles in Tortuguero, but it has grown considerably since those early days and now works with and advises with international programmes and governments. Coordinator Mary Duncan put on a 20-minute video for the handful of visitors, and then reappeared to take any questions, of which there were dozens.
“This is one of the most important marine conservation projects in the world. There has been a 500% increase in nests,” she stressed. In 2016 there were more than 35,000 turtle nests along the beach. While jaguars took some of the turtles and they and a host of other predators took eggs and hatchlings, huge numbers will have successfully made it to the sea. Indeed, 80% of the green turtle eggs hatched.
I was surprised to hear that, unlike some places in the world where well-meaning people carry the baby turtles to the sea, here the researchers let the hatchlings make their own way. Mary explained that research has shown that the hatchlings benefit from the exercise before they reach the ocean, and also that the beach is imprinted on the turtles for them to come back to when they are mature. “Of course there are volunteers and researchers on the beach when many of the nests hatch, and so the human presence keeps many of the predators away,” she confirmed.
The exception to giving a helping hand is with any hawksbill turtles that nest here. These critically endangered creatures don’t seem to be the smartest, as they often lay their eggs within the high tide area, and so they get washed away. If there is a hawksbill, the researchers stay with it to ensure no predation, and may move the eggs if they feel it absolutely necessary. They are also careful to erase the turtle tracks afterwards, so that humans and animals won’t find the nest.
Mary explained that it was approaching the end of the season for the green turtles, but there was still a good chance of seeing them. Visitors are not allowed on the beach at night without a guide, and so I booked a trip through the lodge I was staying in. Sure enough, at 9.15pm Miguel was waiting in a boat for me and another family. A short trip took us across the lagoon to a dark spot on the same island as the village but well away from any lodges or lights.
“The tracker has found some turtles close by... quick!” Miguel hissed quietly but urgently. We crossed a narrow spit of land to the beach, at which point we turned off our flashlights. We hadn’t gone far, eyes trying to adjust to the dark, when Miguel paused, pointing out telltale tracks in the sand: “They look like a tractor has driven up, but it’s actually a turtle.”
We followed the tracks up the beach, our anticipation rising. As we stopped and quietly crouched, Miguel turned on a ‘turtle safe’ red light and shone it onto the huge rear end of a green turtle releasing eggs the size and shape of moist ping-pong balls into a deep hole. With an awestruck reverence, we watched quietly for a bit and then moved a few yards to where another turtle was laying her eggs.
Miguel explained that the second one seemed smaller and younger. We then moved back from both for a few minutes before returning to the first to check on her progress. So it went on, with each turtle in turn finishing the laying and then covering the eggs with sand. This took a while, as each one paused to recover from its exertions. While the younger turtle initially seemed to be faster and stronger, experience eventually won, with the older mama the first to turn towards the sea and lumber her way back down the beach excruciatingly slowly. We all had a lump in our throats as she finally entered the water and gradually disappeared from view.
I was still on a high early the next morning when I took a boat trip on the canals. We were in a rather noisy launch and I wondered if we were going to see much in the way of wildlife, but I needn’t have feared. We soon took diversions into quiet channels and various nooks and crannies, the boatman turning the engine off whenever his keen eyes spotted anything. It was like being in a BBC wildlife documentary as he pointed to long-nosed bats camouflaged on a tree trunk, huge iguanas lounging on tree branches, and a caiman cunningly disguised as a log. Sloths, howler monkeys and spider monkeys gazed on us from high in the canopy, along with both green macaws and the rarely seen scarlet variety. Closer to eye level, extraordinary looking green basilisk lizards were basking on the lower branches of trees, a prehistoric fin-like crest along their backs.
If this seemed like a nature theme park, my final stop in Costa Rica made me aware of the power of nature in a different way. I spent my last full day near Mount Arenal, the iconic volcano with a seemingly perfect cone. The peak was initially covered in cloud but that gradually cleared, revealing its distinctive shape. Although at first glance it looks symmetrical, peer closer and you can see another crater on its western flank, the result of a dramatic eruption in 1968 when the previously dormant volcano sprang to life. Since 2010 it has been dormant again, but locals still worry about it.
I took a sky tram up through the nearby cloud forest and then walked back down, crossing several ‘hanging’ suspension bridges along the way.
“You’ll be ready to relax your limbs,” said my guide. “We have the perfect activity for that this evening.”
Tabacón Thermal Resort has natural thermal springs running through its grounds, and has turned these into a series of interconnecting pools, some with waterfalls. I must admit to feeling sceptical about it when I arrived, fearing a ‘cheesy’ experience. But, as dusk fell, I escaped the busy first pool and headed up through foliage-fringed paths until I found a small pool with no one else in it and impressive views gazing out towards the huge dark outline of the Arenal volcano.
The water was like a warm bath, and steam rose off it dramatically. A storm was approaching, and as I floated in the soothing warmth, thunder rumbled behind Arenal, the sky occasionally lit up by a sheet of lightning. Pura vida, I thought. Yes, definitely pura vida.
The author travelled courtesy of the Costa Rica Tourist Board and stayed in Pacuare Lodge; Pachira Lodge, Tortuguero; Selva Verde Lodge, Sarapiqui; Hotel Montana de Fuego, La Fortuna de San Carlos.
The award-winning ecolodge Pacuare Lodge has excellent food and service, and is a great place for honeymoons or special occasions. It offers rafting, canyoning, zip-lining and guided hiking. A three-day package includes transport from San Jose, rafting in and/or out and all meals.
The nearby Rios Tropicales Lodge again has strong eco-credentials, and has simpler buffet-style food, and a range of accommodation including cheaper bunk-bed stays.
In Sarapiqui, Selva Verde Lodge was one of the pioneer ecolodges. Rooms are basic and rather tired, but it has a great range of activities, superb birdwatching, good naturalist guides and a fine restaurant.
A range of accommodation lines Tortuguero’s canals, most offering packages that include transport from San Jose. Tortuga Lodge is perhaps the best. Pachira Lodge is simpler but friendly, and used by tour groups. Its sister lodge Evergreen is the same price, set in forest, and has both kayaks (free to use) and a zip wire.
Check out Costa Rica's green season highlights here.
Wear black or dark clothing – bright colours can scare turtles off. Avoid perfume or strong odours. No cameras or video-recording equipment are allowed. No lights are allowed on the beach; you can take a torch (or use the one on your phone) for walking to or from the beach, but you then have to keep it off. As you are walking on the beach in the dark, there may be stones or driftwood underfoot, so it may be best to wear closed shoes rather than sandals.
For further information on the STC (Sea Turtle Conservancy), be sure to visit conserveturtles.org. The organisation also runs an eco-volunteer programme, with one-, two- or three-week options.