Despite its isolation – 254km from San José by road and water – PARQUE NACIONAL TORTUGUERO is among the most visited national parks in Costa Rica. Tortuguero means turtle-catcher in Spanish, and turtle-catchers have long flourished in this area, one of the most important nesting sites in the world for the green sea turtle, one of only eight species of marine turtle. Along with the hawksbill turtle, the green sea turtle lays its eggs here between July and October.
First established as a protective zone in the 1960s, Tortuguero officially became a national park in 1975. It encompasses 190 square kilometres of protected land, including not only the beach on which the turtles nest, but also the surrounding impenetrable tropical rainforest, coastal mangrove swamps and lagoons, and canals and waterways. Except during the comparatively dry months of February, March, September and October the park is fairly wet, receiving over 3500mm of rain a year. This soggy environment hosts a wide abundance of wildlife – fifty kinds of fish, numerous birds, including the endangered green parrot and the vulture, and about 160 mammals, some under the threat of extinction. Due to the waterborne nature of most transport and the impenetrability of the ground cover, it’s difficult to spot them, but howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys lurk behind the undergrowth. The park is also home to the fishing bulldog bat, which fishes by sonar, and a variety of large rodents, including the window rat, whose internal organs you can see through its transparent skin. Jaguars used to thrive here, but are slowly being driven out by the encroaching banana plantations at the western end of the park; you may also spot the West Indian manatee, or sea cow, swimming underwater. It’s the turtles, however, that draw all the visitors. The sight of the gentle beasts tumbling ashore and shimmying their way up the beach to deposit their heavy load before limping back, spent, into the dark phosphorescent waves can’t fail to move.
As elsewhere in Costa Rica, logging, economic opportunism and fruit plantations have affected the parkland. Sometimes advertised by package tour brochures as a “Jungle Cruise” along “Central America’s Amazon”, the journey to Tortuguero is indeed Amazonian, taking you past tracts of deforestation and lands cleared for cattle – all outside the park’s official boundaries but, together with the banana plantations, disturbingly close to its western fringes.