Tortuguero National Park
Location: Northern Caribbean coast, near Nicaragua. Size: 46,816 acres (18,946 ha) of land; 129,147 acres (52,265 ha) marine habitat.
Hours: 8 a. m. to 4 p. m. daily.
Information: Telephone hotline 192, telephone fax (506) 710-2929, (506) 710-2939.
Visions of Hepburn and Bogart on the African Queen come to mind as you wind through the rivers and canals of Tortuguero National Park. Flora, fauna, and the boat's condition may differ, but the feeling is here-you, the water, vegetation, and wildlife in an intimate and solitary encounter.
By boat, the dramatic contrast of the settled with the protected lands along the water vividly portrays the difference a park can make. From the air, Tortuguero is a mass of greens from the coastal plain to the Sierpe Hills, broken only by narrow ribbons of water.
However you get there, to explore Tortuguero is to discover a crocodile along the bank, a small turtle sunning on a trunk in the water, a monkey or sloth asleep in a tree, vultures peering down from a lofty perch. Perhaps a river otter will slip into the water as the boat approaches. Water and land birds keep binoculars busy: at least 405 species live here. Watch for green macaws, herons, egrets, parrots, kingfishers, oropendolas (notice their large, hanging nests), tanagers, toucans, and bananaquits.
Tortuguero is tall forest and palm groves, lianas trailing into the water, and floating gardens of water hyacinths. The endangered West Indian manatee feeds on these and other aquatic plants. This large sea cow can be 13 feet (4 in) long and weigh about 1,300 pounds (600 kg).
Tortuguero is also beaches, important nesting sites for the sea turtles (tortugas) that gave the place its name. Green, leatherback, hawksbill, and occasionally loggerhead turtles return to these beaches every year to lay eggs. Some come in massive arribadas, others singly. Though you could see a turtle any night, there are peaks. Best time to see hawksbills is July to October; leatherbacks, February to July with a peak in April and May; and green turtles, early July into October, peaking in August. Rangers from other parks help patrol the beaches during the busiest months to thwart egg-stealers. Researchers with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation have been tagging nesting turtles since 1955. Each female green turtle comes ashore to lay eggs an average of two or three times during her season here, staying not far offshore in between. It may be up to four years before she returns to Tortuguero.
There are many crustaceans (prawns feed under the water hyacinths), eels, 52 species of freshwater fish (including the gar, considered a living fossil because species of that genus lived 90 million years ago), and sharks.
Self-guided forest nature trails take off from ranger stations at either end of the park: one at the southern Jalova station, and four trails at the Cuatro Esquinas station near the village of Tortuguero. On foot in this wet tropical forest, you may spot small, brightly colored frogs that live here. Mammals include peccaries, raccoons, kinkajous, ocelots, pacas, cougars, and skunks. The park protects more than 15 endangered mammal species, including the tapir, jaguar, giant anteater, and three species of monkeys. All six species of kingfishers are here, along with three species of toucans-more than 300 species of birds in all.
Rain gear and rubber boots come in handy. Rainfall averages about 197 inches (5,000 mm), but can reach 236 inches (6,000 mm) in parts. It is hot and humid, with an average temperature of 79'F (26'C). Elevation is from sea level to 1,020 feet (311 in).
It is possible to visit Tortuguero in a day trip, but being there overnight allows for an after-dark boat ride to see nighttime animal life on the river, a chance to see the turtles, or simply more time to savor the flavor. Camping allowed near the stations.
By boat: From Simon or from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.
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