If you want to see wildlife, Costa Rica is the place to go, and within Costa Rica one of the best places to see a huge variety of species is the Tortuguero National Park, where the Pachira Lodge and La Baula Lodge are a great place to start. We stayed at Pachira lodge, but the two are actually connected by one of the raised walkways which lace both lodges. You need to keep your eyes and ears peeled at all times in these places as you will see animals while walking around the lodge (especially at night) and even more during the various tours which they offer.
Tortuguero Village & Beach
One of the first places most people visit in the area (especially if not staying for the night) is Tortuguero village as it is the only place for miles where you can get supplies and visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy. This is a great stop for getting some information about the local sea turtles and I would highly recommend also picking up one of their laminated species identification sheets from the gift shop – they are easy to read and come in VERY handy for the rest of your trip.
However its a great place to start your wildlife watching as well because Tortuguero village is absolutely buzzing with butterflies and beautiful birds just about every where (you can also see some birds crossing the river and hanging out in the trees of the lodge, including toucans, parrots and various wading birds). Furthermore west of the village along the beach we were accompanied by our guide to see the sea turtles in the evening. Sadly there are lots of places where it is obvious that the eggs have been dug up by either people or local dogs but if you’re lucky enough and don’t disturb them you would have the chance of seeing one of the most magical sights in the animal kingdom – baby turtles taking their first steps towards the ocean. Beware that these turtles and the beach are protected so just come here to watch – don’t disturb the little guys.
As an added bonus while you walk along the beach you might strike it really lucky and see some of those truly unmistakable pelicans flying low over the coast.
Around the Lodge
There are a couple of different species such as various insects (from large beetles and ants through to orb weaver and crab spiders) which you can see during the day around the lodge, but there are two particular times during which you will have the best chances of seeing the widest variety of animals. The first is during the night, so when you’re going back and forth between your room and the bar or just want to have a wander around make sure you take your torch with you and shine it in to the trees, bushes and ponds. You will find a variety of lizards (such as iguanas – although you will see most of the bigger ones during the day as well as runners, anoles and geckos), frogs and crabs during the night, as well as the odd snake if you look hard enough. If you look just before it gets dark you will also stand a chance of seeing some stick insects venturing off their leaves (where they are of course incredibly difficult to see) and on to the wooden hand rails which line the raised walk ways.
The second time to see animals whilst still within the property of the lodge is first thing in the morning just as it starts to get light… And to be honest you’ll be hard pressed to miss them because the one species which every one really wants to see at the lodge is also the local alarm clock. Just as it starts to get light, the black howler monkeys wake up and let everyone else know that they are about, and you don’t want to sleep through their morning trek through the canopy above the lodge.
The monkey treat however doesn’t stop there… Once you have seen the howlers get some breakfast and then look out for another primate species which gets up a little bit later – the spider monkey! We saw a mum and her baby making their way through the canopy just before our morning river tour. It was absolutely spectacular to see and I learned a bit about this species which I was not earlier aware of. When going from one tree to another (which was a little further away) the mum spanned between the branches with her front legs and her tail to make the worlds most adorable bridge for her little one. Be careful though and don’t look up for too long with your mouth open!
Along the River
You can’t get around Tortuguero by car or bike, and you’d struggle on foot, so the best way to do anything (especially seeing wildlife) is by boat, and all of the lodges have plenty of guided tours through the intertwined rivers, giving you the best chance of seeing the amazing beauty which the wildlife of Costa Rica has on offer. To make sure that you don’t miss anything look everywhere:
In the river itself
You won’t see much in the way of fish however one thing you will see plenty of is crocodiles. Firstly on the way to and from Tortuguero you should see plenty of the larger american crocodiles, whilst inside the national park you will have a much better chance of seeing the much smaller but I would say also cuter caiman.
On the shore
There’s not a huge amount to see on the shores of the rivers but once again there will likely be both types of crocodile and one very special inhabitant of the forest floor (or at least the most likely place you will see them as they blend in so well in the trees) is the plumed basilisk – known locally as the jesus christ lizard. The reason why they are called jesus christ lizard is that they have a flange of scales along both sides of each toe which allows them to run across water – and if you see this you’re really lucky as it’s a great sight to see! Those back legs move so fast it almost looks like they are going like wheels on a cartoon character.
Another species which lives in the water but is much easier to see when it is basking on the shore and on dead trees just above the water line are the various fresh water turtles which call these rivers home.
In the Trees
This is where most of the action is! But if you really want to see exactly what is going on you are best off coming with a guide, especially if you’re not that familiar with wildlife spotting. I for one know what I am looking for and have a fair bit of experience, especially when it comes to reptiles, as it is with these that I make a living… However even I couldn’t spot one very long (but incredibly skinny) green snake which was slithering through the trees. It was about 10 meters away and amongst a group of capuchins, and it was these guys who alerted our guide to seeing it… Some times it is the more easily recognisable animals which can point you in the right direction to see everything else which Tortuguero has to offer!
This leads us on to one of the most beautiful animals in the whole of Costa Rica – the little guys who alerted us to the snake. The white faced capuchin is one of the most colourful of the capuchin monkeys and they really are an absolutely stunning mammal to see in the wild! However you can also see more of those black howler monkeys along the river – if you want to see them just follow the noise and the smell!
At Other Lodges
You don’t even need to leave your boat and walk around the lodges. Many of them have docks for their boat tours, which are roofed and this is a great place to spot of the smallest mammals which Tortuguero has to offer – keep your eyes peeled for bats!