Exploring places off the beaten path is one of my favorite things about traveling. But planning a family vacation with a tour operator makes that a little difficult. It’s hard for a destination to have that undiscovered, almost exotic allure when you’re walking in a group of 30 or more. Hard, but not impossible.
When we went on our family trip to China, Guilin amazed us all. It was the part of the tour that lead us to the Li River, in other words, tourist central, but we still found a way to pleasantly get lost in the city streets and enjoy it like a local. I’m often asked about my favorites places to visit, and Guilin always makes the list. My list just got longer.
Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero, Costa Rica, population 1200, is in the middle of nowhere – rainforest nowhere. A visit there is like a trip to the jungle. My 12-year-old daughter is convinced the folks that created the Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World, visited Tortuguero. Just don’t let the kids reach out toward the crocodiles on the real deal.
On some Costa Rica tours, Tortuguero is an “add on” option. It’s known mostly for turtles, but since we weren’t going during nesting season, I honestly didn’t pay much attention to the place. (Big mistake on my part!) When I selected my family’s tour provider, luck was kind as Tortuguero was part of itinerary. Luck goes along way when you travel.
Getting to Tortuguero
Tortuguero has a small airport, but many visitors arrive by boat. And I’m not talking about a relaxing little jungle cruise down the river kind of boat ride. Think an hour and a half in a boat propelled by not one, but two 175 horse power Suzuki outboard motors. You could have a lot of fun waterskiing off the back if it weren’t for the crocodiles. Keep your camera out and ready.
On your way to Tortuguero you’ll most likely speed through parts of the Tortuguero National Park. Just about everything I envisioned about the Costa Rica rainforest, I found in Tortuguero. And I got a great first taste on the ride into the lodge. Horses and cows, give way to butterflies and birds leaving plenty of room for otters, turtles, crocodiles and sloths. A word to the wise, if you sit toward the back of the boat be prepared to get wet!
“The Land of the Turtle” is a place where locals used to make their living killing and selling the green turtles that flock to the black, sandy beaches to nest. In 1959 the Sea Turtle Conservancy was created and thanks to years of research and education, many locals now make their living protecting the gentle creatures. The switch is paying off. Some 50,000 tourists visit Tortuguero every year to see nesting turtles and visit the area’s tropical rainforests.
Activities in Tortuguero
There are no cars in Tortuguero. There are no roads, just rivers. Folks float, walk and ride their bikes. Life is different. It’s downtown is comprised a stretch 3-4 blocks long dotted with small restaurants and shops. There was plenty of typical tourist fare, but for a town of just 1200, I was impressed with the selection of local art and food. My girls found 3 or 4 places that offered pizza on the menu.
My 10-year-old came down with an annoying cough during our stay. Between the three small markets in town, we were able to find some medicine that helped us all sleep better at night. It may be the middle of no-where, but it’s still somewhere.
Tortuguero has a public school. If it’s in session, stop by for a visit. Teachers and students have no problem with you sticking your head in a classroom to check things out. If you’re on a time crunch you can see Tortuguero in half an hour, if you want to explore and have something to eat, give yourself a couple hours to explore and shop. Kids aren’t typically thrilled about shopping, but my daughters enjoyed talking to the local glass artist and thought the butterflies made out of hundreds of beads were pretty cool.
Most of your time will and should be spent on the water. Coat the kids with sunscreen and bug spray and take a tour of Tortuguero National Park. You won’t be disappointed. It’s like the animals are waiting patiently for your arrival.
Just minutes after pushing off the dock, a crocodile got everyone’s attention. But he had competition. Howler and spider monkeys were staging a noisy show in the treetops. A three toed sloth showed off his quiet, cuddly koala-like side. Then there were the turtles and endless varieties of birds. There was something showing off at every bend in the river.
Our naturalist also taught us about the amazing variety of vegetation and at the end of the tour, during a walk on the beach, showed off his unique talent to turn a couple palm fronds into a grasshopper. Getting that grasshopper home safely was a trip priority. Thank goodness for cardboard and duct tape!
Packing Tips for Costa Rica
Brush up on packing light with the family, because chances are your boat will limit your luggage. Plan on being allowed to bring a typical plane carry-on size bag. Ditch any fancy duds. You’re spending a few nights in the jungle, and the three-toed sloths don’t care what you look like.
Your packing list should include shorts, t-shirts, a swim suit (for the pool not the river), hat, lightweight jacket, camera with extra batteries, bug spray, plenty of sunscreen and a raincoat or poncho or some sort. A naturalist told me when we arrived, “in Tortuguero we have a rainy season and a pouring rain season.” In other words, keep your raincoat handy at all times.
Where to Stay: Laguna Lodge
This isn’t the type of adventure I’d take with young kids. It’s do-able, but definitely not easy. Think 8 and up. We stayed at the Laguna Lodge. Expect to be excited from the moment you lay eyes on it from the water. The seashell-esque rooftop of the reception area had my girls practically squealing with excitement. The race was on to see who could get off first. Grandma won!
It’s not the Ritz, and it shouldn’t try to be. Laguna Lodge offers comfortable, rustic rooms in an incredible jungle setting. The rooms are simple but thoughtful. Our room had three beds, a queen and two twins, ensuring a better night’s sleep for all!
A hard-working ceiling fan takes the place of air-conditioning, but my family didn’t miss it. Room windows are covered with screens and movable privacy shutters, but no glass. The evening breeze and sounds of the jungle will lure you to sleep, as long as you don’t have any rowdy neighbors nearby. There are no televisions or phones. If you need a wake-up call, you’ll receive a good morning knock on your door, but I bet the birds and monkeys will have already gotten you out of bed.
Details can make or break a property, and at Laguna Lodge the little things add up quickly. All rooms have a porch area with rocking chairs. The blooming jungle landscape is stunning. Beautiful mosaic tile adds yet another splash of color. Animals are the star of the show. Don’t worry about finding them, they’ll find you. Want to find a frog? Head to the frog garden. You’ll probably see one before you make it there. The same goes for the butterfly garden. Keep your eyes open, you never know what might hop by to say hi.
If the jungle doesn’t keep you busy, Laguna Lodge offers plenty of options to keep the family entertained. Kids of all ages can burn off some energy on the soccer field or volleyball court, or head straight to the pool. They can make as much noise as they’d like: adults seeking solitude can stake out a spot at the adult only pool. I’m sure it’s no surprise, but there are no lifeguards at either location. There’s a 24 hour coffee, tea, hot chocolate and chocolate milk bar. All meals are included. Dinner each night we stayed included a kid-friendly pasta bar. Bottom line, all kids and grown-ups were well fed.
The Lodge grounds are contained enough that I felt comfortable letting my 12 year-old daughter do some roaming on her own. One night she decided to head down to dinner a couple minutes early.
When the rest of the family arrived, we found her sitting on a beautifully tiled bench outside of Lodge’s reception area, iTouch in hand, having a full conversation with a good friend on vacation in Lake Tahoe, California. Go figure, even the jungle has internet.
The sounds of the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea can be heard in between the squawks of birds and monkeys. There’s a short trail that leads to the beach, but don’t judge Costa Rica by this stretch of sand. (I found beach bliss later near Santa Cruz in the Guanacaste Province.) The turtles may love it, but the water isn’t safe for us to swim in and trash outnumbers seashells.
This trip screams tween or teen adventure. They will be bragging to their friends about what cool parents they have. Okay, maybe not, but they’ll definitely be bragging about the trip. Tuck away the bonus points for the next journey when they roll their eyes a bit or complain about being bored.
Photos courtesy of Dana Rebmann and Laguna Lodge
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