OEH-OEH-OEH-OEH-OEHHHHHH; while I’m paddling with six other people in a canoe through the canals of Tortuguero, I suddenly hear an overwhelming sound right behind me. As I turn around, rather terrified, I discover that my guide, the 36-year old Luis, does a pretty fine impression of a howler monkey.
Apparently the howler monkeys in the lush area of Tortuguero are thinking the same. They’re coming closer in order to respond to Luis’ call. With a couple of backfiring, non-rhythmical roars the monkeys try to scare us away from high up in the trees. Some of my fellow canoeists hear the far-reaching sound of the howler monkey for the first time. Luis himself can’t refrain from chuckling about their petrified faces that stare into the forest.
Tiny town with many creatures
The howler monkeys aren’t the first animals we’ve seen since we left Tortuguero this morning. Tortuguero is an isolated tiny town (around 1600 inhabitants) all the way up to the north, nearly bordering Nicaragua. The wildlife in the area is in contradiction to its inhabitants tremendous.
Tortuguero is most famous for its, indeed, tortugas, turtles. As of the beginning of July the green turtles started digging their nests in order to lay their eggs. Many visitors come to experience that special moment. But seeing turtles shouldn’t be the only purpose when travelling to Tortuguero: the amounts of birds and reptiles are spectacular too. After all, you gotta catch them all.
It takes some time to get to Tortuguero; either from Puerto Limón of San José, but the hours made by car and boat are worth it. The boat from Puerto Limón navigates from port Moín roughly 3,5 hours through the big and small meandering canals, which run parallel to the Caribbean Sea.
Though the water isn’t turbulent at all, the ride of 80 km is. We gaze at the tropical vegetation and stop every now and then if we see a creature (heron! caiman!) or when our boatman wants to chit chat with one of his friends living next to the canals.
Once off the boat, the isolated location of Tortuguero gives you a pleasant and sane feeling. It resembles the excitement of being on a small isle; everything is simply more manageable. Due to the small scale of the town there aren’t many restaurants or shops, you’re able to see it all in a short walk. But the tranquility that comes along with the vacuum of choices makes you wondering whether you’d be able to live here, in a world that is completely divergent and unresponsive to yours.
For now, my sisters and I are here just being visitors. To see a wide variety of animals we decide to join a canoeing tour the next early morning. With sleepy heads at 6 am we buy our tickets for the Tortuguero National Park. Afterwards we step into our canoe, where we’ll be seated for the upcoming three hours under the supervision of Luis. We know getting up at this early hour is worth it; after all most animals are there to be seen at dawn. Luis is in the mood for today too, since the sun is out there for us after a night of heavy rain.
As we start paddling along with the flow, mist is still surrounding the forests of the national park – it’s the grey stillness of the early morning. I think I’m not quite awake yet: at times when I’m just staring at some piece of jungle, our guide is able to identify a bunch of wildlife in them too. Later on I discover Luis simply resembles Argus Panoptes: just like many inhabitants of Tortuguero, he has the ability to see with a plurality of eyes and makes us aware of the ubiquitous animals. You really wonder how long it takes to develop such a skill. As Luis tells me he’s been living here since he was 12 years old, I realize that my three hours of training won’t be enough, unfortunately.
For us, only the birds are easy to spot though. Well, most of them. The most present bird this morning is the black, beautiful anhinga, a cormorant. I am rather surprised as I find out this creature also lives in my homeland, the Netherlands, where it is called an ‘aalscholver’. Deadly ordinary. But then again, that is exactly the fascinating thing about living or travelling in Costa Rica: once at home, you’re able to appreciate your country’s nature better too.
A bit more difficult to spot is the next animal: the green basilisk. This reptile is also called a ‘Jesus walker’ as it is mythically able to walk (or let’s say run) over water whenever in a hurry. Not today. He sits like he’s modeling for Madame Tussauds -“He’s made of plastic. I put him there yesterday for you” jokes Luis – as his image absolutely disappears in the green background of the jungle.
I figure out it is indeed a true art explaining one another where the animal is situated exactly. “So alright, you see the big branch on the right, yes? Then go over to this little twig above it, there you see a big lonely leaf, okay? Next move 30 centimeters to the left, you see this big fruity thing and there it is, sitting. No?”. How frustrating if the spectator still is unable to find the creature after such a stream of instructions.
As we all quietly try to figure out the location of the reptile, a motorboat hastens through the waterways. Only slightly annoyed by the loud noises, which scare away the wildlife, Luis is leading us to another side of the big canal. Motorized traffic is thankfully not allowed in here. The caimans seem to be happy about the silence too, as they suddenly pop up everywhere between the roots of the trees.
“Come on, come on, touch it!” My sister, in front of me in the boat, is being encouraged by Luis to feel the tail of the caiman, which is floating right next to our canoe, in specific her. Lucky bastard. It leaves her in doubt for a moment. “No no, he won’t react to that”, stresses Luis. Several unpleasant visions pop up in my head, but indeed, the crocodile doesn’t seem to care at all when she carefully touches his armored skin a couple of seconds later.
As we paddle back to Tortuguero after this excitement many more animals are surrounding the waterways; herons, colorful parrots, toucans, spider monkeys, a wide variety of amphibians and an anteater in the top of a tree. Slowly, we leave the jungle behind. The little town comes in eyesight again. I can still hear the roars of the howler monkeys and I wonder what is still out there as well beyond the weakness of my field of vision. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: next time my eyes will be better trained and I’ll catch some more creatures.
Canoeing tour ranges from $25,- $ 30,-. Entrance to the National Park of Tortuguero will add another $15,- to the tour for foreigners.