COSTA RICA: Tortuguero National Park


Alex & Mary, Rolling On The River

Tortuguero National Park


We’re speeding down a river in Tortuguero National Park, a pristine 77,000-acre protected area at the heart of efforts to conserve the remarkable biodiversity in Costa Rica’s northeastern Limón Province.


We’re far from anything you’d call “civilization,” over 2 hours by boat from the nearest road, in remote rainforests that receive up to 250 inches of rain a year. My eyes scan the dense thicket of trees that line the river, scoping for signs of movement amidst the verdant green, and I crane my ears to listen for the unmistakable call of howler monkeys. I see nothing. I hear nothing.


Suddenly the boat stops, reverses and heads straight for the forest to our left. As we get closer I spot a brown lump camouflaged by the brush right at eye level, but only when we’re within 20 yards do I realize it’s a three-toed sloth. We’re within 10 yards before we notice the furry lump on top of the sloth, and everyone lets out a collective gasp as we realize it’s a mother and baby.


The boat inches closer and closer until my kiddo could reach out and touch the sloth– she doesn’t– but the mother seems unconcerned by our presence. She checks us out briefly, then goes back to munching her leaves. Five minutes later, we’re close enough to an 8-foot crocodile that my daughter could jump off the boat and onto its back. She doesn’t.



Sloth Mama, With Baby On Board


To an 8-year-old, phrases such as “deforestation” and “endangered species” seem like abstract concepts. Our educational system ensures that third graders know the terms well enough to define them on a multiple-choice test. But when even grown-ups can’t agree on simple scientific principles such as evolution and global warming, how can we expect our children to fully understand the role their generation will play as stewards responsible for the Earth’s ecological and environmental future?


That’s why I’ve brought my family to Mwamba Lodge, an ecotourism haven situated on a sand bar dividing the canals of Tortuguero from the Caribbean Sea. The remote lodge is rustic and luxurious, offering spacious rooms surrounded by a rainforest teeming with birds, butterflies, lizards and frogs.


A swim in their freshwater pool provides plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities, as colorful kiskadees and hummingbirds flit about in search of an evening meal, and gaudy leaf frogs sing songs at sunset, their big red eyes and bulging throats making them a comical presence on the pool’s “Frog Island.”



The Red-Eyed Tree Frog That Inspired GGT’s Logo


Tortuguero is a nature lover’s paradise, with nighttime tours in search of sea turtles coming on the beach to nest producing spectacular views of star-lit skies. In the mornings we explore the canals, getting up close and personal with baby caimans, camera-shy river otters, toucans, tiger herons and roseate spoonbills.


Afternoon walks in the dense Tortuguero woods feel like stepping into scenes from Jurassic Park, with howler monkeys feeding in the treetops and sending out haunting calls. It’s a taste of nature as primitive and unspoiled by human intervention as anything I’ve even experienced, and the sight of wonder in my child’s eyes tells me she gets it, even if only on a subconscious level: THIS is what we must fight to preserve.


Departing Mwamba, we make the 6-hour journey to Hotel La Quinta de Sarapiqui, a nationally certified eco-lodge and our base of operations for the second leg of our trek. Their 10-acre property isn’t quite as rustic or remote as Mwamba, but is equally full of wildlife and offers the welcome blast of A/C after days of high heat and humidity.


Howler Monkey, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica

The Chill Howler We Nicknamed “Peace-Out Monkey”


From there we explore nearby Tirimbina Biological Reserve, which offers educational and research opportunities for scientists and tourists alike. Their guided walks through 9km of hiking trails offer a wealth of information about the remarkably diverse flora and fauna, subtly emphasizing conservation and sustainability.


Their massive suspension bridge, which takes you over raging rapids and through the forest canopy, reinforces the message beautifully, offering exceptional views of howlers moving through the treetops, sloths taking afternoon naps, and myriad birds and insects.


After a week in Costa Rica, it seemed almost impossible for any of us to sum up our wild, wonderful experiences there. How do you describe the feeling of petting an alcoholic boar on Tortuga Island, riding in an aerial tram 200 feet above the rainforest floor during a torrential downpour, or watching spider monkeys leap from tree to tree?


I’m not sure how much of an impact the trip will have on my daughter in the long run. But I do know that only through encouraging kids to protect our planet’s precious natural resources, and by giving them hands-on exposure to what they’re protecting, do we have a chance of planting the seeds of environmental conservation that will hopefully continue to blossom for generations to come.  –by Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

If you enjoyed our story on Tortuguero National Park you might also like:

Top 5 Eco Attractions In Costa Rica


PIC OF THE DAY: Red-Eyed Tree Frog in Costa Rica

PIC OF THE DAY: Sloths in Costa Rica


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    • You should! It was pretty incredible, and since most of your time is spent in boats on the river it wasn’t too physically taxing.

  10. When I came to Costa Rica I spent most of my time in Manuel Antonio and Costa Rica, but when I come back this is now tops on my list thanks to this post.

  11. These wildlife photos are FANTASTIC! The best shot I have of a sloth in Costa Rica, it could be mistaken for a lump on a tree. And- the idea of getting off the beaten track is really admirable.

    • Thanks, Jen! We don’t do any of the fancy HDR or tilt-shift or Photoshop tricks that make photos looks otherworldly, but we love getting dramatic wildlife portraits that let the animals’ faces and bodies tell the story. I could do it all day and never get bored!

  12. When I was in CR a few years back it amazed me as to how different the two sides of the country were. The Pacific was all laid back surfer towns, and the Caribean side was like a slice of Jamaica 😉 Loved it! I spent some time in Tortuguero too, loved the black sand beaches 😀

    • That’s cool, Laurence: Don’t think we’ve ever talked to anybody else who’d been to Tortuguero! The 6-hour journey to get there was crazy, but ultimately well worth it.

  13. This brings back some happy memories – I spent 8 weeks volunteering in Costa Rica and it was a great time with all the wildlife and nature reserves

    • It’s a great place for kids, Margaret. I mean, I think the journey to Tortuguero might have been a bit arduous for my daughter at the time (she was 8), but once we got there she really loved it, and I think it left a huge imprint on her. I can only hope it planted the seeds for a lifetime of nature loving.

    • It’s a great country, Deej. From Arenal Volcano and Tabacon Hot Springs, to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and cruising the Rio Frio, to Tortuguero and the jungle of Tirimbina, I’ve enjoyed every part of Costa Rica I’ve ever visited.

    • Me too, Terry. Two years ago for my birthday, Mary and my daughter made a t-shirt for me with that photo on it, saying “Peace-Out Monkey Says ‘Peace Out!'” I loved it!

    • Thanks, Natasha! I have a GREAT picture of a different kind of sloth from the Peruvian Amazon I’ll post on our FB page later today, just for your daughter. I love sloths, too!

  14. I did a similar tour but on the east side of Costa Rica, and it’s where I saw my first sloth. Would love to see a baby sloth though, your photo is adorable. And there’s nothing like the sound of a howler monkey, although after studying them for a month in Belize, I realized that it takes a lot of patience to observe them since they sleep so much. Kudos to Costa Rica for being such an eco-friendly destination.

    • Actually, Tortuguero and Sarapiqui are on the east side of the country as well. We actually saw a few different sloths in the area, and TONS of howler monkeys. My favorite thing was trying to talk to the howler monkeys in their language. I do that with animals a lot. I’m guessing our guides think I’m insane…

    • Thanks, Christy! Somewhere I think we have some video of the hilariously awkward frogs attempting to mate (or at least the male was– pretty sure the female wanted no part of it). It was really hilarious to watch the whole thing unfold on a tiny island in the middle of the swimming pool!

    • Wow! Now that is one wildlife species I’m perfectly happy not to have spotted in the wild! I enjoyed the walking trail, since I’m a fan of rainforest jungles, but we saw a lot more stuff in the boat tours. I’m still kicking myself for missing a great shot of a rarely spotted river otter. He was visible for about two seconds and then he disappeared in the water. Such a cutie…

    • If this park is anything like the park where you work, then you are a lucky lady indeed! Hopefully we’ll be able to get to Thailand while you’re still there. I’ve never pet an elephant!

  15. I’ve said it before elsewhere, but the sloth is pretty cute. Love that they are bothered by so little. The tree frog is pretty neat too. Noticed your one reply about having a video of them trying to mate. Do a search for porcupine mating, they are kind of hilarious too. Yes we sometimes sit and read the internet for stuff like that. It isn’t juvenile, its science, so its educational.

  16. Such amazing photos of CR’s usual suspects: tree frog and adorable sloth. I have a similar frog photographed in my kitchen. I had no idea it inspired your logo! I love that little guy!

    • Yeah, Costa Rica is among my favorite ecotourism destinations, and this frog is among my favorite subjects I’ve ever photographed. It was hilarious how doggedly he pursued the female, who pretty clearly wanted nothing to do with him. He (or one of his brethren) jumped on my daughter’s leg one night as we walked back to our room from dinner, and the look on her face was priceless. Between the two events, I’m not sure another wildlife species has ever made me laugh so much in one day.

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  32. Brilliant write up Bret. I have been searching for a blog like yours for some time and I am delighted to have found it. I am about to embark on a world cycle tour with a focus on conservation and the environment, volunteering as I go. I thought I might be the only person writing about travel with an environmental focus. Clearly not, and I’m glad that I won’t be. The blogging community needs more sites like yours. I will read EVERY post on your site. Brilliant. Hopefully I might be able to meet you someday because you’re my kind of people without doubt.

    • Thanks very much, Darren! Stay in touch when you’re en route and maybe we could talk about a guest post, if you’re interested. Sounds like a great journey, and I’m sure you’ll find great stories to share along the way!

      • No problem. Thank you, I hope you guys follow along if you’ve a spare few minutes that is. No doubt you’re busy bees. I would love to do a guest post for you guys! And of course you guys will be more than welcome to guest post on my blog too- but maybe when I get some more readers ;). Thanks very much guys! I will definitely stay in touch.