Guide to Costa Rica : San Jose & Tortoguero

Pura Vida. In English “Pura Vida” is simply translated to “Pure Life” but in Costa Rica itself it means more than just words, it is a way of life. It means to live life with a smile, to embrace any new adventure but most importantly to find joy in the simple things in life. It shines out through any local you meet and gives the whole country a sense of peace and joy that I had never experienced before.

We landed in the capital city of San Jose where a friendly driver eagerly awaited to transfer us to our accommodation for the night, the Hotel Gran de Oro. The corridors were all laced with thick wooden panels and hanging plants dangled from every crevice. The building centred around a grand courtyard restaurant where we gathered for a quick snack before setting out to explore the capital. For me the highlight of San Jose was the National Theatre of Costa Rica, founded in 1897 it is one of the most breath-taking buildings I have ever seen and I would’ve loved the chance to experience a performance there under the hand painted dome and blinding chandelier.  Whist reflecting on the trip as whole, San Jose felt quite underwhelming, but it was interesting to learn more about the history and culture of the country at the National Museum of Costa Rica. It was a great kick-start to our holiday but I wouldn’t prioritise it as a place to spend a large chunk of your holiday in.

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The morning light brought with it our first introduction to a tropical down pour and I think the next 2 weeks were spent in a constant state of dampness. We drove for what felt like hours down bumpy country roads and past rushing waterfalls till we reached our transfer to Tortoguero at the local harbour. The boat sped through the winding rivers blanketed by dense tropical trees, an American Crocodile watched us with one beady eye from the bank, and before we knew it we were out of civilisation and into to the depths of the rainforest. We stayed at the Manatus hotel, named after the old manatee scientific monitoring station that used to be situated there, but we only had time to drop our bags off at our huts before heading back on the boat to the local town. I think if anywhere was to sum up “Pura Vida” it was the town of Tortoguero. It wasn’t a place of wealth or blinding beauty but children ran playfully down the streets whilst their parents gathered under corrugated shelters, sharing food and stories of days past. The sense of community was overwhelming; our tour guide lived locally and was welcomed by everyone with open arms and bright smiles. Even the gushing rain couldn’t dampen the carefree feeling that enchanted the town, it did however leave us shivering so we made our way back to the hotel to hide out from the storm.

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That night I was awoken to a noise that I can only compare to a hailstorm (well if boulders were falling form the sky).  The rain trickled silently down the window pains but above us came a whole series of crashes that made the entire roof shake. Had the risk of getting soaked not been so high I would have ventured out to investigate but it was a good job I didn’t. After raising the issue at breakfast the following morning I was told by a waiter it was a pack of howler monkeys that often used the metal roofs of the huts to crack open nuts and fruit for their dinner. Talk about noisy neighbours!

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For the rest of the day we got to experience the majesty that is the Costa Rican rainforest. All loaded onto the boat our guide Luis took us deep into the lush green canopy, his eyes so fine-tuned to the surroundings that he could spot even the most camouflaged of creature. Three fingered sloths draped from trees, giant Christ lizards lapped up the sun on overhang leaves and monkeys flew through the sky like trapeze artists in a circus.  There truly isn’t anything more captivating than seeing an animal in their natural habitat, though I definitely wouldn’t want to get any closer to the Caymans than we did.  The guided tour finished around lunchtime but our feet didn’t stay on solid ground for long. If I’m ever asked to recall my most memorable moment traveling this is always the one I turn to. Accompanied by my dad, we were kayaking back down the river when a rustle in the trees caught my attention. Camouflaged by his algae ridden fur the three toed sloth was certainly hard to spot but luckily, due to their laid back approach to life, we were able to sit and watch him for what felt like hours. I decided to call him Cedric.

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Tortoguero stands for the “Land of the Turtle”, something that we were lucky enough to experience first hand. Instead of a comfortable evening tucked up in bed, we clambered back onto the boat and sped across the river in the dead of night. Our destination was a beach on the edge of the national park. Our purpose was giant turtles. In the warmer months of the year, female turtles clamber upon the beach to lay 100s of their eggs in the sand. Seeing as turtles don’t have schedules we sat in a hut in the dark for around an hour or so before one was spotted. Following the glow of a red light (Turtles use the white moon light as a guide back to the ocean so torches aren’t allowed in case the turtles get them confused) we tiptoed across the beach. Deep in the sand lay a humongous female turtle who was kicking up a sand storm with her back legs. They dig holes in order to lay their eggs then fill them back in with sand to protect their children from predators. It was an emotional experience to then watch the mother turtle crawl back to the ocean knowing that only 1/1000 of her offspring have a chance of making it to adulthood. The people of Costa Rica put in a great effort to protect these beautiful creatures and it was such a humbling experience to see them in their natural surroundings and contribute to the cause.

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Just as quickly as we had arrived it was time to get back on the trusty boat once more and head out of Tortoguero.  The sound of the rainforest stayed with me long after my feet were back on solid ground though. The trickle of the rain, the rush of the boat along the river, the rustle of the wind through the trees and the constant hum of the life rummaging around the forest floor echoed through my ears. The calmness of Tortoguero amongst the madness of the environment it was situated in was something very special and after only 3 days there I can honestly say that I now truly understand the meaning of Pura Vida.

Go and grab another cuppa on me, Em x

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