SUP Destination: Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Paddling Costa Rica’s vast and watery national park
By Eugene Buchanan
The main differences between caimans and crocodiles are caimans’ smaller size, rounder snout and upper jaw covering the bottom teeth. But that’s hard to tell from a paddleboard when all you see are menacing, beady eyes. It’s even harder to explain that to your kids wobbling next to you.
We’re on the Rio Mora in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park and while caimans are commonplace, SUPs aren’t. According to our guide Reinaldo, who works for my friend Rafael’s company, Rios Tropicales, these are the first SUPs the seemingly soulless, reptilian eyes have ever seen.
“It’s okay,” he says to my daughters, Casey, 12, and Brooke, 16. “We’re bigger than they are so they’re afraid of us.”
“Yeah, and I’m bigger than you,” Brooke chides Casey.
If nothing else, this fuels them both to paddle harder. We continue upstream, taking a tiny fork to the right. Howler monkeys screech overhead and a white-face monkey leaps branches. Slaloming through dangling vines and ducking under giant frond leaves, we continue until our path is blocked by a 250-year-old mountain almond tree. It fell, says Rey, just two months ago and its wood alone is worth $30,000.
It’s these and other over-lumbered indigenous hardwoods, as well as the largest green sea turtle nesting area in the world that led to the region being preserved as a national park in 1978. With 25 percent of its land in its national park system, Costa Rica is a shining star of the world’s preservation movement, for good reason. It’s home to more than 500,000 species, four percent of the world’s total. Located in a freshwater maze dumping nutrients in the Caribbean, Tortuguero is one of its crown jewels. And it was the perfect place, I reasoned, to instill an environmental ethos in my kids. What better way to see its tannin-filled waterways than from a paddleboard?
Arriving two days earlier in San Jose, we rose at 5 a.m. to drive over the Continental Divide’s cloud forest before descending 6,000 vertical feet in 30 miles to the Caribbean wetlands. At our put-in on the Rio Suerte, we unloaded a mix of SUPs and kayaks and began our paddle to Mawamba Lodge on the outskirts of the park.
It didn’t take long for the jungle’s charm to take hold. Spider monkeys, the second fastest tree monkey in the world, launched from tree to tree and yellow trumpet flowers and vibrant orange heliconias illuminated the green river banks.
Two hours later we entered a canal paralleling the Caribbean from Nicaragua, comprising the heart of the park. Here, we loaded our boards onto a motorboat and shuttled to lunch on the bank. While Rey flipped a SUP upside down as a table, we took a boardwalk hike through the selva. The setting prompted Casey to whistle the bird song from the Hunger Games.
Two steps in, we spotted a hand-sized, female golden orb weaver spider glistening in the strongest web in the world, one whose protein researchers synthetically emulated to make bulletproof vests. A tiny male the size of a watermelon seed sat off to the side fixing the web; it was clear who wore the pants in the relationship. A viper, toucan and poisonous red dart frog later, we emerged back at the river where we hopped on the boards for the final push to the lodge. At the tiny community of Tortugeuro, where the canal makes an abrupt U-turn, we turned north and soon saw the green roofs of Mawamba Lodge, our home for the next few days. A covered dock housed a fleet of motorboats used by guests arriving by more conventional means.
Built in 1985 by entrepreneur Maurizio Dada, the 40-acre, 56-room lodge was one of the first established in the area and is as well appointed as our jungle environs. An open-aired bar, pool with bridge and waterfall, large open-walled dining area and hammocks swinging from every porch quickly sent the kids scrambling. But its best feature is its location, sandwiched on a jungle spit between the freshwater estuary and the crashing waves of the Caribbean. It was a mango pit’s throw to each.
It’s clear that Maurizio follows his government’s conservation ethos. That afternoon, we toured the lodge’s bio-digester, which heats the rooms’ hot water with human waste. Next, we visited his “ranarium,” or frog farm, and a butterfly pavilion filled with the fluttering wings of blue morphos and zebra longwings. The country has 10 percent of the world’s total butterfly species, and Maurizio is bent on keeping it that way.
Walking back through a well-kept forest of paprika, avocado, lime, coconut, guava and other trees, we saw a three-toed sloth lounging high in a tree, prompting Brooke to ask for one as a pet. Yeah, litter box upkeep might be a snap – they poop only once a week—but our dog and two cats remain our home’s only animals.
At the bar, the kids basked in virgin piña coladas while we settled for soda and cacique, a local, triple-distilled sugar cane liquor. With the witching hour upon us, we loaded the boards on the motorboat and shuttled out to the river mouth for sunset. When the sun radiated a wall of green under a flock of white egrets, we paddled over for photos and then continued on to the river mouth. We heard the crashing waves of the Caribbean before we saw them, protected on our perch in the freshwater bay by the final finger of land.
Waking to a cacophony of bird calls, the next morning we find local critters having breakfast before us. No sooner than we sit down, the kids run off to see the mouth of a green vine snake wrapped around the head of a clay-colored robin, Costa Rica’s national bird, and an iguana the size of Casey’s leg placidly gnawing a leaf.
Fueled by thick Costa Rican coffee, we motor to the park office for our 8:30 entrance time slot. Heading south toward Panama, we turn up a tributary bordered by towering walls of foliage. A caiman submerges with a flop of its tail in the same lily pad we set the boards in. “Dad!” my daughters yell in unison.
Floating down the Agua Fria, we witness a log standoff between a caiman and orange-eared slider turtle. It’s not Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, but here everything is competitive, whether it’s plants vying for precious sunlight or animals practicing one-upmanship. Casey startles a Jesus Christ lizard, so named for its ability to run on water, using its tail as a rudder. Humans, says Rey, would have to reach 80 mph to accomplish such a feat.
Plunging in where we dare cool off and exploring a myriad of other rivers wending like blood vessels through the most pristine jungle in the world, we eventually turn and make our way back to the lodge. With the sun going down over water matching the color of the sky and as smooth as the inside of a seashell, Rey and I paddle 15 minutes to the Tortuguero community. My wife and kids will hike over and meet us for what Casey’s had her eye on all trip: A coconut with a straw.
Pulling up to a throng of kids at the dock beneath two giant, colorful toucan sculptures, we stash our boards and watch a pick-up soccer game on a palm-lined field, the yells eclipsed by crashing waves. Since the town has no roads or cars, we stroll down a pedestrian-friendly walkway, taking in its “Don’t worry, be happy” Caribbean vibe. Locals play cards at a park table, kids zing around on rusted bikes and dreadlocked rastas mill around in Bob Marley shirts.
We find Casey her coconut, which she sips while watching the sky turn blaze pink. We toast Tortuguero and the unique experience of seeing it from a SUP. When I ask Casey what could possibly be better, she thinks for a second, emits a caiman smile and replies, “Maybe if I had this coconut on a paddleboard.”
If You Go:
The trip will likely require overnighting in San Jose. Try the Hotel Oro de Grano, a restored mansion in the heart of downtown. For paddleboards, either BYO inflatable or hook up with 30-year outfitter Rios Tropicales, which can also book your stay at the Mawamba Lodge, which can handle everything from meals to motorboat shuttles.