Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National ParkSecluded Tortuguero in Costa Rica provides ideal nesting conditions for four endangered turtle species. These turtles are in constant danger from fishing nets and disruption to reproduction cycles due to the light and sound that accompany development projects.

Tortuguero—the very name refers to sea turtles, or tortugas in Spanish, so it’s an apt name indeed for this park, the top turtle-nesting site on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Luckily for the turtles, it’s not easy for humans to get there; there are no roads, only a labyrinthine series of rivers and canals linking it to the port city of Limón, 80km (50 miles) away. Gliding on a boat through this dense green rainforest populated by howler and spider monkeys, three-toed sloths, toucans, and great green macaws is almost like a minicruise up the Amazon.

This undeveloped region’s greatest resource is its wildlife, as nature lovers visit in ever greater numbers, putting a new stress on the fragile coastal ecosystem. A number of lodges perch on the hills around the tiny village of Tortuguero, all catering to the eco-tourist trade. Generally visitors book a package from one of those lodges that includes a bus from San José to Limón, the boat trip from Limón, rooms, and meals. Local guides are available to take you by dugout canoe up murky waterways into the rainforest, where you may see crocodiles, caimans, monkeys, herons, pygmy kingfishers, or river otters (jaguars and ocelots rarely come into view). Unfortunately, the native manatee population is nearly extinct, due to hunting and to chemical runoff from nearby banana plantations.

Packages also include the starring attraction: a guided 2-to-4-hour nighttime visit to the beach to watch sea turtles wade onto the volcanic black sand to lay their eggs. In fact, the only beach access at night is with an approved nature guide. Darkness and quiet are essential—if a female turtle detects any lights or movements, she will return to the sea without laying her eggs. (And given the increasing development of the Caribbean, there are fewer and fewer sufficiently dark, quiet coasts.) The mother crawls onto the beach, digs a huge pit, and then lays her eggs, as many as 100 at a time. Then she covers the pit in sand and crawls back into the ocean, never to see these offspring again.

Protected from local poachers, four species of turtles nest on this 35km-long (22-mile) stretch of black sand—the green turtle, the hawksbill, the loggerhead, and the world’s largest turtle, the giant leatherback. Considering its great size (up to 2m/6 1 ⁄ 2 ft. long and weighing as much as 1,000 lb.), the giant leatherback is truly a spectacular turtle to see if you get the chance (Mar–May). From July to mid-October, it’s more likely that you will spot green turtles. They are an endangered species all right, but that’s hard to believe when you see them massing by the thousands on Tortuguero beach.