We awoke the following morning aiming to explore the inland side of Tortuguero: vast tracts of dense rainforest sliced through by snaking canals. Armed with sack lunches of tomato-and-cheese sandwiches, the five of us piled into two canoes and launched ourselves into the waterway. We had rented the canoes for a half-day, thinking that four hours of paddling around would suffice to see a huge number of animals and to exhaust ourselves completely. We were half right.
Winds funneling through the canal passages made it extremely difficult to maneuver the canoes, and the perpetual paddling under an unrelenting tropical sun made the sandwiches almost moot. We could hear howler monkeys calling from the banks, but we couldn’t stop to watch them or we’d be blown backwards. By the time we made it to a calm spot where we could finally rest and observe the animals around us, it was time to paddle back to return the canoes.
We changed our approach when we made land again. Back at the dock where we initially arrived in Tortuguero, we asked a local man who was in the middle of tying down his motorboat if he’d be willing to take us out for a few hours to show us around the park. We agreed on a reasonable price (a few U.S. dollars apiece), and in minutes we were motoring past the same spot we’d spent hours rowing to reach. Our kind guide spent the next four hours patiently explaining the flora and fauna of the area to us in lowest-common-denominator Spanish, and he even took us ashore for an hour-long hike through the rainforest. All told we saw probably 30 howler monkeys in distinct vociferous groups, a half-dozen caimans, a few treefuls of spider monkeys, some river otters, and gorgeous tropical birds. During the hike we walked by a tiny, adorable, bright yellow snake (about eight inches long and pencil-width in diameter) that was coiled in a tight spiral on a twig. We were instructed to admire the snake from a distance because it was known to leap up to three feet to inject deadly venom via wee fangs into passing prey. The snake was the most effective argument for travel insurance I have yet come across.
We rounded out our first full day in Tortuguero with an incredible meal, the most satisfying of my life. Brutally tired and sun-sapped, we found our way to Miss Miriam’s, where we polished off platter after platter of red beans and coconut rice, steamed carrots and green beans, and tender chicken that fell off the bone in savory hunks. Chased with several rounds of ice cold Imperial beer, the meal was the perfect ending to a day I’ll never forget.