Lodge offers rain forest vacation

Contributing editor Carla Hunt recently returned to Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park for an update. Her report follows:

Because there are no roads in Tortuguero National Park, there are two ways to get there: overland from San Jose by bus or car to the docks north of Limon and then by riverboat for a two-hour ride to the Tortuguero lodges, or by daily or special charter air service on a 40-minute flight to the city's landing strip.

Visitors should take the water route at least one way; a two-hour small-craft cruise that moves through a network of canals, lakes and lagoons.

Travelers learn that like in Venice, Italy, the best way to get around this region is by small motorskiff, and the best perspective of the rain forest -- as well as the best bird-watching -- is from the water.

Following the waterways, another thing I learned is there are now at least six additional choices of riverside lodges since my last trip here 10 years ago.

Among the best I saw were three lodges: the Pachira (the newest), the Mawamba and the Tortuga, where I stayed.

A decade ago, the then 10-room Tortuga Lodge, built and operated by San Jose-based Costa Rica Expeditions, was about the only place to stay on the river. It provided an acceptable combination of wood, thatch, clean rooms, blooming gardens and a troop of howler monkeys for wake-up calls.

While those basic elements haven't changed, Costa Rica Expeditions has made a substantial investment in upgrading its ecolodge experience.

The lodge's dining room and bar were rebuilt and expanded to provide indoor and outdoor service overlooking the river. The menus offer a variety of soup, fresh fish, pork and vegetarian dishes.

There are now 32 spacious rooms with big, screened windows located in two long, two-level bungalows with verandas strung with hammocks.

Accommodations have private bathrooms with showers, as well as strong ceiling fans.

Docks with lounge chairs offer full views of river life, and a new free-form swimming pool winds its way around a thatched-roof hammock pavilion.

Facilities include a full fleet of small rivercraft for jungle excursions along with a crew of excellent guides.

Manatees, caimans and otters feed in the river and lagoon waters, and more than 300 species of birds have been identified, including parrots, hawks, kingfishers, herons, toucans, pelicans and hummingbirds.

The white face, spider and howler monkeys are easy to spot, as are butterflies, frogs and other reptiles.

Tortuga Lodge puts the accent on the area's waterways, with primary activities including natural history excursions and fishing trips, where the big trophies are tarpon and snook.

A strength of this property, as well as other Costa Rica Expeditions lodges in Monteverde and Corcovado, is its knowledgeable and well-trained guides.

The optimum package at the lodge, for two nights in my opinion, is priced at $379 per person, double.

The cost includes bus transport from San Jose, the boat to Torguero, half-day waterway excursions, accommodations, six meals, a flight from Tortuguero to San Jose and a hotel transfer in San Jose.

The program, which can operate in reverse, offers daily departures through April 15, and twice-weekly departures from April 16 to Dec. 14.

Shorter and longer packages are available, and many U.S. tour operators work with Costa Rica Expeditions to provide customized FIT and group arrangements.

For additional information, call (011) 506 257-0766 or 222-0333; e-mail [email protected]., or visit www.costraricaexpeditions.com on the Web.

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