Rainforest Canal Cruising in Costa Rica

Cruising the Tortuguero National Park’s network of canals and lagoons is a fantastic way of observing and better understanding the structure of the rainforest vegetation. Tropical rainforests are the most productive and complex ecosystems on Earth, the greatest biodiversity of plants in the world can be found in Costa Rica.

Costa Rican rainforest was suddenly all around us as we floated down Tortuguero Canals
Costa Rican rainforest was suddenly all around us as we floated down Tortuguero Canals
Costa Rican rainforests have several layers, climbers reach up to light
Costa Rican rainforests have several layers, climbers reach up to light

“We have two seasons. The dry season and the rainy season. This side of the country, here even the dry season is rainy. Today, as it is raining here, the Pacific side of Costa Rica is sunny and dry. Everything has developed slower here on (Puerto) Limón side as the dense, difficult rainforests and the constant, heavy humidity have surprised invaders and investors alike.” On the way to the Tortuguero canals our guide Aireen speaks lovingly of her country and especially the nature. She works for one of the many eco-tour companies organizing canal and rainforest excursions of different lengths for cruise visitors like us who just have one day, and for those who can escape the civilization for several days. She knows the flora and fauna as well as the history and culture of Costa Rica. We are here especially for the natural wonders today and learning our guide is such a gem we are very happy.

This is a country that accounts only 0,03 % of Earths surface, but 6 % of all the biodiversity, flora and fauna combined, of this planet is nurtured here.

Tortuguero Canals in Costa Rica are best explored by a boat
Tortuguero Canals in Costa Rica are best explored by a boat

If you’ve ever been to a botanical garden’s tropics room, you may remember how the air smells. The humid, warm, earthy smell is the same, yet stronger as you enter the real deal. As our pontoon type boat floats off the dock the smell of the rainforest surrounds us. Aireen and our captain suggest we all start using our senses.

“They are good at hiding,  the creatures, twenty pairs of eyes and ears are better than just mine and our captain’s”.

We start stretching our necks and gazing to the foliage. Above everything else, the highest plants or emergents, often over 50 meters tall, have found their way to the light. Lianas climb up the plants of the lower layers, these canopy layers are home to about 50 % of the rainforest’s wildlife. This is the habitat for monkeys, sloths, birds and snakes. The sun avoiding plants like ferns thrive in the shadows, this densely filled shrub layer provides hiding places for mammals like jaguars and ocelots. At the edge of the water, where the water lilies bloom and mangroves rule, we may see caimans and crocodiles.

Costa Rican rainforests are full of life
Costa Rican rainforests are full of life

After just about five minutes on water we spot a brown sloth. Our captain maneuvers the boat by a tree branch arching over the water. A brown hairy thing with familiar, long claws holds on to the tree and we learn this small, brown ball is a sleeping female sloth with a baby. Sloths are solitary, arboreal mammals that have mastered the slow-paced life up in the trees. If they need to choose between swimming and walking on ground, water it is. There are both two and three toed sloths in Costa Rica’s forests.

We are exited, seeing sloths in their natural habitat was one of our wishes when booking this particular tour.

Sloths are good at blending in
Sloths are good at blending in

Next wildlife we spot are some iguanas on tree tops. They hang around there, trying to blend in. Then white egrets and great herons, gracefully walking between the water lilies and other vegetation waiting for some lunch to appear from under the surface. Butterflies the size of a large man’s hand, dragonflies.

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Next are the small parrot size, blackish brown birds with a flaming yellow tail tips flying past us. These birds are oropendola, birds that build fantastic, magical, woven nests of fibers and vines. The gourd-like nests of a colony are all hanging from the branches of one tree. We see this large tree by the canal, full of the funny looking bird nests, hanging on different heights.

Oropendulo nests hanging in a tree by the Tortuguero Canal
Oropendulo nests hanging in a tree by the Tortuguero Canal

And then there is one more sloth and soon we spot a group of hovering monkeys making their way through the foliage. There are monkeys of different sizes and ages, even small babies hanging on to their moms. With a good imagination you can also imagine the invisible life of the forest floor. Under and inside the rotting plant parts live the humus creating molds, mushrooms and fungi. The silent workforce below all the foliage that makes sure all that dies quickly decomposes and returns to the circle of life.

Our guide reminds of the fact that these forests are full of flora and fauna yet to be discovered. Plants so unique the scientists can find new cures for a number of health issues and diseases.

It is unreal to see all those familiar houseplants, like monsteras, in their natural habitats. Plants that in the flower shops at home come in small pots and need special care for staying alive in our dry rooms and dark winter months. If you want them to grow and thrive, more light, fertilizers and extra humidity is needed. In rainforest the leaves are massive, thick, shiny and dark green. The plants grow gigantic. How beautiful it is, this is where they belong.

Trying to spot a caiman
Trying to spot a caiman

We spot a couple of more sloths, quite high in the forest canopy. One seems to be an albino, the white fur coat is not a frequent sight. Our captain takes us to the shallow waters where caimans usually hang around and there it is, one tiny reptile. So tiny it is barely recognisable on the sand. Tiny sand pipers run the white sand, up in the tree a couple of white faced capuchin monkeys jump from tree to tree. Next we spend a good ten minutes exited about a colony of howling monkeys arriving to the trees by the river, giving us a fantastic acrobatic show and teaching their young ones how to jump from branch to branch.

Tortuguero National park's canals take you deep into the rainforest
Tortuguero National park’s canals take you deep into the rainforest

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Earlier that day Aireen had explained us which are the mammals we are likely to see here. Cats are nocturnal, they are not likely to be around. She has never seen Spider Monkeys by this canal of Tortuguero.

Suddenly, a huge, copper red monkey with a long, black tail emerges from nowhere. It swings effortlessly from tree to tree, obviously enjoying the acrobatics up in the air.

This is the highlight of our canal ride, just before we return to our dock. Together with Aireen we admire the spider monkey and share a special Pura Vida moment together.

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