Our skiff speeds through the water, mounds of blue rain ponchos the only signs that people huddle against the downpour. Two minutes later we’re free again, baking in the hot sunshine and eye-piercing glint off the canal. Sloshes in the flat bottom of the boat cover our water shoes, already steaming in the dense humidity.

“There,” yells our guide, Primo, a name we’d become convinced was given to him for his amazing eyesight. He cuts the engine and points, and a dozen heads swivel in unison. At first, we’re all lost. It looks like more jungle rainforest.

The shape becomes visible in a slow ballet from a thick cluster of branches. It unwinds its limbs and hangs upside down about 25 feet above our heads. Cameras click, we sigh in wonder, and the sloth grins at us.

Or at least it looked like a grin. They’re hard to read. But I captured what for me was a one in a thousand shot.

Jungle Life

Costa Rica is a land of unlimited wonders. Maybe not hidden exactly, but for many visitors to this small country, they might as well be. When our tour listed Tortuguero National Park as a destination, we weren’t sure this was the kind of place we wanted to spend a chunk of our vacation.

It’s on the Caribbean coast, in the central part of the east edge of the country, a former site of logging activities and now a protected park. Four species of sea turtles use its beaches for nesting. It is remote, made even more so since the only reliable way in and out is by open boat, and it can take one to three hours depending on the water level. The tiny runway in the town of about 1500 people only handles single engine planes, and then only if the persistent sea breezes cooperate, which is rarely.

Its remoteness is also its charm. The rainforest reminds you that in days gone by, dinosaurs wandered our planet, and as the riverbanks and tall trees draped in vines press in on you, each rustle might be a forgotten creature from that era. Or a howler monkey intent on stealing your hat to see if it’s edible.

One of Many Treasures

Most visitors to the land of rainforests, volcanos, and rich biodiversity hug the Pacific coast, staying put in a northern Gold Coast all-inclusive resort or the southern end’s surfing beaches. Those are beautiful, but there’s much more to see in a country where 30% of its land area is protected as national park. Private landowners have set aside even more, creating active wildlife corridors stretching from sea to ocean.

That’s what makes Costa Rica a challenge to get around. People are only allowed in 5% of the parks’ areas, with the rest given over to nature to protect biodiversity. In Tortuguero, you won’t be allowed on all the rivers, some being maintained as wild only, so having a permit and a guide is necessary. You also wouldn’t want to get lost in the maze of tight channels, easy enough to do, and especially in a kayak.

At some points along the Continental Divide linking volcanoes in the country, you can view both the Caribbean and the Pacific at the same time. From the steamy jungles east of that dividing line to the drier but still verdant western edge, panoramic and close-up views fill with birds and wildlife, ready to distract you. This brings me back to Tortuguero and our friend the sloth, still smiling.

What to Expect in Tortuguero

The rivers and canals feeding into the lagunas (small lakes) are fresh water, while the lagunas share seawater with the ocean. Some of the lodges along the waterways have A/C, and others have swimming pools. The ocean currents are strong and dangerous along the beaches, so you’ll want a safe way to cool off. All accommodations feature three meals a day (and a bar) because there is no ‘going into town for dinner’ unless you hire a boat and a driver.

It gets dark very fast, minutes, it seems, this close to the Equator. We sat at the bar at Laguna Lodge, watching the sun dive into the western horizon. Despite being soaking from the humidity and exhausted from a day spent on the water, we grinned.

“To the perfect sloth photo,” I said. My husband John clinked his bottle with mine and mopped his face with a bandana.

“To Pura Vida,” he replied. The simple life.