In Tortuguero, you expect tourism to revolve around turtles. The turtle-shaped pool at Turtle Beach Lodge, a few miles north of the town on the northern Caribbean coast, does little to dispel this expectation.
But a recent stay at TurtleBeach that was well outside the traditional turtle high season proved there is more to the lodge than just turtles. Located on 175 acres, the lodge embodies jungle seclusion. You can explore its garden and trail, take a canal tour or kayak on your own to a nearby lagoon – and if you don’t see a turtle, well, it’s not the end of the world.
Since 1999, the Lachenman family from the U.S. state of Indiana has owned and operated Turtle Beach Lodge, giving it something along the lines of an extreme makeover.
Construction has been “basically constant” from the start, says Jesse Lachenman, 27, who runs the hotel while his parents are in the United States. The pool was built in 1999, the bar and restaurant renovated two and a half years ago, and new blocks of rooms have been added each year. Currently, a new boat dock is in the works.
For now, the lodge features 55 rooms, which Lachenman says “are all basically the same.” The few original rooms are smaller singles, while most others are doubles with at least two beds. The rooms are simple yet comfortable, and the bathroom showers are hot and powerful, a welcome surprise considering the lodge’s relative isolation.
On our visit, my companion and I shared a corner room that had two queen-size beds as well as a couch that could double as a third bed. Towels folded in the shape of turtles awaited us on the beds. The rooms come with ceiling fans and are essentially half open-air with expansive, screened windows.Our corner room received a pleasant breeze to offset the jungle heat.
While Lachenman says Turtle Beach receives almost all its business straight from tour companies, packages can be booked on the lodge’s Web site for itineraries of two, three and four days. Custom packages are also available.
“We can set up any kind of stay you want,” he says.
For most visitors to TurtleBeach, the journey begins in San José. The hotel picks visitors up early in the morning and transports them over to the Caribbean, with stops for breakfast and tours of BraulioCarrilloNational Park and a banana plantation. Then, the voyage hits the water for the two-hour boat ride up the canals to TurtleBeach.
For our quick stay, my companion and I flew to Tortuguero, but I rode along with one of the tour groups to get the full canal experience. For many, it is a first impression of Tortuguero that is difficult to forget – especially when passing a crocodile taking in the midday sun on a sandbar.
To get the full canal experience, however, TurtleBeach’s canal tours are a must. At dinner the night before, our guide Eloy had warned us not to show up the next morning with high expectations. But we had barely left the dock at 5:30 a.m. before we encountered spider monkeys in the trees over the canal, breakfasting on hearts of palm. Soon, Eloy and our boat driver John – who proved to be an astute animal spotter as well – had guided us past basilisk lizards, a juvenile caiman, white-faced monkeys, two species of heron and a group of bats sleeping under a log.
Depending on the time of year, TurtleBeach also offers tours of its garden, day and night jungle tours, tours of TortugueroNational Park and, of course, turtle-watching tours during the Atlantic green turtle season, about June through August.
If all the touring wears you out, TurtleBeach offers simple yet satisfying options for relaxation. While the surf is a bit too rough for swimming at the beach, there are plenty of benches and hammocks where you can nap and enjoy the pristine view of the Caribbean. The aforementioned turtleshaped pool is perfect for an afternoon dip, and ideally located next to the lodge’s bar and restaurant. Simply wandering the gardens and the grounds can be a learning experience, as every tree and plant is labeled in both English and Spanish to help inform budding botanists.
Three meals a day are included in the room rate, served up buffet-style at the airy restaurant. (Soft drinks and alcohol are available but not included; bottles of wine start at $20.) Offerings vary, but one day’s fare included: gallo pinto, eggs, sausage, pancakes, fruit and muffins for breakfast; casados, pork, pasta with meatballs, salad and vegetables for lunch; and pork, fish, mashed potatoes and vegetables for dinner, with cake and ice cream for dessert. The food was surprisingly solid for a buffet in the middle of the jungle – we often enjoyed second and third helpings – and with the wide array of options, even picky eaters could find something they liked. Be sure to arrive shortly after the meal announcing gong sounds, however, as the fare tends to get cold quickly.
TurtleBeach employs about 40 workers, most from local communities, and keeps strong ties to the area. The lodge helped build a new two-room schoolhouse in the nearby village of San Francisco, and children from the village perform a traditional dance for visitors at the lodge once or twice a month.
“It’s really cute,” Lachenman says.
There was no traditional dance during my recent visit, and no turtles, either. But we did enjoy two days alternating between breathtaking wildlife watching and placid, pool- and beachside relaxation.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Turtle Beach Lodge is five miles north of the town of Tortuguero. Boats can be arranged to pick up visitors either at the Tortuguero airport or from the Caño Blanco marina, where the road from San José ends.
The lodge also provides a minibus shuttle from San José that includes tours of BraulioCarrilloNational Park and a banana plantation along the way.
Per-person rates begin at $245 for two days, one night; $329 for three days, two nights; and $415 for four days, three nights. Rates go down for each additional person, and include meals, taxes and a number of tours (depending on length of stay). Custom packages are also available.
For information, visit www.turtlebeachlodge.com or call 2248-0707 or 2258-4756.