Costa Rica

Tortuguero – Land of the Turtles!

We left San José mighty early, Jungle Tom Safaris picked us up from our hostel at 6:00am and we were soon on the way to Torteguero.

Parque Nacional Tortuguero is 254 km away from San José, and is the the most important nesting site in the world for green sea turtles. Getting to Tortuguero is an adventure in itself. The first part of the trip is along the Guápiles Highway, which is jokingly referred to as the “Highway to Heaven” due to a high number of accidents and fatalities. However, we had nothing to worry about, as we were in the capable hands of Tomas, of Tom’s Safaris.

We were packed tight into a van with 12 other people, and were entertained all the way to Hamburgo de Siquerres, where we would board a shallow boat to take us into the park. As we began our descent into the Limón Province, the clouds began to roll in and erased everything beyond a 5ft radius of the van. Tomas cheerfully quipped, “If you are concerned that you can’t see the road, don’t worry…I can’t either.” He was driving.

Tomas was full of interesting Costa Rican facts, including the following:

1. Costa Rica is packed full of volcanos because it was the last area in the Americas to rise from the ocean about 12 millions years ago. That’s why there are no dinosaur remains here, they died out before Costa Rica even existed!

2. Education and health care is free in Costa Rica…they have this crazy theory that it’s cheaper to pay for someone’s education for 18 years than support them on welfare for their entire lives. Madness!

3. Towns that have women’s names, such as Roxann and Carmen, were named after the madam of the local brothel. These small towns mainly came to be due to the traffic surrounding the whorehouses, so as they grew, they adopted the same name as the woman in charge.

4. If you can’t afford to buy a house, the government will build you a small one, wherever you live. End of story.

As Tomas says, “such is the way the cookie crumbles.” We also passed through the only tunnel in Costa Rica.

As we came closer to Siquerres, we began to pass through banana plantations, which have started to encroach upon the protected areas of the Tortuguero Natl. Park. All of the banana bunches are covered with blue plastic bags.IMG_1673-0.JPGAs bananas grow in cylindrical bunches, the bananas that are in direct light from the sun grow faster than the bananas in the shadow. The bag ensures that the bananas grow at the same rate…so now you know.

We arrived at the shore of the Río Reventazón, and due to the large number of tours arriving, is the site of quite a thriving business focusing on coca-cola and luxury bathrooms (only $1). We boarded a panga (flat-bottomed outboard-motored boat) and started gliding through the canals of Tortuguero, our captain simultaneously watching for sloths in the trees and dodging motorboats with precision.IMG_1649-0.JPGIMG_1652.JPGIMG_1650.JPGTomas was quick to point out that crocodiles can jump 2 meters into the air. Crocodiles? No way! Yes way.IMG_1651.JPGThere he was…a three meter-long killing machine, just taking a nap on a log. Oh yeah, we were about 20ft away. John and I already had our arms and hands inside the boat so we didn’t accidentally contract Leptospirosis, but we did shrink into the center of the boat as much as possible from that point forward.

Every now and again, we would pass houses on the banks of the canal…these ranged from shanty, District 9 style accommodations to, well, about one step above District 9.IMG_1647.JPGIMG_1646.JPGThe crocodile wasn’t the only wildlife we passed along the way, there was a rather large iguana (Tomas refered to it as his mother-in-law) high up in a tree. IMG_1648.JPG
We were booked into the Evergreen Lodge, one of the many lodges that line the shores of the canals in the park, all offering wildlife tours and rainforest hikes.IMG_1674-0.JPG Around noon, we were delivered into the capable hands of Kevin, our tour guide for the next three days. The Evergreen Lodge is an unreal place…everything is in close proximity, yet the amount of towering palms, ferns, bamboo and Sacriposa trees make it feel very isolated and wild. There was incredible wildlife everywhere you looked…it was almost like they had a team of set designers sprinkling tree frogs on the path and shooing lizards up nearby trees. “Cue spider monkeys….spider monkeys in 3…2…1…GO! Wait, throw that one a baby monkey…perfect!” Seriously, the following animals were encountered 15 minutes after stepping foot on the property.IMG_1684-0.JPGIMG_1677-1.JPGIMG_1668-0.JPG
After lunch, we boarded another boat and chugged across the canal to the village of Tortuguero, which existed before the park was officially created in 1975. Tortuguero, and the remainder of our journey in Costa Rica, is in the Limón Province, situated on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, between Nicaragua and Panama. The village has a typical Caribbean flavor; the bright colored, ramshackle houses have faded a bit in the wash, dogs sleep in the street and there’s a guy in a crazy hat selling coconuts full of rum. Guess which one of us jumped on that opportunity? Clue: he has a huge beard.IMG_1667-2.JPGIMG_1671-2.JPGIMG_1672-2.JPG
The village sits on an island, which is about 30km in length, between the Caribbean and the canals. The beach is a fairly wild place, the water is dark and angry and the dark volcanic sand is littered with driftwood and coconut husks.IMG_1665.JPGIMG_1666.JPGIMG_1663.JPGSharks and barracudas patrol these waters, but that didn’t distract folks from going in for a dip.IMG_1664.JPG
We would return to this beach in the evening, to watch the green sea turtles lay their eggs, but until then we walked the shoreline. We watched a family catch fish with fishing line and an empty two liter coke bottle for a float, which was a surprisingly successful enterprise. We pondered the Health and Safety score of the Coco Loco pushcart, manned by Excitable Man in Novelty Hat who may have sold John a coconut full of Leptospirosis.

Tortuguero means turtle catcher in Spanish, and for hundreds of years, fisherman made their living hunting the turtles and selling their meat and shells. Now they are protected, although there is still some poaching that occurs. Not only are the turtles themselves at risk, but their eggs are considered delicious by the dogs, raccoons and snakes that abide on the island. A turtle will start laying eggs around 25-30 years old, and will return to the same beach she was born on every 2-3 years, as will her female young when they have matured.

Ever since I realized that we would be visiting during the egg-laying season, I knew we had to visit Tortuguero to watch the sea turtles. There are no cameras allowed, so I have no picture of our tour or the turtles, but it’s an experience I will never forget.

There is a strict limit on the number of visitors on the beach during the night, and you can only go with a certified turtle guide. Our guide was Marie, and she has been leading turtle tours for 14 years. She walked our small group onto the runway of the regional airport and told us what we were about to see. There are 4 stages to the nesting process. Firstly, the turtle comes high onto the beach and picks a spot to nest; this can take up to 45 minutes. Then, the turtle digs a deep hole and lays up to 80-100 eggs. After she has filled the hole, she will spend about 20 minutes covering the eggs, first with her back legs and then her front. At this point, she is exhausted, so she rests upon her nest until she has the strength to crawl back to the ocean. The whole process can take up to 2 hours.

The beach is divided into 5 sections, and each section has a small number of spotters that walk the beach, waiting for the turtles to emerge from the water. Once a turtle has been spotted, and has begun to lay her eggs, the spotter will radio the guide and direct them to the site. Once the turtle is laying her eggs, she goes into a trance, so you are able to get within touching distance while she is laying.

We hung out on the airstrip for about 20 minutes before we got the call on the radio. After walking through the forest trails, we came to the pitch black beach. All the electric lights are turned off during nesting time, and the only light allowed on the beach is one red flashlight per tour group. After stumbling through the sand, tripping over driftwood and inadvertently grabbing the wrong person in the dark we came to the nest. The turtle was about 3ft wide and 4ft long. Marie told us that she was a small turtle, but she was still magnificent. She was mainly covered in sand which had settled on her as she dug the nest, but a small patch of her shell was visible. Just above where I imagined her shoulder blades to be, in the middle of her back, was a symbol made by the pattern on her shell. It looked like an alien handprint, a hand with three long fingers. It was similar to an ancient rune, and I was transfixed by it. The whole experience was incredible, but somehow this mark on her shell made her even more special.

While she was covering her eggs, two more turtles came out of the ocean. They were headed to the exact same spot and, once they realized that, they both freaked out and high-tailed it back into the water. As they were retreating, we were allowed to follow them down to the water with the light…once they were in the ocean, the only sign that they were ever there were deep parallel tracks in the sand.

After our two hour time allocation was over, we made our way back through the forest, just as our turtle was going to leave her eggs and head back to the water. I looked up the rune symbol when we got back to the lodge…it’s a Viking rune that means protection. I like that. Turtles can live for 80-100 years, and her size indicated that she was fairly young. I’ve thought of her many times since we met, usually when I am falling asleep. I hope she’s still swimming around when I have left this earth.

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Categories: Costa Rica

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