Part One in Tortuguero
08.07.2013 - 21.07.2013
When we planned our trip to Costa Rica we, well, we didn't. We flew into San Jose late at night, got lost on the way to our hotel, and spent the evening deciding which coast to go to. We picked the east coast because I thought it was going to be sparkling turquoise Caribbean waters- which it wasn't, because it was the rainy season. But we also decided we wanted to see the turtles in Tortuguero, and looking back, that was really one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
I described our adventure getting to Tortuguero, the Region of Turtles, here: [link]. And although we had a list of hotels to check out when we got there, we were drawn to the crashing waves on the coast and ended up bunking at the first weather-beaten but cozy hostel we could find to drop our stuff. The actual rooms at La Casona are nothing to write about- in fact, there was no ventilation and the rooms were simple, but the hospitality, tourism connections and food were superb. This family run B&B helped us get our bearings in this north-south little town. Just a few blocks (yards? I'm bad with distance) from the beach, and right off of a soccer field that was busy with games from late afternoon till dark, it ended up being the central location for all of our activities.
First off, turtles. Tortuguero is the most important nesting site in the Western Hemisphere. All sorts of turtles come to lay their eggs here- leatherback, hawksbill, green and loggerheads. The Tortuguero National Park offers an extensive shoreline (22 miles!) for turtles to nest. During the summer is when they lay eggs, so we didn't see the little babies, but egg-laying was almost cooler!
Apparently there is lots of competition among tour companies- turtles are the main attraction, obviously, and there are locals who run tours from a little kiosk by the water and then many other operators. Locals complain about outsiders taking away their business, but many of the local guides we heard later only led tours in Spanish and didn't seem to interact much with their groups. We really didn't know who to go with, and we wanted to support the local economy, so in the end we decided to do a tour with a guide who some other girls at our hostel had booked on the second night of our stay. Seeing the turtles cost about $20 per person at the time (2013), and included a sticker whose cost was supposed to go to turtle conservation. However, the owner's son, Andrés, is also a tour guide and runs his own eco-tour company (Aventuras Neotropicales, although their Facebook page doesn't look active anymore), and just happened to have 2 open spaces on one of his tours the first night we were there, so we jumped at the chance to be able to see the turtles twice!
Seeing a turtle lay eggs is awe-inspiring. I've held turtles before in the Cayman Islands and seen them on countless occasions, but seeing them here, vulnerable and in the wild, is just amazing. First of all, these creatures are HUGE. Not the little turtles they sell at the pet shop or even the ones you might see at Sea World. They are enormous. They drag themselves up the steep shore, slowly, majestically, and find just the right place to lay their eggs.
Any number of things can convince them to turn back- light, for one. If there is a full moon or a particularly bright moon, or any light on the beach. Which is why developed beaches full of sky-rise hotels can completely decimate a turtle population. Another issue is predators- big cats love turtle eggs, and unfortunately so do humans. Luckily there is enough movement on the beach here in Tortuguero that sneaky humans are rare. I kept my eyes out for felines as we walked through the jungle, but they must wait until the tours are over to stalk their prey.
We got to see several turtles over the two nights we went out. It was so cool to see them come up from the water, or to see them lumber back from the tree line. They dig with their enormous flippers, and drop eggs like ping-pongs balls. Hundreds. I just wanted to hug these big mamas and say thanks making this journey, for making these little turtle babies! It was definitely an amazing experience. They are so peaceful and wise, and I actually teared up both nights as I watched this ancient ritual.
Although this turtle-watching business seems to be pretty well regulated, there were still a few issues we saw. People don't follow the rules. Both nights our tour guides told us that we shouldn't turn on any lights while out on the beach and that we should be respectful. But there are always dingbats who turn on flashlights or cell phones, or who make noise and disturb the turtles.
Also, there are way too many people on the beach. A turtle can get spooked for many reasons, but I definitely wouldn't climb up onto a beach full of dark silhouettes milling about. People were walking across the turtles paths and of course, we get up in their rear end to watch them lay eggs. Cool, but embarrassing at the same time. And finally, alcohol!? The second night our tour guide picked us up for our tour with a beer in his hand. He drank it as he walked us to the waiting area. We didn't have the chance to really connect with anyone in town to ask if this was typical or just our guide, but it was very unprofessional and caught us off guard.
All in all, turtles are a must-see in Costa Rica, and I'm so glad we were able to do it. If you do your research, you might actually be able to volunteer with a nonprofit that works with turtles, or donate more money to their conservation. Dropping your money around town at different shops and supporting tiny B&Bs on the coast will also help support the turtle population that comes back to this mud-colored, sandy coast year after year.