We have been lucky enough to spend two magical days on the island of Tortuguero. An island only accessible by boat or air and there are no cars on the island. Nothing but a small town which you can walk the whole of and from the river one side to the Pacific Ocean the other.
Our shuttle, courtesy of Exploradores Outdoors, picked us up at 630am on Wednesday morning, from our hostel in San José. There were only two other people on the shuttle and then we picked up one of the company guides before heading on our way. We passed through the Carro Barillo Forest, and the guide was telling us that Costa Rica is home to 112 volcanoes, about 700 species of animals and about 1600 species of bird. He also informed us that pineapples, bananas and tourism are the three most important things in Costa Rica. The scenery we were passing through was beautiful, especially early in the morning as there was still a haze falling over the forest as the sun wakes up.
We only stopped once more to pick two more people up before arriving at the Exploradores Outdoors base camp. From here you can get shuttles to Tortuguero, Arenal, the Caribbean and back to San José. They even provided breakfast. Fruit, oatmeal, the staple breakfast of Costa Rica, rice and beans, which was really tasty and not dry at all like I thought it would be. The best thing? They had tea!!! I was so excited about finally having a proper cup of tea after so long. Tea bag in the cup, milk in the cup, sugar in the cup, now to find the water. Instead of adding water I added coffee. So I had a random mix of tea and coffee with quite a bit of sugar. The result? Not the cup of tea I was so looking forward to, but also a not so bad tasting drink. Clearly I was still half asleep. We even saw a sloth chilling out in the tree!
It wasn't long and then we were boarding another minibus to Tortuguero. 33km of a dirt track, bumpy as hell, passing through miles and miles of banana plantations awaited us. We didn't bring anything with us except for a change of clothes as that's all we'd need for a night. Some people brought full on huge suitcases. Apparently there's a limit of 20 pounds per person? Another rule loosely enforced. The ride was extremely bumpy but the scenery again was beautiful. The bananas were tied up in blue bags on the trees until they were ripe and ready. We even passed a Del Monte factory.
After about an hour, we reached the boat dock. This was to be my favourite part of the journey to and from the island. We boarded a smallish boat, luggage was put at the back and set off. The boat took us along the river….Passing through the forest and then Tortuguero National Park. It was breathtaking. An hour and a half roughly of speeding through this greenery, home to monkey, sloths, insects, jaguars, crocodiles and turtles as well as countless birds and butterflies. The breeze was so refreshing as it passed through. As we turned corners the boat I swear was at a 45 degree angle and there were times I was practically in the water. It was amazing. We saw a turtle perched on a log and we also saw a crocodile! Once you see a crocodile, every leaf hiding in the bushes looks like a crocodile tail. My eyes were playing tricks on me!
We pulled up at the dock and disembarked. The island is small so our hostel was about 50m away. We were taken to 'Roots' a tour company and told about the turtle tour for that evening, to go back at 530pm to see what time our tour would be, either 8-10pm or 10pm-12am. We were checked into our hostel, Cabinas Tortuguero, by Tom and Holly, the English managers, and shown to our room. The sun was shining, it was hot, so we headed to the beach, a mere two minute walk away. The waves were crashing down and the sand was warm. Time to top up our tans.As always, after about half an hour or so the clouds started rolling in and it began to rain. We headed to a pizzeria for lunch where Nathan enjoyed a delicious burger and I had a pizza that was more tomato slices than anything. The town of Tortuguero consists of small shops, souvenir shops, restaurants, tour companies and hostels.We stopped at 'Roots' at 530pm for David to tell us our tour would be 10pm-12am and to wait outside the office at 915pm. Whilst we were waiting for the time to arrive we were treated to a beautiful sunset.We left the hostel and walked the very short distance to meet our guide, Rafael and the rest of the group, a girl from Lithuania and a couple from Germany. We then picked up a family from Slovenia and headed to the beach. Now, they close the beach in Tortuguero at 6pm to ensure there's no one around the disturb the turtles coming to nest. We couldn't take photos during the tour either so I'll do my best to describe it in words.
We walked about a kilometre along a path between the beach and the houses. Then, the houses suddenly stopped and we, along with the other guides and groups, congregated at the meeting point. How the tours work, is that there are spotters and trackers on the beach. They then radio into the guides when a turtle is at the point we can go and see her laying her eggs. We were group 2. Rafael was so passionate and knowledgable it was incredible. He actually began the guided turtle nesting tours back in 1990, as a way to educate and help preserve this important nesting ground for the green sea turtle as well as other species of turtle. You can only enter the beach after 6pm with a certified guide. Back decades ago, turtle meat was being sold so intensely that the population of turtles was decreasing. The locals didn't understand the importance of these beautiful creatures. To them, they were food and money. When the tours were introduced, they educated the locals as to how tourism can bring in more money than what they would get for turtle meat, but only if they looked after the turtles. This is where the Caribbean Conservation Corporation was founded, headed up by Dr Archie Carr, who's aim was to see what these turtles were doing, tagging them, watching their movements and locations etc. And it all worked. These turtles entice thousands of tourists each year to hopefully catch a glimpse of them laying eggs.
So, as mentioned, the spotters radio the guides when a turtle is at the stage we can see her. What does this mean? We can't see a turtle as it is coming out of the sea, as they will get disturbed and head back into the sea, without nesting. We were lucky enough to see one coming out of the water but we then moved to another location to allow her the privacy needed to begin. Next? She finds somewhere to nest. She begins clearing the sand away with all four of her flippers and then once she is happy, she will begin digging a chamber with just her back flippers. This can sometimes be a metre below the surface. Finally, when she's happy with what she's made, she will begin to lay about 120 white ping-pong ball sized eggs into the chamber. After about the first 6 or 7, the spotters will then allow us to observe. The turtle enters a trance like state as she is laying her eggs which is then why we are allowed to observe, only from behind.
It was the most magical experience to be able to share this turtles nesting moment with her. Rafael used a red light to show us the eggs and we could see them just popping out of her. It was mesmerising. They say turtles cry during the egg laying process. Not necessarily because she's sad, but because they only spend about 1% of their life outside the sea, so crying slows them to dispel the salt from their bodies. That and the fact that the turtle never sees what she's doing. Everything is using her back flippers from digging the chamber, to covering the eggs and then making them camouflage. Once this is done, she heads back to the sea, to leave her baby turtlings to hatch after sixty days. The sad fact is that only about 1 in 1000 actually survive to maturity. The rest? Eaten by predators more than likely. After all, there are jaguars in the national park about 5km away.
As well as seeing a turtle emerging from the sea, witnessing one lay her eggs, we were also incredibly lucky enough to see two huge green sea turtles heading back into the sea. We followed them from behind, with just the guides red light to guide us. To top off a beautiful evening, there were even shooting stars in the night sky. The whole experience was just so incredible. On a high, we headed back to our hostel at midnight.
Thursday morning, we got up to go and find the turtle trails. The sun was shining, which was typical as it was a travel day for us. We walked back along the path we took yesterday and came across the visitors centre. They have all kinds of information on the turtles and other wildlife of Tortuguero as well as a short film. Seeing the turtles and watching the film has now made me want to be a marine biologist! Add that to the numerous jobs I want to do 😂! It was all just so moving. The sand was so hot but we didn't have to walk far at all to find some nests and the tracks. These turtles, as shown by the photo above, are huge.There were so many tracks and so many nests! They have a lot turtles nesting here and it is probably the most important conservation site for these beautiful creatures in the world. Our time on this idyllic little island was coming to an end, but not before noticing that our hostel was home to bright blue crabs!We had got quite sandy from the beach and wanted to wash our feet in the outside shower. Until we saw this monster…He scared the bloody crap out of us. We didn't wash our feet in the end. Instead, we headed next door to eat some chicken before we got the boat back to the mainland.The ride, as it was on the way out, was beautiful. Surrounded by the national park, we saw another turtle perched on a log but no crocodiles this time. We did however, appear to run out of fuel. The assistant guy told us we had to paddle at one point, to which we all thought he was joking. But then he came through the boat to the back to swap the fuel tanks over. Meanwhile we were just casually sitting not moving on the river.It genuinely did seem at one point like we weren't going to be moving any time soon. Thankfully, after a few minutes of no motion on the crocodile infested river, we were on our way. Our shuttle was waiting for us as we pulled into dock and took us back to the Exploradores Outdoors base, where we then boarded another shuttle back to San José.
We arrived back at about 6pm and we're staying in Hostel 1110 again before heading out Friday morning. Hoping they had a burger, as per the menu, we ordered food, only to be disappointed again. Time to hit the sack ready for an early start Friday…
Until next time…