Tortuguero is an amazing, relaxing and confusing little town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
Tortuguero is a small town smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and a man made canal system. It exists on just a sliver of sandy soil and business is conducted mostly by water taxi and the importing of goods from the other side of the canal. There are no roads only footpaths. Locals paint their businesses, homes, school and signs with bright colors and creative studies of nature.
If you walk down what appears to be the center trail where all of the shops and restaurants are you have only seen a smidgen of all that Tortuguero has to offer. Behind that path is another path that leads to the school and then on to the beach where the turtles nest. If you walk far enough and in the right direction you will find the Caribbean Conservation Corporation Research Station and Visitors Center (geesh, they could used a few less words). This very nice compound has a video watching room, an information wall (beware that some of the displays are mis-labeled so do your own research) and giant whale bones and coconut trees are used to decorate the picnic areas. This monkey in the jar-o is just one of the crazy things they have canned in the children’s study area.
Canals, then and now
The Tortuguero canals were essentially made for loggers. There are rusty remnants of big backhoes and huge skeletons of machines just lying around the town. They do not look like they have been placed there as historical monuments but simply left there to rot because the logging companies no longer needed them and there were no more machines to help move them out of the way. Even today after years and years of this area being placed in National Park status and as a Volunteer Tourist Town that saves sea turtles, there is still lumber being cut at night and sent to San Jose, the capital, to be sold in stores. As found in this article from an English CR paper, Costa Rica News Site. Not only are valuable lumber trees cut down but also any tree that is in the path of getting that lumber to the drop off point. Animal habitats are still being lost even though volunteers come in by the boat loads.
Protected Areas – Tortuguero National Park
In the morning light, the canals are used for something much more pleasant. Local Guides, that have special permits, take tourists on 2 hour long canoe treks through the protected waterways. Depending on the weather, how early you start and what fruit is in season you will possibly see monkeys (squirrel, howler and white faced), caiman’s, plenty of birds, iguanas and much more. The air is cool and the water calm. You pick up your park pass on the aquatic entrance of the Tortuguero National Park’s Visitors Center. If you find yourself at the other park entrance, you can take the foot trail but boots are required. If given the choice I probably wouldn’t walk the trail again as there is not much to see.
The Beach and the Turtles of Tortuguero
On the other side of town, opposite of the canal, is beach. As far as you can see there is beach and sea. No multi-level high rises, no funky little reggae bars, just beach. This extensive area is protected by Costa Rica as a sea turtle nesting area. Local Police and Coast Guard roam the area at night watching for poachers and thieves. The only hunters that the police don’t bother are the jaguars that come out of the woods to feast on the turtles, during season. But if the thief is human they will stop you if you are on the beach at night without a guide. Without educated guides tourists could step on and crush the turtle eggs that are shallowly laid beneath the sand. There is no photography of the turtles because the light of the flash can damage their eyes making them more susceptable to predators.
Tourism is the main source of income for many that live in this small area so they share in protecting the turtles and hatch-lings. Signs are both in Spanish and English just to make sure that everybody gets the message. Do not touch!
Sad but True
Recently, in the middle of the night 20 men armed with AK-47’s stole 487 turtle eggs from protection facility near by. Also, on most buses that are heading from the town of Guapiles to San Jose a guy will board offering fresh, boiled turtle eggs with salt. I have been offered them on many occasion.
Although there is a small airstrip in Tortuguero most people come by boat. You ride through miles of canal that are not part of the protected area. These areas have been family farms since before the 1940’s. What you can see along these routes are just as interesting as the wildlife but in a different way. Wooden homes, bars and boat repair shops sit at the shoreline.
What you’ll see during the boat ride