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Entries in Tortuguero National Park (1)

Monday
Aug022010

Latin American Travel: My Unforgettable Trip to Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica

 

Latin American Travel within Central America involves traveling through some raw terrain by car, bus, ferry, or boat. I think that is the fascinating part about traveling in Costa Rica–getting there is one journey, but you will travel subsequent journeys to see the ocean, rainforests, and volcanoes. It's the kind of travel for adventure seekers.

In order to get from the main international airport in the capital city of San José–down to the coastal areas, you have to scale the mountain range surrounding the central valley. Alternatively, there are two coastal airports: one in Limón which is on the Atlantic Coast; and another in Libería which is on the Pacific Coast. Even though the country of Costa Rica is one-fourth the size of Minnesota, its biological diversity includes both Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.

I have never felt so alive in all my life during my travels in Costa Rica. I am so grateful for these experiences. It’s easy for me now to settle into family life having once experienced such adventures in a rich coastal land (Rich Coast=Costa Rica). My travel lust is more than satisfied. It still seems a little like a dream.

My trip to Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica in 2005 has to be the most profound travel experience of my life. This was a trip my daughter Andrea and I took with her Costa Rican family (her father, her grandparents, and her aunt) during a visit to see them when she was 11 years old. (See maps below)

I was lucky to have her family as travel companions on many occasions before and after Andrea’s birth in San José. Andrea’s dad is responsible for 90% of my travels in Costa Rica over the years. If he wasn’t able to go, he borrowed a vehicle to me, or family members and friends for various trips. Costa Ricans are very proud of their country and want to share it with foreigners. Tourism does account for a large share of their economy.

We had just arrived in San Jose, where the family lives, the day before when they declared our departure to Tortuguero the next day. Like all the times they announced a spur of the moment trip, I had no idea what was in store. It’s always an exercise for me in turning over control, and it’s always uncomfortable along with “culture shock” until I am able to go with the flow. It usually takes me about a week to totally acclimate, so ideally our trips there are for 2-3 weeks or more.

Culture shock is when the senses get overloaded with so much stimulation from being in a different country, communicating in a different language, eating different food, the inevitable altered sleep patterns, and experiencing new weather/altitude. It all kind of peaks around the third to fifth day and then evens out. Sometimes it comes with a severe case of homesickness.

The best treatment during the peak of culture shock is just a simple time-out for a few hours, a nap or time alone. I’ve learned some people are more sensitive to culture shock than others. I am definitely one of the more sensitive as are children and older folks.

Tortuguero (which means "turtle catcher") was the most profound trip because it required the most elaborate journey to get there. A four-hour twisting river boat ride after a two-hour car ride through the mountains from San José to Limón. We rented a boat in the Bay of Moín, which is the beginning of a canal that leads into Tortuguero National Park. It wasn’t a fancy boat either.

I would recommend reserving a spot on the larger more comfortable boats (shown below) that are also available for the ride down the river, even if they are more expensive. Four hours in a cramped boat with only a rain cape for protection makes it seem like a lot longer, especially with kids. Unfortunately, when we were loading the small boat, our camera fell in the river. It was a crappy way to start the trip, so I don’t have any photographs to share our experience (these photographs were available online).

The village of Tortuguero is like nothing else in the world, quite literally, because it is removed from civilization. An automobile has never touched its sandy soil, and one never will. Tortuguero National Park is a protected reserve of 51,870 acres of one of the last remaining areas of tropical rain forest in Central America. The only way to get there is by river boat or by small plane.

Its rich biological diversity is home to 11 identified habitats within the park, over 300 species of birds as well as monkeys, otters, and sloths, to name a few species. But the most famous of all is the sea turtle. It is one of the only creatures that exists today in the same physical form that it had during the prehistoric era. The family described it as a surviving dinosaur.

Tortuguero is a nesting area for sea turtles, and since 1970 it has been protected to preserve a 22 km stretch of shoreline that serves as the main nesting site for the western half of the Caribbean Sea. Archie Carr, a biologist known as the "father of turtle research," was the leader of conservation efforts that begain in the 1950's.

The dark sands provide the ideal environment for the sea turtles to lay their eggs. The huge reptiles emerge from the sea to haul their heavy bodies ashore to dig holes in the sand and deposit their eggs at night, under the cover of darkness.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle nests on the beaches of the southern portion of the park, far from the village of Tortuguero, from February to April. The Atlantic Green Sea Turtle nests on the shores closer to the village from July to October. There are night tours available to view the Green Sea Turtles coming ashore onto the beach, but they have to be arranged in the company of an authorized local guide.

Once we arrived there the first night, it was suppertime and then straight to bed to rest from the long trip. But the following day we explored the island-like atmosphere. Residents traveled by bicycle on the sandy paths through the narrow village. Instead of car engines and horns, there was only the whisper of the occasional bicycle tire meeting sand.

Shops and restaurants with yummy food and fun souvenirs lined the pathways through the village. I was enchanted while sitting in a small cafe sipping my favorite coffee, café con leche, absorbing the mellow atmosphere. I watched the not-so-hustle and bustle of people walking by and listened to the rain forest sounds blending into the background. It seemed surreal to be so far from home, having taken multiple modes of transportation to arrive at such a remote and tranquil place.

I met some shop owners who were once foreigners that relocated to Tortuguero. They must have embraced the radical simplicity of its unique atmosphere, and I could see why. Like the tropical river ways that define it, the essence of Tortuguero is s-l-o-w. Maybe it also has some special energy that attracts the sea turtles to return year after year after year. What keeps them coming back to the same spot? It’s a mystery.

After the long journey from Minnesota shortly before we embarked on our trip to Tortuguero, culture shock hit hard the second night we stayed there. It happened to be the night the family arranged to go on a night tour to see the turtles. Looking back on it now seems hard to justify, but my daughter and I had to rest in our hotel room. I was also under the impression that we would have the following night to go on a tour to see the turtles. But the following day the family made the decision to return to San José. I really didn’t want to leave, and I really didn’t want to get on that small boat again for four hours.

I have promised myself to return one day to see what I missed the first time. If everything happens for a reason, I’m supposed to go back. Tortuguero has since developed even more, so it would be great to see the new developments. Lessons learned: I will give myself at least 2-3 days after arriving in San José to acclimate and rest before embarking on the significant journey to Tortuguero, and I will take a larger boat down the river with more comfortable seats and shelter from the frequent rains. There’s also the possibility now of flying in on a small plane to eliminate all the transportation, but I don’t really care for traveling by small plane unless it’s the only way. One of the newer hotels that has won awards for being eco-friendly is shown below. (tortugalodge.com check out the cool panoramic view they have on their home page)

I believe there must be a wonderful energy of Tortuguero that keeps the sea turtles coming back. It’s interesting to note that when I returned home from this trip, I had a renewed determination for my life that carried me through several personal trials the following year.

If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend a trip to the third most visited national park in Costa Rica. I would also suggest that you book a tour to Tortuguero through a hotel or travel agency instead of arranging all the details yourself. A travel package would include a bus from San José to the boat launch, the river boat launch (in comfort), hotel accommodations in Tortuguero, park entrance fees, and a guided night tour to see the turtles.

During the day you can visit one of three park stations in order to hike on nature trails with scenic overlooks. Another way to get an inside view of the park is by renting a boat to travel through the network of streams and lagoons behind the beaches. I would rent a boat with a driver that is familiar with the canals.

For some more background information about Tortuguero National Park, here are some helpful links:

Costa Rica Guide to Tortuguero National Park

Wayfaring Information on Tortuguero National Park

And below is a beautiful video I found on YouTube, a very nice piece on the Tortuguero Community. And it's in Spanish with English subtitles!