Exploring the Tortuguero Area and Turtle Nesting

Trip Start Jul 22, 2013
Trip End Jul 31, 2013

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Limon,
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

We got up at 4:30 for our bus trip – it picked us up at 6:15 am. The bus was nice – air conditioned, comfortable seats, and not too crowded. After making a couple more stops at other hotels to pick up more guests, we were on our way to Tortuguero, on the Carribean Coast, to stay at the Pachira Lodge for the next two nights.

Our tour guide, Geraldo, was very pleasant, and it was amazing how fluent he is in English, as well as how quickly he switches back and forth between Spanish and English. Basically, everything he told us was a few sentences in Spanish, followed by the same sentences in English.

As an aside, later in our visiting with Geraldo, when we told him we were from Pennsylvania, he mentioned that he had been to the US once before for a soccer tournament, and they had visited an amusement park in Pennsylvania on this trip.  It turns out he had gone to Dorney Park, which is only about 45 minutes from our house, and place we go to a few times a year!

While on the bus, we drove over Costa Rica's version of the continental divide, which separated the flow of water from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We drove through a cloud forest. One of the characteristics of a cloud forest is that because vegetation gets so little sunlight it does not grow very tall.

We stopped for breakfast at a nice little resort where we had a buffet-style breakfast about an hour and a half into our trip. After breakfast we explored around the building, and saw some tiny (maybe a half-inch or so?) poisonous frogs with blue legs. We joked that it looked like they had blue jeans on. Later, we saw two sloths – one dark brown which was a bit further away, and one tan, and really close – Kim got some outstanding pictures of that one. Then it was back on the bus for another hour and a half.

An aside about sloths - before our trip, one of Emma's goals was to hold a sloth.  It turns out sloths are incredibly dirty, and have a lot of bugs that live on them.  They spend a lot of their day either eating, sleeping, or picking bugs off of themselves.  Also, they're so used to hanging upside down in trees, what can (and does!) happen quite often is a sloth dies, but it stays in the tree for several days afterwards, because it's sort of "locked" into a tree branch.  So while sloths might look cute to us, it sounds like we should keep our distance!

We started this bus ride in the major metropolitan area of San Jose – lots of traffic on a 4-lane highway. By the end, we were crossing over one lane bridges, and on a dirt road with banana plantations on both sides of the road, that dead-ended at a canal. There, we got off our bus, picked up our luggage, and walked down a muddy pathway to get onto a boat – one boat for our luggage, and one boat for us, and about 20 or so other resort guests. There were a total of 8 or so boats there for other tourists.

The boat ride to Pachira Lodge took about an hour. They told us that it was more or less just a transfer, and we wouldn't stop for sightseeing unless they saw something that we wouldn’t get a chance to see in Tortuguero, but we got lucky and saw two small crocodiles which we were able to take some pictures of. When we got to our resort, we had a welcome cocktail, which was basically a frozen (non-alcoholic) fruit drink. We had a buffet-style lunch at about 12:30pm, grabbed our bags, and went to our rooms. We were a bit surprised to find out that we had two rooms, and each room had two double beds. Not what we were planning on, but the girls didn’t seem to mind sleeping in the next room to us.

We met at the dock at 4:30 that afternoon, and took the boat across the canal to the village that was the home of the turtle conservatory, and a small town of about 1,600 residents. We were told that 95% of the residents rely on the tourism trade to make a living – the only ones that don’t are people like teachers, medical staff, and police. There is a turtle conservation center that we are planning on exploring tomorrow. Our guide took us to the beach where he pointed out a nest that a turtle had probably just laid eggs in the night before – it is basically a 4 foot diameter depression in the sand, really close to the plant line above the beach.

We then walked to a school yard where we saw the school children on recess time – a lot of them were playing outside the school buildings. The school year here starts in February, and goes through November. They have December and January off (this is because of coffee harvesting – it used to be that harvesting involved the entire family, and Dec/Jan was the harvest time). They also get the first two weeks of July off.

After leaving the school yard, we had an hour to explore the village of Tortuguero. There are no cars or motorcycles there – the "main street" is no more than 10 feet wide, with a fair number of tourist shops – souvenirs, handmade jewelry, snacks, drinks, etc. There were some guys set up with carts, and a machete, coconuts, and straws. For $2 (or, 1,000 colones) they would cut off the top of the coconut, put a straw in it, and you could have a drink to go of coconut milk.

As an aside, we have not actually held any Costa Rican currency (colones) in the day we’ve been here so far – dollars are not only accepted everywhere, they’re given in change a lot of the time, too. The girls bought a few souvenirs, and then we had a boat ride back to the resort.

We took a quick dip into the pool, and saw some really cool toucans right at the pool, feeding on berries literally 10 feet away from the pool. We got changed, and had a buffet-style dinner here at the resort.  Even if our stay did not include meals, this area is so remote that we'd be hard-pressed to find any place else to eat!

We then went on a turtle tour starting at 7:40pm, starting with a boat ride across the water to the beach area. It starts getting dark at about 6:30 or so here, so it was pitch dark by the time we started, which is what the turtles wait for to come out of the ocean. As an aside - they're very (very!) serious about protecting the turtles - so much that zero pictures are allowed, and if a guide is caught allowing a tourist to take a picture, the guide can lose their (required) license for some time - that's why we don't have any pictures of this event.

A quick boat ride, followed by a walk on a path through the dark, led us to the beach. It’s really cool how they have this set up – there are spotters that walk up and down the beach, watching for where a turtle comes in from the ocean, and radioing to the guides what marker-post on the beach they can find the turtle at.

Just the waddle up the beach takes 15 minutes for the turtles. Then, the turtle spends another hour or so digging her nest – first, a big hole for her whole body, and then using only her back flippers, a deep hole for the 100 or so eggs that she will lay.

Once she starts laying the eggs, the spotters let the guides know that the tourists can come in to watch. The turtles are basically in a trance when they’re laying their eggs, so we were standing literally 2 feet behind this monstrous 4 foot diameter green sea turtle, watching her drop egg after egg (spherical, about the size of a ping pong ball, with a soft shell) into her nest. It takes her less than a half hour to lay these eggs. Then, she rests, and starts to cover the eggs. We got to watch her start to cover the eggs. Her flippers are so strong, she showered us with the black sand from the beach as she was covering them.

We were hoping to be able to see her go back to the ocean, but she was taking too long, and government regulations meant that our group had to be completely off the beach by 9:45 to let the next group have a chance to get onto the beach. While we were waiting we saw at least two other females start to come up on the beach but they turned back to the ocean. I'm not sure if they turned back because they saw us, or possibly because it was nearly a full moon, which made the area bright, and therefore the turtles were concerned about their safety on the beach.  It turns out that one of the biggest predators of the adult female turtles is a local population of about 20 jaguars.

In 60 days the eggs will hatch, and less than 1% of the baby turtles make it back to the ocean – most are eaten by raccoons that dig up their nests, crabs, or birds on their way to the ocean. There are also more than 20 jaguars here that sometimes kill the adult turtles when they come on the beach. The egg laying season starts in July, which means that we couldn’t see any turtles hatching, but if we decide to come back to Costa Rica we need to make sure it’s in October or so we can see the babies trying to make a run for it back to the ocean!

Also amazing to us was the fact that a mother turtle lays a new nest of eggs every 15 days or so then goes our to the ocean where there are many males waiting to help her get started with the next round of egg-laying.

After getting back to our resort, we were in bed by 10:30 pm or so.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Between the time we laid down last night, and the time we got up (5:20am) I don’t think the rain and thunder stopped for more than a few minutes. Kim and I didn’t get much sleep, but the girls both said they slept well, and weren’t scared by the thunder. Occasionally, some sort of fruit or shell dropped on the roof of our room, which was enough to wake us up, too. The rooms don’t have air conditioning, so we have screen windows open all of the time, which means we hear all of the wonderful jungle bugs, too.

We left the resort at 5:45am for a canal tour, which was entirely from a boat. Fortunately, the bulk of the rain had stopped by the time we were on the water, as this boat (unlike the ones we were on before today) didn’t have a roof. We saw an amazing number of animals – toucans, spider monkey, howler monkey, caiman so close that we could almost touch it, iguanas, other exotic birds and more.

Once we got back, we had breakfast, and then rested in our rooms for an hour or so – the early mornings are catching up with all of us! Then we went on an hour and a half long hike through the jungle. To be honest, this was the least impressive part of our trip here – we didn’t see much new (a couple of toucans and some termites, and some semi-interesting trees). The most significant thing about this walk was that we absolutely needed to have the rubber boots on that we had borrowed from the hotel. There were places in the jungle where we were a good 8” deep in mud and water.

After the hike, we hit the pool, then had lunch. All the while, we made a trip or two to the bar at the pool, and Emma was making good friends with Carlitos the bartender. After lunch, we got a water taxi to take us from the resort back to the town of Tortuguero, where we explored the turtle conservatory (and adopted a sea turtle there, which Eve named "Rita"), watched a quick movie (in English!) about how much the locals' attitudes about turtles has changed in the last 40 years (from “hey, let’s make a quick buck selling turtle meat and shells” to “hey, we can make a lot more money by having tourists from all over the world visit us!”).

We then explored the town more – bought a few souvenirs, had some ice cream, drank coconut milk out of a raw coconut, and then took the water taxi back to the resort. We had time then to hit the pool before dinner.

As we spent more time at the resort, and getting more in tuned with the wild life, we noticed more and more things – a lot of little lizards, many bright blue crabs, huge spiders, and more. Most interesting was the fact that today we saw several big mammals right at the resort – a mother and baby sloth, a very active monkey, and then later, after dinner, a mother and baby monkey in a tree right above the pool. Finally, when we were just about the last people at the pool, a raccoon came out, and walked literally 3 feet behind us on his way to the water. I was amazed at how un-afraid he was of us. We had dinner, and one last goodbye to Carlitos before heading back to our room for a shower, and packing up for another early morning tomorrow. We’ve got to be all packed up and ready to go at 5:45am – first, a water taxi to the airport, and then a quick flight back to San Jose for our next leg of this adventure! Did I mention that this area is so remote that the only way in and out is by boat or plane? There are no roads at all leading in through the dense jungle.
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