Turtles by moonlight...can you top that?

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Limon,
Thursday, September 23, 2010

After driving for hours from Puerto Viejo along two-lane roads, sandwiched between semi trucks, we got to Siquirres, where we were going to get a on a guided trip to Tortuguero National Park the next morning. This is a canal along the northeast coast of Costa Rica where sea turtles come to nest. Turned out we were going to be there during the Green Sea turtle nesting season, so chances were pretty high we'd get to see some turtles.

Siquirres looked like a big-ish town on the map, but when we drove into town way after dark, there was nowhere that looked very comfortable for a stay. My guidebook only had one place listed, and when we drove past it was little more than a truck stop with a hanger-size drive-up restaurant, not a place for my mom or for me. So we drove back out and ended up at a roadside motel we saw outside town, a row of rooms facing the highway, dark and a little dreary, but it was just for the night.

There was supposed to be a sideroad leading off the highway to the place we were supposed to pick up the tour, but we weren't able to find it in the night, so we called the tour company in the morning and a woman gave us specific directions. We were less than a quarter mile from the sideroad, just by a bridge we could see from the hilltop where the motel was. The woman said we'd go down a dirt road through a little town before we got to the center where the tour was leaving from. But lock your doors going through the town, don't accept help from anyone and don't stop for any reason. She made it sound like we were going through a warzone.

We were getting some help from the receptionist at the hotel too, to find this place, and once I hung up the phone and told her where we were going, she also said we had to be careful of thieves and almost insisted that she go with us to show us where the place was. We declined, and she still looked so worried, so she took us outside to point out where the bridge and road would be. I told her we'd turn around and come back if we couldn't find it right away. We were both a little freaked out after that, going through this little dirt-road town. We'd been hearing a lot of these kinds of warnings - don't stop on deserted roads, don't accept any help from strangers. I'm sure there's something to all that, but I also was starting to wonder if some of it has to do with classism, as in, "that town's poor, so it must be filled with thieves."

There were people walking around in the town, but it didn't seem especially threatening, and it was broad daylight. After about a mile, we saw a sign for the Exploradores Center and drove up to a gated compound surrounded by a huge fence. Eventually someone from inside opened the electronic gate and let us in. I think they saw us on the security cameras or something. We'd seen several times where it was noted proudly that Costa Rica has no military. Later on in the trip we visited Peace University, a master's degree program for people interested in "peace studies," and the campus guide noted the same thing. Yeah, Mom said later, they don't have a military, but they have bars on everything!

Anyhow, the center was nice and had a huge breakfast buffet set out. We were the first ones there, so anxious were we to get through that "scary" town! Later on more people showed up and the tour came together and everyone loaded into a van. It was several hours' drive to the canal where we'd pick up the boat, much of it over dirt roads and through almost endless banana plantations owned by Del Monte and Chiquita.

Our guide was Laura, a tiny Costa Rican who had some degree in tourism and painstakingly explained everything in detail in Spanish and English and was very knowledgable. After an hour, we stopped at a Del Monte plant where they were harvesting bananas. It was kind of amazing how much of the work was done manually and how very little machinery was involved. Through the huge fields of banana trees, there was a system of raised rails set up. Guys working in the field would attach huge limbs of bananas to a series of hooks on the rail, then run with a chain, pulling the whole line, back to the plant. They'd pull the bunches into the end of the plant, where other guys would hack off bunches of bananas that you buy in the store. Each branch must've had something like a dozen bunches. These would get passed on to another room where only women were working to sort out the good bunches and throw them in huge pools to wash off the sap that spoils the bananas, or to throw bruised bananas in a big truck trailer, where a big pile was accumulating, to be sent off to make baby food or banana wine. After washing, the bunches were moved to another section where only men stood packing them into boxes, super-fast.

It was really interesting, but we wondered if the workers kind of felt like a zoo exhibit with all the tourists pressing our faces to the mesh around the plant. One lady washing bananas turned and posed with a bunch and we all took pictures (yes, I'm a total tourist too!). Laura took us to the field across the dirt road from the plant and explained all about bananas - the trees take 10 months to mature and only yield one bunch of fruit. Standing water will kill them, so all the trees were surrounded by deep ditches for the rainy season. They grow in bunches of three trees, one mature and one maturing while a third is just getting started. I'd read a little about the history too - that banana farming in Costa Rica was an outgrowth of American railroad builders to build a railroad from San Jose to the coast.

After another hour, we stopped again, this time at a little conservation center where the proprietor took us through a dense garden where he'd collected all sorts of jungle plants and told us about them. He took down a cocoa pod and let us try the cocoa beans inside, which only taste very distantly like bittersweet chocolate. He had a screened-in area where he'd collected all sorts of cool tropical frogs - bright-colored and one even translucent white. I'd say most of the cool wildlife we saw in Costa Rica was in captivity, despite our efforts to bring binoculars on our hikes and get up early in the morning!

A little while later we got to the river, got in our boat for several hours on the canal, where Laura looked and looked for wildlife to show us. In the end we only saw a sloth high up in a tree, some monkeys and some pink spoonbills that look a lot like flamingoes. We got to the resort and it was really lovely. A big clubhouse where a big lunch was set out, a swimming pool shaped like a turtle (no kidding) and sweet little cabins where we stayed. We had lunch with Tara and Beth, two sisters from Virginia who we'd met on the way. Both worked for the VA, though they had very different views of the organization. Beth thought they do a great job caring for vets, but Tara thought differently. Once she heard Mom is a doctor, she looked relieved and started telling us about her service in the Gulf War and how she suffers from Gulf War syndrome, which makes her sensitive to strong smells and gives her headaches and makes her tired and gives her a lot of pain. It sounded like she'd been through a lot and was now better - she told us she'd gone to a meditation center in Peru where they work with a shaman and take medicinal plants and only a very restricted diet. I'd actually heard about it from a couple I met in DC who'd gone three years in a row. It's called Blue Morpho and Tara said it helped her a lot, but that a lot of people thought the place was about hallucinogenic plants, but that wasn't it at all. Beth had been to Costa Rica three times and stayed every time at Banana Azul, where they were going next (we were so jealous!). She thought perhaps a couple weeks in Costa Rica would be good for Tara too.

Later, we all loaded in the boat again and went to Tortuguero village, walked around, bought some jewelry. Laura took us to the Sea Turtle Conservancy and told us all about the sea turtles we'd hopefully see that night. It was interesting - only about 1 percent of turtles that hatch live long enough to reproduce. A female mates with several males and carries all the different sperm to fertilize the eggs later, so there's a diversity in the species. Turtles hatched on Tortuguero beach return there to lay their eggs years later.

After dinner, we all got back in the boat to go back across the water to the beach where we'd hopefully see some turtles. The rules were pretty strict and had just been make more so - no cameras, because some tourists had used flash and ruined it for everyone else. No flashlights on the beach, only the guide using a red light. No loud talking. We were joined by another group with a German man and his two sons, who were just cracking up at all the rules and being loud. I was talking to the two German sons when we met our guide in the dark just behind a row of trees edging the beach and he immediately pounced on the two guys, telling them that if they wanted to see some turtles, they'd better listen to the rules and be quiet! It was all pretty serious, but I wanted to see the turtles too! The guide said there was a turtle just on the other side of the trees digging her nest, so we all crept over to the beach.

I had no idea we were going to see such huge turtles! These were green sea turtles - there's also leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles that nest on Tortuguero, but this wasn't the right season. This turtle was something like four feet long and maybe three feet wide. She just dug the nest, a pit in the sand a couple feet deep and was laying eggs. The guide put the red light right up to where the eggs were coming out and it was kind of awkward and a little too graphic - like I was almost embarrassed for the turtle! "Did everyone get a good look?" the guide said after keeping his flashlight there for a long time. By that time, everyone had plenty of a look and had stepped away. "Don't worry," he said, "when she's laying eggs, it's like she's in a trance and has no idea we're here."

After she was done, she started flinging dirt back over the nest, throwing it for feet with her flippers, then turned back to the sea, pulling herself slowly over the beach. The moon was really bright and we could see a couple other turtles pulling themselves out of the waves and slowly up the beach. All in all, it was pretty cool!

We got up at 4:30 the next morning to see turtles hatch, which they do before sunrise mostly. We took the boat back over and looked for more than an hour, but it seemed we'd missed most of the action. We could see all the tracks from the mother turtles from past nights. They looked like tractor treads. The baby turtle tracks were everywhere too, smaller versions of the tractor marks. Laura was our guide this time and after awhile, she spotted one baby just coming out of the nest, a late riser, scurrying down the beach. So cute! We all followed it to the water's edge and watched it disappear. Just as we were about to leave, we saw another one coming out, but it was so sad. It hadn't fully developed yet and it's shell wasn't completely formed, so part of its stomach was hanging out. It was so sad because it surely wouldn't live long, but it was still crawling to the ocean. We all watched it and these two husky Spanish guys with us dug a trough all the way to the water to help it along.

There was another canal tour planned for later that morning, but seeing as how we'd seen such little wildlife along the canal the day before and how could we top the turtles? we decided to stay at the lodge for a few more hours and sketch and relax before the trip back. All in all, it was a great experience and the tour organization was really good. We got back to the Center in the early afternoon, where they had a big lunch set out for us and sundaes, then we were on our way again.
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Sheila on

I love this entry! Great writing! Wish I could be there with you!

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