Costa Rica Travel – “Hurry!” Edgar Cespedes, my Costa Rican guide, is beckoning me furiously.
The goal has been to glimpse of one of the green, Hawksbill or Olive Ridley turtles that call the area home. With none in sight, I’d been lingering behind the group, snapping photos of crashing waves and a beautiful sunrise instead.
Who rushes to see a turtle?
His yell changes things. In the distance, slowly moving from her nest high on the beach is a giant green turtle and now I am in a full sprint to get a closer look. Estimates put her at about 70 years old. Her slow pace, slow even for a turtle, is with good reason; the previous night she would have laid at least 100 eggs. Later, when we pop into the Sea Turtle Conservancy on the island, research scientist Beto Gonzalez calls us “lucky.”
Our visit in mid-October is at the tail end of the traditional green turtle nesting season, he explains. While visitors might see as many as 600 turtles nesting on the beach on a night in September, by November numbers begin to dwindle to an average of 50 to 80 and most nest, lay eggs and leave in the darkness of night.
It’s actually something of a miracle that there are any turtles in Tortuguero at all. When the Sea Turtle Conservancy began its work in Costa Rica in 1959 the animals were on the verge of extinction. A combination of tracking initiatives and educational outreach with local youth turned the tide.
Over the last few decades the number of turtles killed by locals for their meat and shells has dropped dramatically. Where once 200 to 300 turtles were being taken each night, now less than three per night meet that same fate.
“We are training the kids to understand that a live turtle is better than a dead one,” explains Gonzalez, who points to tourism dollars as a key factor in the community’s change of heart.
That’s not to say the town itself isn’t worth seeing. With a population of less than 1,500 people, the village is a welcome change from the increasingly tourist-dense spots in other parts of the country.
It won’t suit everyone. There aren’t an abundance of activities to keep you busy or blaring music to force your mood, but those who enjoy chatting with locals, spending an afternoon in a hammock, and seeking out wildlife in its natural habitat will be in heaven.
The village is busiest at night when the opportunity to head out and see the turtles heading to their nests draws out even the hammock swingers. Dino Matarrita, our nighttime turtle chaperone, stresses that even then he never guarantees a sighting.
“Sometimes I come out here and I can’t even see my hand,” he says. “This is nature. It could happen but . . . ”
Each nighttime guide is given a specific area on the beach to which he can take his group to watch for turtles. Another set of professional spotters are trained to watch for signs of the animals and alert the chaperone. There are many rules: dark clothing and closed-toe shoes among them. And everything from how close you can get, to when you can approach is closely regulated.
It can take hours to spot a turtle at this time of year. We wait for several hours only to learn that the one turtle that has made its way to our section of beach is missing a fin and struggling to dig her nest. We call it a night without catching a glimpse.
It’s why Cespedes is so excited when we happen on the green turtle the next morning. This time we watch her in silence.
Some morning months from now some of her hatchlings will attempt to take a similar path to the water, past flying birds, cunning rats and wayward human flip-flops. And of them, the 0.1 per cent that make it to adulthood will one day find their way right back here to lay eggs of their own.
Like their mother they’ll move slowly and carefully taking their own sweet time to do so — no matter who may be watching and waiting.
Heather Greenwood Davis’ visit to Tortuguero was subsidized in part by Costa Rica Tourism, visitcostarica.com, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When You Go
- Tortuguero is a sand bar island separated from mainland Costa Rica by rivers and navigable canals. The rainforest village shares space with the designated national park. There are no cars on the island.
- The word Tortuguero means “Land of the Turtles.” As many as 600 green turtles make their way to the beaches of Tortuguero to nest between July and October each year. Expect more tourists during the height of the laying season. Leatherback turtles nest in the same area between February and August.
- While green turtles lay an average of 100 to 200 eggs at a time, survival rates are low. About 70 to 80 per cent of a turtle’s eggs will hatch. Of those about 0.1 per cent will make it to adulthood.
Where to stay: Mawamba Lodge (mawamba.com) is an all-inclusive resort about 10 minutes from Tortuguero village. The hotel rates start around $230 (U.S.) and include round-trip transportation (bus and boat) from San Jose, meals and select tour options.
Non-turtle activities: While turtles are the main draw, keep an eye out for macaws, monkeys, caimans, sloths and lizards. The waters that the turtles call home aren’t suitable for swimmers. Sharks, caiman (crocodiles) and other less than friendly predators have already laid claim to the waters. Stick to hotel pools. Don’t miss speed boat or kayak ride opportunities to explore canals and get a closer look at the flora and fauna.
Don’t miss: The Sea Turtle Biological Field Station and Visitors’ Center (conserveturtles.org) offers information and photo ops. Purchasing T-shirts and crafts here helps with preservation projects.
By: Heather Greenwood Davis, The Star