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October 08, 2001

Tortuguero

8 October 2001
Friends World Program
Long Island Univeristy
Costa Rica

 

The Beginning

Bright and early we met at school. There were only five of us when the bus picked us up. But there were already people on the bus and we picked up some more after; our final total was nineteen. The five already in the bus were some students from a language school, and the last nine we picked up were attending Universidad Nacional. All told we were mostly from the U.S. One woman was from Scotland, one from France, our guide was Costa Rican and he brought along a Colombian girlfriend.

The bus ride was long and annoying. Our guide told us the plan though. We would stop to take a small walk in Braulio Carrillo, a large nature preserve north and east of San Jose, and then head on down through the banana plantations where we would get on a boat, which would take us to Tortuguero.

"If I don't know the answers to your questions," he assured us, "I will make something up." This statement was confirmed when he told us that, "it rains like hell here, like 30 hours a day."

The walk through Braulio Carrillo was disappointing. There were miles and miles of gorgeous forest but we only walked about 50 feet along the road. We went onto a bridge so we could gaze down the valley. The bridge shook like a tree in the wind as trucks rolled by inches from our toes.

Back in the bus we drove for another hour or two before we arrived at our lunch destination. It seemed a bit odd to be eating lunch at 10:30 in the morning but since I had skipped breakfast that morning I didn't complain. Besides, the lunch was delicious; an incredible salad with cucumbers and avocadoes, beans and rice and a super fruit salad for dessert.

The reason for the early lunch was because that was the last town before the banana plantations and the boat ride.

The Banana Plantations

As we entered the banana plantations the first thing noticed, other than the rows and rows of banana trees were blue plastic bags covering the banana fruit.

Our trustworthy guide stopped the bus and explained that the bags help ripen the fruit faster but create major pollution problems. They aren't watched very carefully and frequently end up in the ocean suffocating sea creatures like the large turtles we wanted to see. Another major problem the plantations create is the mass amounts of pollution that wash to the sea.

Each banana tree only produces one large bunch of bananas at a time, only two a year total. One large bunch of bananas looks like about 10-20 small bunches (like the ones you see in the store) or a box or two. For those of you who have never seen a banana plant, the bananas look like they are growing upside down around a stalk that is hanging from the tree. The weight of the bananas can pull small plant off balance so there are lots of little red strings holding the plants up. The plants looked about 10 feet tall though my encyclopedia informs me they can get up to 40 feet. And of course there are many different types of bananas. The ones we saw were the most common kind, which are sold in grocery stores worldwide. The encyclopedia also states that the plant only produces once bunch (averaging 25 lbs) before dying but our trustworthy guide told us that the plantations have figured out how to get the plants to produce twice.

My informative encyclopedia (Encarta) also states that, on average, a banana is 75 percent water, (so why do they always make me thirsty?) 21 percent carbohydrates, and about 1 percent each of fiber, protein, fat and ash.

Since the manager wasn't at the banana packing plant, we were able to get a mini tour. I have to admit, work wise, it didn't look that bad. People pick the huge bunch and attach it to a wire and lead a whole bunch of bunches to the packing place. There they take off the bags and remove these weird rubber things that are wrapped around the bananas in between the bunches (they are put there to prevent ants, flies and bugs from nesting in the bananas). Then the workers cut the bananas off the stalk and put them into a huge vat of moving water. The bananas float over to people who put them on plastic trays where they move on a conveyer belt, get sprayed with something and are put in plastic bags in boxes, which are then shipped to your local grocery store. And of course somewhere in there the Chiquita (the banana company) stickers get stuck on.

While work doesn't look so awful, the pay really sucks. The people earn maybe 190 dollars a month, and keep in mind that prices here aren't much cheaper than in the states. The worst thing is that illegal immigrants make half that. Frankly, I don't know how they do it. So whenever you get cheap bananas, now you know why, though I am still not sure how. I wonder how much profit Chiquita makes per year.

After the tour of the plantation and packing plants (where we were asked not to take pictures) we boarded our luxurious boat where we would plop our soggy bottoms for at least 2 hours.

Tortuguero

There are no roads to Tortuguero, only two ways to get there, by boat or by plane. The boats don't vary much. They all have hard seats and are steered from the rear by a motor. Ours was probably one of the largest, fitting about 30 people in it, though not very comfortably. It started raining by the time we entered the boat, which had no top. We were all issued thick yellow rubber ponchos. Looking behind me I felt I was in a Madeleine story about all these people in straight lines who dressed alike.

Technically we saw a sloth on the way there but all it looked like was a lump way up high in a tree way far away so I don't count it. We did however spot some playful spider monkeys swinging in the branches. They remind me of cats because of how graceful they are and how they hold their tails.

We also saw a ton of birds. They don't excite me as much and I was very disappointed by how small the toucans are. They were pretty though.

Our butts were very numb and wet by the time we finally reached our destination. Luckily it turned out our guide was lying when he said we would be sleeping in hammocks because there was no room in the hotel. The rooms were very nice, even had regular old hot water (a rarity here). We stayed two or three in a room. Still having two hours before dinner, we opted to go for a swim in the ocean.

It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. On one side you have the river (or canals as they call them though they are not man made) and not 50 meters away you have the Atlantic Ocean. And in between was our hotel as well as the town of Tortuguero.

The ocean was warm!!! I really hadn't intended on swimming but I just couldn't help myself. Unfortunately I was so excited by the ocean I forgot I had our room key in my pocket. The sea thought sand for our room key was a fair trade and would not trade back no matter how I pleaded.

While I loved playing in the ocean, Tortuguero really isn't a good place for swimming. There are a lot of rip tides and sharks. You don't have to worry about those though if you don't go over your head and you don't swim alone.

When we got back to our hotel room and discovered that yours truly had lost the key, the fun really began. It turned out they didn't have a spare (oh how I wish they had mentioned this to us earlier). We tried picking the lock for a couple hours but the way the doorframe and the door were made caused that to be quite difficult.

I think it was Brigid who thought of sending someone through the tiny window above the toilet. It was just screen and wood lattice, and sure enough popped off easily. With the help of Ned, I was able to wiggle though, leverage myself on the bathroom door (thank god we left it open and it opened into the bathroom) and hop down onto the toilet.

Actually it was quite fun and I got very dirty in the process. Brigid took pictures of it all; I hope they turn out well.

That taken care of, we had just enough time to clean up before dinner.

I love beans and rice. Thank goodness too, because that is what Costa Ricans love to feed vegetarians. But, honestly, the beans and rice at that hotel were especially delicious. I also ate macaroni and cheese and the most amazing steamed vegetables I have ever had. Mmmm, makes me hungry just thinking about it.

My favorite Luis (our guide) quote happened during dinner when one of the vegans said no thanks to the mac and cheese because it had milk in it.

"Oh, there's no milk in here!" Luis said, almost offended, "only cheese." I swear to God he wasn't joking either. I think some one explained (again) to him what a vegan is.

After dinner, we had a half hour before our date with the turtles.

Finally.

Clustered in groups of 5-10 per guide we walked single file onto the beach in the dark.

We were warned that we might not see any turtles tonight, you just never know.

We were in luck though; first thing we saw one making her way onto the beach. Some other people supposedly saw one going into the water too but I missed that one.

We stood a ways back, not wanting to scare her and watched as she slowly flopped her way up the beach. Honestly, in the dark I could hardly see her, just a gray oblong shape in the night, when she moved though, I knew she was a turtle without a doubt. Nothing else flops that way. Well, maybe walruses but I knew that was no walrus.

Apparently it can take up to two hours for the whole process to happen, so giving her a wide berth we walked on down the beach hoping for a more advanced process.

Tortuguero is very regulated. Only certified guides can take people on the beach and they have permits for only a certain number of people. And no one is allowed on the beach after 10 p.m. The tours are generally given from 8 to 10 (they never go past 10 of course). We were lucky; there was no moon that night and lots of clouds so it was quite dark. Turtles don't come out if it is too light. That way, predators don't see the turtle very well. Of course that means that we couldn't see anything very well either.

Turtles have a lot of predators. Mostly creatures just want the eggs but jaguars do go after the actual turtle. They are one of the few animals able to pry the turtle shell apart to get at the succulent meat inside. All the coast guides are scared silly of Jaguars because they have seen the remains of the turtles after the big cats are finished. The shark is another animal that has its own tricks and ways. They wait out in the deep for the turtles; I am not sure how they get at them though.

So we walked and walked and walked and walked. Walking on the beach is a bitch! Finally, (our luck was running strong that night) we encountered the prize, another turtle. This one was about to lay her eggs. We sat around for a while, waiting. Our beach guide found a baby turtle, alive and kicking. Sadly, the rest of the nest had been attacked by ants. There were many dead babies in the sand. The living one was so cute and so strong! We set it down on the beach and watched it head toward the ocean.

Actually at first it went the wrong way, a little bit disoriented I suppose. We straightened it out though and after that it knew where it was going. It took about five minutes for it to hike that stretch of beach (about five feet) and get swallowed by the ocean, not to return for maybe 25 years (if it even survives). Watching a lone tiny (smaller than my hand) baby turtle bravely march into the sea brought tears to our eyes. Scientists suspect that less than 10% of all eggs make it too maturity. But once they do, they always return to where they were born to lay their eggs.

Well, after we were all softened up by that experience we got to watch a mama pop out some real honest to goodness, one hundred percent real turtle eggs. It has got to be one of the most weird, surreal, awe inspiring, beautiful but slightly uncomfortable moments of my existence.

I mean doesn't it seem kind of rude? We got really up close and personal with that turtle. True, she didn't seem to mind, but I wouldn't know it if she did. You see, once a turtle starts laying eggs, she won't stop. We have to be careful when she is arriving on the beach because she could change her mind and decide to come back another day, or decide not to lay eggs this year. But once they start coming out, there is no turning back.

So our guide guided us up to her, held her rear flipper as we all kneeled in the sand and watched those white pearly, goopy, golf ball looking things drop in to the amazingly deep pit she had dug with those seemingly wide clumsy flippers (I still wonder how she got that pit so precisely under her, so deep and so narrow, a real mystery).

After watching for about five minutes, it was another group's turn (there were about five or six groups on the beach that night). We traded off like that for about a half hour before she started burying her eggs. Nobody counted but according to the books there were probably over a 100 gems there. If any one wants to investigate further, the turtles we saw are called Green Turtles. They are about 4 feet long and 3 feet across, almost circular. Named for the color of their fat, the turtles are actually brownish, though I didn't get a good look in the darkness. The only lights allowed were the guide's red ones. I did notice how smooth its shell was.

We didn't have time to watch the rest of the show; the magic hour (10:00) was rapidly approaching. We hurried back, quickly and silently. The silently didn't matter as much though because apparently turtles can't hear very well.

No interesting sightings on the way back but a lone heron standing briefly at the water's edge.

Upon returning a few of us were enticed by our wild guide Luis to check out the local discotheque. It was pretty dead. I ordered a shot of vodka to sooth my aching throat (it worked really well too); every one else ordered pop and went to bed early. The music was okay, if you like eighties stuff. I recognized Queen, Talking Heads and some one hit wonders I know the words of but not the names. Let me just state that I never heard so much eighties pop music since arriving in Costa Rica. (Just the other day "Let's get Physical" (by Olivia Newton-John) was playing on the bus and I still have Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" stuck in my head from some internet cafe).

No one was dancing except a couple who seemed to be very attracted to each other and Meredith and the guy who asked her to dance (they didn't seem nearly as attracted to each other as the other couple). Before our trusting guide Luis left, he warned me that the men here can be pretty talkative and persuasive and I should not go onto the beach with them to smoke pot because that could lead to some bad situations. For those who don't know me well, this was unasked for, un-needed but fairly humorous and good advice.

Meredith quickly ditched her guy, finished her pop, and was ready to go. Ned and I (the last gringos in the bar) had also finished our drinks by then, perfect timing. We meant to go to bed; it would be an early morning - especially since my compadres wanted to watch the sunrise, but we ended up talking by the river until midnight.

 

Due to staying up late, I opted to stay in bed as long as possible and miss the sunrise. I can't say I regret it. I still had to be up by 7 when we were expected to get in another boat (before breakfast) and explore the canals in search of wildlife.

We found it.

Our clever guide, Luis, had brought some old bread. Using it for bait we were able to attract more River Turtles than I could count. THEY WERE SO CUTE!!! Only about a foot long at the most, with really long neck that they stuck out hoping to snag some bread, they were still bigger than the turtles I grew up with in TN.

Not only that, but whenever Luis threw the bread in, the river would come alive with little fish munching (and the turtles munched on the little fish as well as the bread). Soon a caiman came in to join the festivities as well. It didn't care much for the turtles or the bread but definitely dug the minnows. A heron was also perched nearby hoping to get him some. And the perfect cherry on top in this gorgeous menagerie was the monkey, Cara Blanca.

We had actually stopped at first because of the White Faced Monkey. Not scared of us at all, he stood tall in his branch about 5 feet above the water (only 10-15 feet from us!!) and screamed at us. Then he proceeded to strut his stuff, hopping around in the branches and standing high. Several people spent a whole roll of film on him alone.

Once again, I felt slightly intrusive. True, at least we weren't killing anything (although Luis did pluck a flower despite our protests). But we didn't belong here either, we were just gapers, only able to see a show by paying in bread, money and pollution. And those are all currencies that the jungle is probably better without.

It is such a conundrum because the only way these towns can survive without killing the turtles and forests is though tourism. Tourism, no matter how ethical you try to make it, always feels a little wrong to me.

We went back a little late for our breakfast because we stopped for a jungle hike through the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Research Center (COTERC); at least I think that was what it was called. The only resident was a handsome young Canadian named Paul (he invited us back too!?) who showed us around. He had only been there since March and I must confess it was pleasant hearing something close to a Minnesotan accent. He seemed pretty well acclimated, walked barefoot everywhere.

"Aren't you afraid of snakes?" I asked. He replied that they were mostly night creatures and he always wore rubber boots at night.

"What about ants?" I continued. I had already gotten a nasty bite from one, making me temporarily regret my choice of flip flops for shoes.

Immediately after I asked the question he jumped about 6 inches in the air and started swiping his feet.

"Yes," he replied, "the ants are pretty bad."

The jungle walk was nice, but not nearly as good as one I had about 3 weeks ago, when I had my own personal tour guide (a visiting friend biologist from MN). For one thing, any walk with 25 people is going to have its down sides. It is so awesome (and awe-inspiring) being in the jungle though, surrounded by humidity and bugs and lots of green plants and colorful flowers growing rapidly. Oddly enough it always reminds me of the springs in TN when I was a child. The plants here are a lot bigger and there is a serious lack of oak trees but the mud, the humidly and the flavor in the air are very similar.

Well we finally got back to breakfast. A few ate reluctantly, seven people had gotten sick the night before. Despite other people's conclusions, I have my doubts that it was the food, only one threw up, the others had the runs, something that can happen for any number of reasons (all called bacteria that your body isn't used to) when you are in a new territory. Plus, none of the vegetarians got sick (though one did get attacked by army ants when he attempted to climb a coconut tree) and no one from my school got sick and we had three meat eaters with us, but all of our meat eaters were well traveled (so probably had pretty educated digestive systems).

After lunch we hurried back, all getting sunburned on the way. We wished for rain this time. I managed to just get lightly (you couldn't even tell by looking) burned on my arms. Not much to say about the ride back other than it was long and yucky, taking about 4 hours including stops. We pulled into Heredia at about a quarter to six, roughly 34 hours after we left.