Costa Rica – Tortuguero


I had to be in Costa Rica for work and as I’d better be awake and sharp, I planned to go early to handle the jetlag. Eventually, I went more than one week early…

My first time in Central-America and all by myself this time. I had to pick and choose, so thought Tortuguero, Arenal and Monteverde/ Santa Elena would be a nice mix taking into account 8 days to spend and needing to get back in time to San José for work.

Hurdles to get there

Not the way I thought the trip would start… My alarm doesn’t go off, my phone had decided to do an update during the night and obviously shuts itself down afterwards. Thanks to my internal clock – which has proven to be quite reliable during my studies in the pre-smartphone era – I wake up only 15 minutes late. I gently wake up my husband… he has a morning ritual you don’t want to mess with, especially when you need to share a car for an hour to get to the airport. All in all I arrive nicely in time – yep, the full 3 hours I accounted for – to find out my flight is heavily delayed. There goes the connecting flight to San José. “No worries, we will get you to Atlanta today and booked you on the flight to San José the day after.” Well, that’s NOT what I want. I want to be in San José TONIGHT, I have plans, I have booked myself a seat on a shared van to get to Tortuguero tomorrow! Unless they want to pay for a private car or private jet? I know there are quite some flights that can get me to San José today, so let’s see what customer service can do for me. And there she is, Virginie from Delta Airlines, aka the magician. She is great and finds me a seat with United through Newark to San José, leaving at 10 am instead of the original 11 am I was booked on. Goodbye additional hour for breakfast and strolling around. I rush through fast lane security, as usual get a bit delayed as I need to show the medication and cool packs, only to find out that for the B gates an additional LONG line for passport controls awaits. I do something I hate, but don’t see many other options… I skip the line for a large part and move “efficiently” – using the moments people are not paying attention enough or are too slow – through the crowd and scans. I get to the gate all the way to the end of the terminal just in time to see they have started boarding. What a start, I need some champagne now… luckily I am flying business.

Tortuguero here I come

Thank you jetlag for making it easy to get up at 4:30 am. I did some thinking on the most effective and easy way to get everything packed. I don’t want to drag my “work” clothes all the way through the jungle or carry anything with wheels through mud and onto boats. So, I pull my big backpack out of my big suitcase, stuff it with the gear I need to survive for a week, put my carry-on trolley in the big suitcase and I am ready to go. I leave my big suitcase with the owner of the B&B and will pick it up upon my return. I always joke about me forgetting at least one key thing each trip… and of course, I did it again… took conditioner instead of shampoo… need to fix this when I get to my destination. The taxi who took me to the hotel last night is waiting for me as agreed. My good tip lured him back I guess. I got to the pick up place and here comes the minibus that will bring me to Tortuguero. Apparently I have a seat on a tour bus. My luggage is hosed into the bus through one of the rear windows. And by the time all the other people have been picked up, we are full house and the guide makes it a pleasant drive, including singing, story telling, a breakfast and searching AND finding sloths. Obviously, this sloth has a favorite tree near the road closer to Pavona. She doesn’t seem too bothered by this herd of tourists who are getting one after the other on a little chair the guide took along, to take pictures of her and her baby. When we are getting closer to Pavona the roads get worse and it looks like there are many buses racing against time to get there. Pavona is the place where the buses and boats off and onload. Our guide arranges for all the suitcases to be brought onto the boat. No carrying and dragging for us… unlike the other travelers. One after the other the boats are leaving for an hour making their way through the bends of the river. Minute by minute we are leaving civilization behind and zen starts to kick in, at least with me.

Hitting the jungle

Tortuguero is a small settlement with about 1500 inhabitants, without cars, only reachable by boat or air, with a mainstreet that more resembles a back alley. It is probably most known for the sea turtles frequenting the beaches to nest. I am being picked up by a guide to bring me to the place I will be staying. I notice there is some confusion, as there seem to be other men awaiting (female) guests (traveling alone) and more than willing to bring them to the place you need (or they want) to be.

After settling into my accommodation with private hammock, I want to explore this place. Kinda quickly done as it is quite compact. Met some weird creatures, like the huge grasshoppers resembling Darth Vader. I return soaking wet at my temp home – 27 degrees Celsius and extremely humid, thuhuh… rainforest – and get changed for the night walk I booked.

How fun was that, with flash lights in our hands looking out for small or bigger animals in the jungle. We managed to see a good amount of mainly smaller critters like frogs, spiders, a sloth. I realize how difficult it is to take good pictures in the dark with a torch as only light source. Add to the mix that not everyone is as a nature lover and geek photographer as I am, I feel a bit pressured for time. O yes, and the rain showers that seem to suddenly start and stop without warning – I am so afraid of another camera-lens disaster as I had a few years back… don’t like taking pictures in the rain… I will need to get this taking-good-pictures-of-animals-in-the-night-while-with-other-people-on-a-tour-in-the-rain right fast. And so I decide to take advantage of every evening to do a night walk.

Strange encounter… not with an animal this time

On my way back – now in the dark – I couldn’t believe what I heard. One of the locals says hi and tries to chat with me with a nice big smile on his face. Gosh, people are so friendly here. “I haven’t introduced myself yet, I am David, I saw you this afternoon, I was the one playing music”. Me – naive woman – think “Oh, he must be part of the hotel staff” and ask him where I should know him from then. “Am neighbour”. Obviously… this is a tiny place. “I grew up here”. He said something about being in his twenties… “Oh? Great” “I love to meet people from around the world” “You are lucky then with all the tourists coming here”. “What are your plans for your stay here?” It starts to dawn on me… “I have booked stuff” and yes, here we go… “Maybe I can show you around? I grew up in the jungle!” By this time I see episodes of ’90 days to wed’ flashing by. I continue at a higher pace direction hotel. He also accelerates “Maybe I can give you massage?”…. W T F ? ! ? ! … “NO, I AM MARRIED, I DON’T NEED A MASSAGE FROM YOU!” “But that is OK” “NO, THAT IS ABSOLUTELY NOT OK!”. He got the point and couldn’t disappear fast enough into the dark back alleys. I remember now that he was one of those guys checking out the goods as I arrived at the dock this morning and offering to escort me to the hotel.

The week after I left Tortuguero two major crimes were committed on female travelers, a Spanish tourist was assaulted and killed and a German tourist was raped. Quite strange, as murders are not as common and I never felt unsafe in Tortuguero. But I look back upon that strange encounter a bit differently now.

Onto the lagoon

Out of bed again at 5 am… not that hard with the 8 to 9 hours time difference, something I had forgotten when I called my husband last night.. oups.This morning I am off to the lagoon. I am always happy being on the water. I thought I was good at spotting wildlife… how ridiculous of me. I can’t seem to spot anything here… so much branches and leaves, animals are well camouflaged and don’t seem to move a lot… but that’s why the guides are coming in handy. We are getting close to birds making nests, lizards and iguana’s freezed like mime players while absorbing the morning sun, caymen lurking through the waterplants, and then we – aka the guide – spot a sloth. Apparently quite a unique sight as it is making its way up a tree. They defecate only once a week and for this descent all the way to the jungle floor. We observe it while it’s making its way slowly but steadily to the top of a tree, to find out it apparently made a mistake and wanted to be in the other tree. O boy. We didn’t wait for it to go back down and up the other tree again.

A rainshower later, my guide still has a problem with my name, he can’t seem to pronounce it and wants to call me Julia. A few other boats are cruising the lagoon. On one of them the owner of the travel agency I used yesterday: “Ola Gretel com esta?” My guide reacts “Gretel?!” (Like Germans and apparently Spanish people would pronounce it) “Why didn’t you say so!” … hilarity 🙂

Again, I seemed to have not been prepared – maybe for the better as it might have ruined the mood, and it has been a while since it happened – otherwise I would have known a few years back there has been issues with pirates robbing boats on the lagoon especially in more remote areas. O jeezzzz…

Going off track

By noon I will go on a ‘day hike’ into the national park. It has been raining like crazy all morning… rain SHOWERS… literally! When I see the path we need to take I turn around and head towards the nearest rubber-boats-rental-place. I got myself some cute zebra ones, which after the facts were too low to protect my feet from water poring in. I have the same guide as this morning and only me and another guy from this morning are joining. The guide looks at us and states he doesn’t feel like following the “boring” route today… He means the official, only available route. “Let’s take the old path!” Brilliant, we struggle our way through, underneath, across and in between the jungle that has taken back territory over ‘the old path’. Every step in this muddy environment is a fight to not lose my zebra boots, but when I accidentally destroy a spider web, karma hits back and let’s me lose my balance. As a result I go down on my behind in the mud, between God knows what insects… brrrr. As quickly as I fell I am back up. The guide is in a bad mood… he wanted to take a picture before I got up again :).

Now this hike was a REAL jungle hike, as I hoped it to be! I see flowers and plants I never saw before, we look at sloths sleeping in the trees, see and especially hear macaws flying over the tree tops, meeting the especially cute strawberry poison dart frogs up close… this is really a jungle paradise…. Karma is persistent: my fellow tourist got stuck into a spiderweb as well while we were crossing a large watery area. He couldn’t get away quicker from the crime scene and notices after 5 minutes he didn’t have his phone anymore. Indeed, nothing to find in his backpack… we are trying to call the number, but seems sound has been switched off… up to the moment we are back at the crime scene and I see his white iPhone float halfway submerged in that big puddle. It was still functional, incredible!

The turtles

And then, it is time,… tonight I hope to see the giant sea turtles. It is well organized and controlled. No one is allowed on the beach between 6pm and 6 am. The coming months up to 15.000 turtles will come to these beaches and lay their eggs. They are ready for reproduction only as of 25 years of age and will nest 3 to 8 times in their life, each time laying 100 eggs at a time. They will always return to the place they have been born… here. Only 1% of the eggs will grow up to be an adult. One of the turtles tagged back in the 50s has been spot again around the year 2000 less than 2 miles from the place she was first spotted half a century ago. This lady was at least 75 years old… Respect.

Patiently we wait, and wait, and wait… with our guide close to the sector assigned to us while the “spotters” scan the beach for turtles and the right moment to go and look. Yes, a turtle has been spotted and four groups are allowed to watch this one. Each group has a sequence number. Damn, we are not number 1, but at least we have not as many people in our group. Strict rules to follow: dark clothes, no light, no blinking stuff, no phones, no cameras, no noise, not approaches the turtle from upfront. And we are allowed only to observe from the laying of the eggs, covering of the nest and the turtle going back to the sea. Being up close when they are getting onshore or digging the nest is an absolute nono. The risk is high the turtle aborts her mission and even not return for another attempt. Apparantly we were a bit too close when our assigned turtle was digging her nest, the power of this animal is incredible… sand is flying tens of meters around and in the air. But when we got to the nest my jaw dropped to the floor… the nest was a hole of 2 meters diameter, 80 cm or so deep with an additional smaller nesting chamber of another 80 cm deeper. And then the colossal 200 kg heavy sea creature from prehistoric times pushing 100 eggs out of her body in 20 minutes… poor thing… I feel like invading her privacy… still this was really special.

What an end to another brilliant day.

Mr Eagle Eyes

Today I was going to sleep out. Right, 6:30 am, that’s how far I got. I see some macaws flying over. Weird setting it is. I went back to the great breakfast place I went the day before… fresh fruit (I am going to miss this when I am back home), home made yogurt, passion smoothy…
I was curious to see if the turtle tracks were visible and recognizable. They were and it was clear it was a very fruitful night for the sea turtles.

Today is another walking day and I have booked a hike with the guide I had last night. He has eagle eyes and seems to spot everything anywhere. Again, only two tourists today… how great is that, much easier to take pictures at ease and enjoy the environment. That is exactly what we do… in this open air zoo. I see my first hummingbirds… they are even smaller than I imagined and extremely difficult to catch on camera in a sharp manner. A seethrough butterfly… two butterflies flirting… lizards in all sorts of colors and patterns… poisonous little snakes… a sloth again, being really lazy… numerous monkeys playing in the top of the very tall trees. “There is a parrot in that tree”. “Huh? Where? any directions?” “that tree, first branch to the left, at the fork the right side, in the center” Our guide sounds like a GPS… luckily. I spot the parrot, it looks like a green version of my cockatoo I have at home. I don’t tell my guide I have a cockatoo at home, he would go crazy and look at me asif I would be the devil…

Going extreme… relatively

After the day hike I go for some ceviche with a salad. I am not really hungry the last days and being as active as I am now I would lose 10 kgs before I am back home. Keep on dreaming, being abroad for work messes up your diet big time with all those dinners and snacks they keep on shoving into your face… I was sooooo right. The week after was nothing else than ‘work’ + ‘food’.

Anyhow, I take some time to relax and recover before I meet up for the “extreme night walk” on the other side of the lagoon. the story goes that there used to be a zipline and treetop parcour including hiking trails through the jungle. The only thing that remains now, apparently after the licenses were not renewed by the government, are some shacks, a big garden and a guard who takes care of both. Actually this is sad, except for the remains of the trails that make a great nocturnal off the beaten track hike as I wanted. It reminds me of the other attraction across the river, called “San Francisco” with a great old vulcano you could hike and marvel at the great views and sunset. Also that hiking network is no longer maintained after problems with licenses. Anyways, the hike of tonight is comparable to any hike through the woods at home with some additional features like giant spiders, mud all the way throughout the hike up to the middle of my (high) rubber boots, frogs behind every branch and tree watching you through the dark, and when looking up you see the layers of king palms and mahogany trees. Beautiful. My guide Miguel is 55 and was born and raised in this jungle and would love nothing more than having a home right in the middle of it. My mind wanders off when he tells me this…. “water? electricity? safety? medical care?…” and I was brutally returned to reality when I fell something stinging me in my leg. It was just a bee, nothing to worry about… As we wonder through this wilderness, I hear a mobile phone… Miguel is chatting… a better network coverage than where I live! When we try to find our way back on the trail we see a Y junction. What will it be? Left or right. Like in a movie a banana spider glides down just in front of us on the left track. Guess, the right is the way to go. Miguel calls the watertaxi to bring me back to the other side. And with this my adventure in Tortuguero has ended.

This was quite the experience, one to cherish and never forget.