In Tortuguero it seems that everyone makes a living from tourism. Those locals with sharp enough eyes and ears, and a keen enough interest for wildlife, must have started their tour-guide training as soon as they can pronounce ‘resplendent quetzal’. Our boat guide, Riccardo, was able to spot wildlife on the move that I still couldn’t make out after 15 minutes of pointing: it seemed impossible. I’m still not sure I was looking at the right grey mass at the top of that tree 100 metres away; but the guide and a girl with the foresight to bring binoculars both insisted that there was a sloth up there.
So there was clearly a living to be made guiding the tourists around the Tortuguero National Park, by boat or on foot, and drawing our attention to the elusive fauna. But there were so many other businesses relying on our dumbfounded fascination, our need to experience the ‘real Caribbean’, or our sheer lack of resourcefulness. Hostels, sodas, souvenir shops, booths renting out raincoats and welly boots, the national park itself: all had sprung up in response to the rising number of travellers itching for a glimpse of this crazily sane lifestyle.
There was undoubtedly a tense relationship between the locals and the visitors, though. There was such a clear divide between ‘us and them’ that I felt self-conscious just walking around town. Nobody was hostile to me or anything like that, but I’m sure they must have felt some disdain for us. Just as, for me, Tortuguero would have been paradise if it weren’t for the mosquitoes, I think it would have been paradise for them if not for the swarms of us pests whirling in, pointing at things, speaking broken Spanish or none at all, snapping pictures of each other drinking cocktails under palm trees, and whirling out again. As Mum pointed out to me, ‘They must think we’re just mad’ – we were in such a hurry all the time to consume it all and then move on to the next site. I would compare us to locusts, but the only locusts we saw in Tortuguero seemed to have picked up on the chill atmosphere and were just leisurely and methodically munching their lazy ways through the leaves.
However the locals felt about us, it was clear that they knew as well as we did that they needed us. Someone who has travelled all this way to see Costa Rica’s wildlife will pay $40 for a boat trip, national park access and a turtle-watching stroll on the beach without batting an eyelid; and that’s exactly what we did.
Ricardo picked us up at 5:45 am and led us down to the canoe. We clambered in messily with the other eight or so people, and rowed off to get our entrance tickets to the park; then he began pointing out plants and telling us all about their life cycles and their places in the ecosystem. He passed round a book of Costa Rican birds to give us an idea of what we were looking at and how the males differed from the females. He pointed out barely-there iguanas, explained the nickname of the emerald-green basilisk, and discerned the deep, low call of the curassow: a large, flightless bird which clumsily flutters its way up a tree and glides from the top to cross the river.
Our unguided walk through the park was nowhere near as fruitful, although we saw many lizards, butterflies, and even a river turtle! We were also fortunate enough to spot some more monkeys playing around in the branches above. My guess is that they were spider monkeys because their faces weren’t white and they didn’t try to poop on us – so they couldn’t have been capuchins or howlers.
The night-time turtle trek was the highlight of our stay on the island – I see where the name ‘Tortuguero’ comes from! Our guide warned that he couldn’t guarantee a sighting and that his 6pm group the previous night had come away without seeing any turtles; but he was taking us later on, at 9:30, so we’d have a better chance – a chance he estimated at 95% – of seeing at least one.
We stopped into a riverside café for a pancake and a cocktail (mine was a fresh and delicious clericó, white wine’s answer to sangria), before joining the group and hitting the beach. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take cameras along so I don’t have any pictures of the magnificent creatures. I don’t blame them for not allowing cameras – people simply cannot be trusted to refrain from using flash. I was just glad that our guide fulfilled his promise and we saw not one but two gentle giants, and we had the chance to witness all the stages of the egg-laying process.
The female turtle comes to the beach four times during mating season, laying up to 120 eggs each time. She drags all of her 250 lbs up the beach towards the trees, digs a hole for the eggs using her flippers, and lays the eggs inside. This takes around an hour. Then she has to cover the eggs back up and dig another hole as a decoy for predators, in front of the original hole, taking another 45 minutes, before dragging herself back down to the sea and swimming away. We were told that out of every thousand turtle eggs laid each year, only one will make it to breeding age and return 25 years later to Tortuguero to begin the next generation. This means that every year, after four cycles of this process, the female turtle has a 40-50% chance of hatching one turtle that will survive childhood.
Thankfully, the number of green turtles is increasing – at least in Tortuguero. Our guide told us that since their conservation program began, the number of nesting turtles has increased by 400%. They now see more than 100,000 turtles every year, and counting.
It makes it difficult to know how to feel when you see the trails left behind by the turtles, like train-tracks back out to sea. I suppose there’s no overarching happy or sad about a vast, venerable lady leaving a hundred babies behind in the hopes that one will live to do the same one day. These turtles were older than I was – but even if this weren’t so, I think I would still have felt that profound respect for the persistent and perpetual cycle of such a humble beast.