Sunday morning we were picked up bright and early by our mini-bus shuttle and we retraced our route back up the highway to Limon. The countryside all looked very different this time, in the sunshine as opposed to the pouring rain of a few days ago, much less forbidding than before. Our shuttle threaded its way through the streets of Limon, where a number of container ships sat out in the bay, to the smaller neighbouring port of Moin, from where we were to catch the small passenger boat to Tortuguero. We arrived in Moin just in time to see the massed start of a mountain bike race and, despite his background in the sport, Ian felt no empathy with the pack setting off in the extreme heat and humidity.
There are only two ways of getting to Tortuguero, by air or by boat and there are two water-routes, one from Moin and one from Pavona, further north and to the west of Tortuguero. The Lonely Planet guidebook says that if you fly you’d be missing out on half of the fun of getting there – and they’re not wrong. Arriving at the dock you couldn’t help but think of all the old films and novels about the Amazon, or even the African Queen! There were about 20 seats in the boat, covered by a canopy to protect us from the sun and the
driver sat up the front – as did Mary who was determined to bag the best seat to ensure she got the best shots! What a driver he was too with the most amazing eyesight and every now and again he’d bring the boat to a halt whilst he pointed out a sloth in a tree or a crocodile or cayman sunning itself on the mud-banks. At one point an enormous crocodile swam past us, going in the opposite direction – it must have been 2.5 to 3 metres long.
The Tortuguero waterway is a mixture of rivers and man-made canals, constructed in the 70s to make it easier for water-craft to reach the village. It runs parallel to the Caribbean coast, only a few hundred metres to the west, for all of the 80km between Moin and Tortuguero. It took our boat 4 hours to make the trip, including all of the impromptu stops to allow us to photograph the wildlife. Before we’d even reached Tortuguero we felt that we’d already seen lots of wildlife and between us had taken hundreds of photographs.
The dock at Tortuguero village isn’t so much a dock, more a mud-bank upon which
the boats beach themselves leaving the passengers to get off at the front as best as they can with their luggage. We were surprised to be met by a guide, Roberto, who shouldered Jan’s suitcase and marched us across the village to our accommodation for the next 3 nights – Hotel Icaco. It soon became clear why he was so keen to look after us; after we’d all been allocated our rooms he gathered us and the other newly arrived guests around a table in the open air dining area and proceeded
to sell us his guiding services. Three tours were on offer; an early morning canoe trip on the river, an afternoon trek in the National Park and a night hike around the village. We knew that we weren’t obliged to sign-up with him and that we could shop around the village before committing, but we managed to negotiate with him such that he would only take the three of us on the tours (except for the night hike). Our decision turned out to be a good one as it turns out his grandfather had helped Dr Archie Carr set up the Tortuguero National Park back in 1975. Needless to say he was an excellent guide and, during the 5 hours that we spent in his company we saw most of the wildlife you could reasonable hope to see in the park.
Tortuguero village is built on a very narrow spit of land between the Caribbean Sea
on the east and the Tortuguero river on the west. The distance across the village, between the beach and the riverbank, can’t be more than 200 or 300 metres and it all sits right on sea level – it didn’t take much imagination to visualise the whole place underwater. Many but not all of the houses are on stilts and there’s a lot of standing water around.
Tortuguero beach has long been famous for its nesting turtles; when Christoper
Colombus landed near Limon in 1502 he reported seeing thousands of sea turtles filling the waters off the coast “in such vast numbers that they covered the sea.” But by the 1950s the turtles were in danger following centuries of being caught and exported for their meat – and the turtle soup trade. Thanks mainly to the efforts in the late 50s and 60s of Dr Archie Carr, an American scientist, the area has undergone a transition to the conservation area that it now is. The 22 mile-long Tortuguero beach is the most important nesting site of the endangered green turtle in the Western Hemisphere with giant Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Loggerhead turtles also nesting here. The green turtle population is believed to have come perilously close to extinction in the 1960s when nearly every female turtle arriving to nest in Tortuguero was taken for
the export market for turtle soup. Nowadays the Sea Turtle Conservation centre in the village is an important research centre for monitoring and protecting the turtles and the village is a magnet for tourists during the nesting season. The literature would have you believe that the local economy has successfully transitioned from one based on the turtle trade to one based on tourism. We didn’t scratch the surface of that one, the place looked pretty poor to us but then I guess it’s all relative.
Logging was also tried for a couple of decades in the 50s and 60s before the same pressures that halted the turtle trade also brought it to an end – that and the shaky economics of the business in the first place. The legacy of this industry can be seen in the main “street” of Tortuguero, where the remains of the machinery from the logging mills lie rusting and moss-covered. (The main street is really just a footpath, there’s no motorised traffic here expect for the quad-bike which is driven by the local policeman.)
Our time here passed very quickly as we’ve come to expect after our great Aussie road trip – the 3 night and 2-day formula allows you to experience a place but never really get to know it. Our first full day was spent lazing around, walking along the beach and then going on our night hike. Once again, very frustratingly, despite the heat and the abundance of water, there was nowhere to swim. The beach was plagued by strong rip-currents and, should you follow the advice and allow them to carry you out to sea, (rather than fighting them), the bull sharks were waiting. On the other side the river was full of crocodiles – so we
got hot! On our second and final day we were up early for the 6am start of the canoe trip and 2 hours of enjoyable wildlife photography in the company of Roberto. He was true to his word and found us a wide variety of fauna to photograph, all along the banks of the river and the canals. From Howler monkeys and white-faced Capuchins having their breakfast to Caymans sunbathing in the shallows to many types of birds, we had a photographic feast.(Too many to include here but see the gallery.)
After a short rest for lunch it was time for our guided trek in the park, again with Roberto, where for two hours we added a few more species to our collection, this time Spider Monkeys and the so far, (to us anyway) elusive Toucan. So at the end of this afternoon, as well as being hot and tired, we felt well satisfied with our guided experience in the National Park. We consumed a lot of beer that night!
The next day we had another early start to catch the boat to Pavona and this was a very different trip from the one on the way in. It was only one hour as opposed to four but this time on a much narrower waterway, against a very strong current and with many bends in the river. The boat driver skilfully manouvered the boat round
the bends whilst we were imagining the flat bottom boat capsizing and tipping us into the fast-flowing water along with the crocodiles! However our fears were groundless; it’s a very busy route and clearly the most popular one in and out of Tortuguero. The “dock” at Pavona was heaving with boats and people, going in both directions, and the car park at the top of the bank was full of coaches of all shapes and sizes, depositing and collecting passengers. There was even a large restaurant and gift shop to help us while away the hour and a half until our minibus finally arrived to take us on the onward journey up to La Fortuna and the Arenal volcano.