July 13, 2006

Turtle Tour
Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Accompanied by my brother and Nicky, a traveler from South Africa, I departed San José, bound for a small village in the northeastern corner of the country.

Up first on Glenn's hit list was Tortuguero, a village that revolves around one thing: Sea turtles. Somewhere in the nature of 50,000 visitors each year reach this part of Costa Rica by boat or plane to watch the massive creatures drag themselves ashore to lay their eggs.

I found the village of Tortuguero to be rather interesting—not so much the village itself (as it's just a collection of hostels, restaurants, and souvenir shops), but the sourrounding terrain makes it somewhat of an oddity. A series of muddy, freshwater canals (fed by the Rio Tortuguero) spider through the jungle, connecting the car-less town with inland roads. On the opposite side of the narrow peninsula (scarcely 400-yards wide) a rough Caribbean Sea crashes onto gray beaches. Swimming in the ocean isn't recommended, as strong undertows and large sharks are very common.

The three of us shared a nice room by the beach, and secured our turtle tour guide, Mr. Gene, after getting settled in. The national park fee was US$7, and Gene cost US$10 per person, for two hours.

No rain and a bright, full moon—you couldn't have asked for a better night to walk the beach. We were joined by three others, making our group six (slightly smaller than the average 8–12 persons lead about in the darkness of Tortuguerto).

Flashlights and cameras aren't allowed, as the light disrupts the turtles. Tour guides carry (and occasionally use) a small flashlight with a red filter to illuminate objects of interest. I immediately thought about a small business of renting night-vision devices to tourists.

As we walked along the shoreline we encountered half a dozen obvious tracks/drag marks leading away from the ocean, but no turtles. It was about 40 minutes into the moonlit walk when we encountered two other tour groups standing by the waters edge. A 60-year-old female green sea turtle had already pulled herself ashore, and was preparing to lay her eggs. We were now queuing to view the event.

By the time the turtle was ready to be viewed (too soon and it can interrupt the process) a very large collection of tourists had gathered, I would guess at least 100 people in total. The line stretching down the beach was almost as entertaining as the event.

The animal had dug her hole at the jungle's edge, by a large bush. As we huddled around the turtle, the tour guide turned on his flashlight, pulled one of her rear flippers to the side, and illuminated a pit full of slimy, ping-pong ball sized eggs. The turtle had already deposited at least two-dozen eggs (of the 100 or so typically laid).

We crouched there for two or three minutes, watching the eggs plop out of her, two at a time, until our turn was over. That was that. We regrouped, walked back to town, and paid the man.

Having successfully completed Glenn's first wish list item, it was time to relocate to a more lively town.

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