Tortuguero, Caribbean Coast - 16 to 20 November 2012

Published: November 25th 2012
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We left the cloud forests of Monteverde and headed back to San Jose. We were expecting improved roads than the ones we had arrived by - but it was not to be. Although the roads in the small town of Santa Elenawere sealed, once you left the town it all changed and it was back to unsealed bumpy roads full of pot holes. That being said the views as we climbed down out of the cloud forest were utterly stunning - a beautiful spectacular landscape all around us. We had chosen to use the shuttle bus service again and the only other passenger was a retired American who was really interesting to chat with. He had been in Santa Elena for a few days staying in backpacker accommodation as he said he always had to find someone to chat to........ He had left his wife behind in the US working and was a seasoned traveller (like us now I suppose) he enjoyed seeing new horizons but his wife did not like to travel very much and preferred to stay at home working - must be mad.......

Typical Costa Rican landscape stretched for miles over the hillsides and again we were fascinated by the ‘living fences’ which border the roadsides. These fences start out as just a tree twig which is hammered into the soil and before long it starts to sprout and then become a tree - many roads were just completely bordered with these ‘easy to grow’ fences. The soil is so fertile that everything just grows in abundance here. The journey seemed to take forever as the roads which were much worse than the unsealed ones in Australia and did not improve but the shuttle bus took it all in its stride and just ‘bumped’ along. Now and then we came across a lone homestead or farm and we swerved to avoid a donkey around one corner with two huge milk urns balance on each side being led by a very ancient costa rican up the hill. The edges of the road at times were a tad too close for comfort, particularly where heavy rain had brought mud down the hills and washed away the road into the valley far below............ we stayed on the track though

We finally arrived in San Jose and back at Suites Cristina where we had stayed when we arrived all those weeks ago now. Our room was not ready so we found the little cafe we had visited last time and had coffee and delicious cheese cake and chocolate muffins before walking it all off around Sabana Park. We still had some spare time before our room was ready so decided to visit the Art Gallery again. Inside we came across a ‘living’ portrait. It was a picture of a women and her mouth was moving as she sang along to Elvis Presley’s - Only You- it was quite bizzare but got your attention nevertheless. As mentioned in a previous blog this building is a work of art in itself, once the terminal of the old airport at the east end of where Sabana Park is today. The art deco museum houses a permanent display of national treasures as well as ‘travelling’ exhibits in its side galleries.

A couple of days later we set off on our next adventure to Tortuguero on the Caribbean Coast. The only way to get to this location in Costa Rica is a long journey by boat. The few hotels only sell packaged breaks of a few days, all inclusive of guide, tours, accommodation and food so we booked on one of these. It would be strange being ‘organised’ instead of having to sort ourselves out........Our transport arrived on time and we set off stopping for breakfast a couple of hours later at a restaurant called Rio Dante (owned by the tour group), situated in Guapiles which was about half way. We had breakfast and met up with our fellow group members; two couples from the UK (we were amazed to meet other brits as we have hardly met any), one couple a doctor and nurse were on their honeymoon, a mother and son from Colarado, a Spanish couple, a German couple and finally, Ana our Costa Rican guide.

Breakfast of course consisted of Rice and Black Beans, a staple of most traditional Costa Rican meals and which is often served three times a day. At breakfast they serve ‘Gallo Pinto’ a dish of rice and beans mixed together with onions and bell peppers, it is often considered the Costa Rican national dish. If you like rice and beans then you will probably like it but as I am not too keen on rice (particularly for breakfast) it was not my ‘cup of coffee’ but luckily they usual serve eggs as an alternative in most hotels!

We continued on our journey arriving at Rancho Rio La Suerte, Tortuguero Canals where we were to board our boat. We could not believe what we saw on our arrival at the docking area. There were so many tourists milling around - more people than we had seen all over Costa Rica - where had they all come from! Luckily though they were all getting on different boats to go to separate hotels. Our group were going to Mawamba Lodge but also there was a large group of American tourists going there as well........ Mawamba Lodge and only one other hotel are situated on a narrow strip of land facing the Tortuguero Canal on one side and with its its backyard facing the Caribbean Ocean. All the other hotels are on the other side of the wide canal so we were glad we had done some research to find this place. We had selected it because we were hoping to see the hatching of Green Turtles. They had only just finished their nesting cycle and as the hatchlings are born two months after the turtle has laid its eggs so we were hopeful that we would be able to witness them leaving the nest, although this would mean early morning wake-ups........ but worth the effort for a chance to experience this incredible sight!

The Sea Turtle Conservancy was founded to study and protect the Caribbean Green Turtles. Working closely with the Costa Rican government, they helped establish what is now Tortuguero National Park, as a resource of protection, not only of the turtles but of the wildlife and its biodiversity in the area. This is especially relevant as Tortuguero is the most important site in the Western Caribbean for the nesting of this endangered species and is also one of Costa Rica’s most biologically diverse wildlife areas.

Boarding our boat with our case was not an easy task but not as bad as the experience we had at Lake Arenal......... Once on board the boat set off at great speed along the Tortuguero River which was extremely fast flowing with all the rain they have been experiencing. The captain stopped several times when there was wildlife around and we had a lovely encounter with a group of Spider Monkeys who were feeding very close to the water’s edge.

It took about an hour and half before we sighted our hotel which was just past the village of Tortuguero, both of them bordering the river. We had a lovely welcome when we finally docked at the hotel with cold towels and some sort of welcome drink - not sure what it was though. We were then shown to our rooms and on the way one of the staff called us over to show us a large snake asleep in the middle of a plant - it was not too far from our cabin which was a little bit concerning........After settling in to our room which was basically a group of four cabins dotted around the gardens with partially covered walkways to the pool, restaurant and bar. Outside each room was a verandah with your own hammock strung up and a rocking chair - reminiscent of ‘the Waltons’ if you can remember this once popular TV programme.

Later we gathered with our group and Ana showed us around the hotel grounds to get our bearings. Mawamba Lodge is situated in an ideal location, fronting the Caribbean Sea with a long sandy beach, where the Green Turtles come to nest each year. Behind the beach is a narrow lagoon, connected to the sea at one end and fed by a river at the other, which parallels the beach for its full 35 km length. Behind the lagoon is a coastal very wet tropical forest, with an approximate annual average rainfall of 4,500 to 6,000 mm - the reason for its evergreen and verdant landscapes as we were to find out. The rainforest itself is threaded with an infinite maze of channels and streams, fed by rivers flowing from the central mountain ranges and we would be journeying along these by boat. Because the area is so isolated it is a great opportunity to enjoy the local wildllife of more than 300 species of birds, amphibian and freshwater fish species, approximately 400 trees, some of which are the base of famous perfumes and colognes like the Ilan-Ilan, around 2200 species of other plants and many animals including 3 species of monkeys (White-faced Capuchin, Spider and Howler), two and three-toed Sloths, American Crocodiles and Caimans, among many others. There are also many endangered animals such as Manatees, Tapirs and Jaguars, to name a few but we were not expecting to see these........

In the gardens behind the hotel swimming pool and bar Ana showed us some frog’s eggs which had been laid high up on the underneath leaves of a large plant. She then pointed out a couple of frogs fast asleep and we would not have noticed that these were frogs as they just looked like lumps on the leaf. She lifted one off and it immediately woke up. They were the Red-Eyed Leaf (Tree) Frog notable for their huge red eyes, a long narrow body and distinct coloration - quite stunning in fact. The frog’s back was bright green to help it blend into the foliage when the it is sleeping. When it moved it exposed its bright orange hands and feet that have large, sticky finger disks, and dark blue thighs with white or cream vertical bars along them. When the frog sleeps, it rests on its white belly, keeping its bright hands and thighs folded out of sight so it does not look anything like a frog and that why we could not recognise it at first. Apparently when the frog is startled, the flashes of bright color confuse its attackers and the frog escapes.......... In the forest it hides under the leaves as it sleeps during the day and is usually seen only at night. Instead of hopping on the ground like most frogs, this one climbs ‘hand over hand’ through the trees and plants. The adhesive disks on its toes and fingers help it cling to surfaces that are entirely vertical. It can even parachute, by spreading out its gangly limbs and large feet and dropping from higher perches to lower branches. Some of the plants had several fast asleep right next to each other and some were so small you could only just make them out.

As we walked around the grounds Ana pointed out many different flowers, plants, trees, insects, bats and birds as well as showing us an ‘army’ of leaf-cutter ants with each one carrying its own dissected leaf to a small hole in the ground where they all disappeared - the line stretched six or seven deep all around the grounds and up and over trees and plants - you could see why they are called an army as they looked like hundreds of battalions on the march........ The bats though we noticed were all along the back of ‘our’ cabin - hopefully they would not find a way inside...........they were Long-nosed bats and did actually look quite cute though...........

Ana told us that conservation was a huge project at Mawamba and they had lots of sanctuaries within the hotel grounds. We walked around a Frog and Butterfly Sanctuary where everything possible was being done to protect these creatures. The butterfly sanctuary was alive with stunning coloured butterflies, including the amazing Blue Morpho Butterfly which looks very different with its wings closed as its just brown and blends well into its surroundings. However once it opened its wings it was the most beautiful butterfly we have ever seen and we noticed these on our walks but they were much to quick to get a good photograph. As we walked around we also spotted a Slaty-tailed Trogon the only Costa Rican Trogan with an unpatterned dark-grey tail - it was perched in the dark undergrowth so the colours were not prominent but it was still an extremely beautiful bird.

Our cabin was very comfortable and set equally positioned between the lagoon and the Caribbean Sea - so we only had a short walk to see quite different terrain and wildlife. Before dinner when it was just getting dark we wandered along the ocean hoping to spot some baby turtles hatching but although we saw many huge pits where the female turtles had laid her eggs and also lots of empty egg shells we did not spot anything else which was quite disappointing.

Included in our hotel package were two boat trips along the canal and we undertook both of these the next morning as the weather was not looking too good with lots of rain forecast. We immediately saw a variety of wildlife on both sides of the canal as the boat was able to get really close to the edge of the waterways. We heard the Mantled Howler Monkeys before they came into sight, swinging high above us in the tree canopy. We also saw a male Jesus Christ Lizard lazing on a log with a female hanging on just above him. I mentioned these in my blog covering Cano Negro as we had seen several there as well - although we did not see them ‘walk on water’. We also saw Toucans, Egrets, Anhinga (snake bird), Kingfishers, the Green, Great Blue, Bare Throated Tiger and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. As well as Iguanas, Caimans (one with a baby), lizards, Black River Turtles, Long-nosed Bats and a sleeping Three-toed Sloth. We were also lucky to see five very rare Green Macaws to the delight of our guide Ana who had not seen them for a while. Scarlet Macaws have been successfully reintroduced in to Costa Rica but the Green Macaw was proving a little more difficult and the breeding program started in 2011 was progressing. Ana said that there are only about 50 left in Costa Rica so lets hope that they are successful in their conservation project.

We had been lucky with the weather so far in Tortuguero but about half way into our second boat trip the rain started to pour and as there was no cover we soon became soaking wet and returned to the hotel to dry out. It rained hard all night long and was still raining the next day so Ana suggested we catch the boat down river and stop off at the local village before walking back along the beach or track. She managed to track down a boat with a roof which was good as we did not really want to get so wet again.........

As we got off the boat there was a National Park kiosk where you purchased tickets to the park as well as some billboards giving information on the various conservation projects in the area. A short distance along a track was the start of the village itself and the first house we came to hired out Welllington Boots (you really needed them to walk around the village if you did not have appropriate footwear) and with all this rain it was rather wet around the village itself. That being said Tortuguero is a unique and beautiful village with a rich caribbean culture and a total population of only 500. It is one of the most remotest locations in Costa Rica and as there are no roads into the area and no cars in the village, all transportation is by boat or foot and everything is brought in this way. The village is spread out like our hotel on a thin spit of land, bordered on one side by the Caribbean Sea and on the other by the main canal. At most points, it's less than 300m metres wide. There are only a tiny collection of houses connected by footpaths and in the center of the village there was a small children's playground and a soccer field, as well as a kiosk that had information on the cultural and natural history of this area. There were several homes that exhibited their own artwork, a couple of small schools, shops and a Catholic church. Many of the homes were small and built in a typical Caribbean style and it was quite delightful walking along its tiny muddy streets - a bit like stepping back into history.

We were getting quite wet as the rain did not want to stop but we stopped and looked into an area where local people were recycling everything possible and there were several small warehouses stacked up with plastics, metal cans, cardboard, old tvs (which seemed well out of place) as well as anything else that could be put to reuse. It did not take long though to reach the end of the village and the rainforest started again. Ana asked whether we wanted to go back to the hotel via the track or beach or we could stay and look around the town some more. We opted to walk back along the beach as we were still hopeful of seeing some baby turtles and so we set off with Anna and another couple the rest stayed in ‘town’. We walked along a track and were soon out on the beach front. After about 5 minutes we noticed a young girl prodding a stick into a hole and were concerned so pointed it out to Ana who went over to see what was going on. The girl was in fact a village guide and in the hole was one little baby turtle. The nest had been disturbed by dogs and the turtle could not climb out of the steep sides and so was trapped and exhausted. The guide tried to help but as she did not want to touch it she could not do much. It was not looking very hopeful as it was hardly moving and in the end she said, ‘I should not be doing this’, and proceeded to lift the turtle out of the nest and placed it down quickly just on the top. Within seconds the turtle turned towards the ocean and started moving its front and rear flippers quickly and set off down the beach. It was just astounding - how on earth did it know which way to go..........Ana said they always do, but she did say that last year one baby turtle kept heading inland for the ‘town’ but in the end did finally turn around and disappear into the ocean. Well at least ‘our’ little turtle did stand a small chance of survival and we were so lucky to be able to experience the beginning of its journey.

The next morning I woke early and decided to head down to the beach before anyone was up to see if I could see anymore turtles leaving Paul dozing in bed. At the beach I noticed a family of three at the water’s edge and I wandered over to see what was going on as there seemed to be great excitement. They were watching another single turtle trying to get into the ocean but the huge waves kept washing it back to shore, luckily I noticed that it was just inches away from being trod on and shouted a warning and everyone stood still. The lucky little turtle was then washed away by the next huge wave - he lived to see another day although the family did get drenched by the wave........ Further along the beach I spotted another nest and here there were several dead baby turtles which had probably been eaten by birds as I noticed footprints all around the nest which Ana said later were probably birds - although I thought they looked more like ‘cat’ prints - perhaps it was the illusive Jaguar.........

After breakfast we walked down to the boat mooring point to wave goodbye to our fellow group members and Ana who were all departing but we had an additional day at Tortuguero which was great. We had got on so well with all the group members and it was very sad to say goodbye, even though we had only know them for couple of days it had been good to have such jolly company for a while. We would just have to get used to being on ‘our own’ once again..........On the way back to our room we noticed a Keel-billed Toucan high up in the tree canopy but just as we got the camera out he disappeared into the rainforest.

The rain continued heavily all day and we wandered around the grounds but it was not much fun with all the rain. Late afternoon the thunder and lighting started and we walked down to the beach to watch the gathering storm. The ground underfoot was getting really water logged and Paul got soaked and decided to walk back to the cabin to dry out. I thought I would stay a while and wondered along the beach but the lightning was flashing and I thought I had also better head back to the cabin. I then noticed one other person on the beach just past our small exit so continued along and stopped and chatted to him. He came from Switzerland and had just seen some baby turtles in a nest and I walked along with him to the nest site. He said there had been about twenty and four still remained in the nest. The chap headed back to the hotel as he was soaked through and said he was going to try and dry out........

I stayed and watched these remaining turtles trying to make their break for the ocean but the now heavy rain kept washing them back into the nest - so I built a little ramp with the sand and debris which enabled them to climb out and they clambered off, straight away turning towards the crashing waves. Just as the last one was reaching the water I turned around and could not believe my eyes, hundreds of baby turtles were heading straight for me and the water’s edge. Another nest close by must have just started to empty.......... It was getting quite dark now and Paul had taken the torch but I could not move as all these little turtles darted to the sea. I turned on the camera’s video and later heard my voice saying ‘oh my god, oh my god’. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had and I would have liked to have stayed until they all reached the ocean but it was really dark and I was worried I would not be able to see the opening to get off the beach. It was a very unique feeling being on this huge empty beach during a massive thunder storm and all these little turtles making their break for life. I was soaked to the skin now, even my leather boots had given up on me and were leaking water...........but would do it all again tomorrow.

Paul was quite worried when I finally made it back, dripping wet but I think he understood that this was one of the things that I had always wanted to see and was really pleased as well. Yes, it would have been nice if the weather had been kinder but with nature it happens when you least expect it and nothing is ever what you planned..............Tortuguero is a unique and exotic place and I will never ever forget the experiences I have encountered here.

That evening at dinner the waitress brought us over two lovely fillet steaks - we were really surprised as we were just going to have the usual buffet food as were all the meals at the hotel. However the hotel rotates its meals every two days as this is as long as most guests stay and they did not want us to have the same food again as this was our third night. We were really impressed and the steaks were perfect and I expect Ana our guide had something to do with it........ For dessert they served fresh coconut and molasses again equally delicious. As we sat and ate all you could hear in the background was the noise of the frogs croaking in the garden and the rain on the roof. We walked back to our cabin which by now had a complete ‘moat’ around it - we literally had to wade through the water to get to our room.

The next morning we were up early for our return boat ride and yes it was still raining....... On the way back to the transfer dock the captain stopped to show us an American Crocodile which was sleeping on a little island in the middle of the very swollen river. Back at Rancho Rio La Suerte our coach was waiting to take us to the Rio Dante restaurant where we were due to meet our next transport. Everyone else’s transport arrived and they departed and the guide was waiting to take a couple of guests back to San Jose. He asked us where we were going and called to check but there was no reply - oh dear it looks like we are going to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, if not we should be in Selva Verde - so fingers crossed we will see you there.

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