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Published: October 4th 2017
Leaving San Jose was a marathon of traffic.
Up at 5:30, breakfast at 6:00, in the vehicle at 7:00. Why did I think this would be a more relaxing tour than I usually take!
Driving out of San Jose took an hour or so. The traffic was almost continuous bumper-to-bumper stop and go, regulated by either traffic lights or stop signs or both! Last night quite a few drivers ignored the red lights, and the stop signs are ignored if the light is green.
Gradually the city receded, and we entered the Braulio Carrillio National Park.
The highway was the single road through the park; National Parks forbid virtually all development, including camping and backpacking. The few facilities for tourism are built only at the edges. This is to preserve the delicate interconnected habitat of the animals, insects, flowers, etc. The views of the verdant “tectonic depression
” against the dark green volcanic mountains were spectacular – at least what we could see behind the rampant ferns, bushes and trees taking advantage of the extra light near the road side. We all noticed that the houseplants at home were akin to weeds here.
The road rose from 1500 metres at San Jose to 2000 metres where a tunnel cut through the
Braulio Carrillo National Park
The mist draped gracefully over the mountain tops.
mountains. Descending on the Caribbean side, we immediately noticed the warmer temperature. In the “lowlands” many small towns and small holdings supported local agriculture. I noticed the nearly incessant passing of transport trucks – goods going to or coming from San Jose. A considerable time ago, the country's rail system was taken apart by a government with ties to the trucking industry. This is not the only country where this happened, as I have heard about it in several places.
Our guide Ollie stopped the van beside a banana plantation to point out an ingenious banana moving system. In the fields the banana bunches are wrapped in a special plastic for protection. When the 70 pound bunches are cut from the plant, they are hung on an overhead mechanical rail system. At a certain point, a man pulls the first bunch and all the rest follow. Indeed, later we were stopped on the road by a man swiftly pulling his “train” across the road, protected by a large red and yellow cantilevered barrier.
In the same area were plantations of soursop, papaya, and yucca. At our break (where we will have lunch in a few days) we marvelled
at a 500-year-old Kapok
tree that soared so far overhead we couldn’t see the top. Here it is nicknamed “God’s Hand”, because the top is like spread-out fingers at the end of a bare arm (no lower branches). The Kapok is the same tree that I saw in Angkor Wat where they grew in much more profusion and helped collapse the temples.
Ollie’s experienced eye noticed a Two-toed Sloth
up in the trees by the entrance driveway. The sloth was moving! After some good stretches, it ate the near-by leaves and not-so-slowly moved through the tree canopy for more delicious leaves. The sloths like leaves that are exposed to sunlight, because they contain more protein, plus predators are less dangerous, near open spaces rather in the darkness of the forest.
We turned off the highway onto a secondary road and then onto a badly rutted and potholed tertiary road. In front of us were full-sized buses because all the tourists were going to Tortugera National Park, a rigorously preserved rainforest famous for turtle nesting. Although the season for the turtle viewing ended in October, lots of us were still delighted to enjoy the natural wonder. At the end of
Two Toed Sloth
Moving - its paw is in the air!
the incredibly bumpy dirt road, we found La Pavona, a huge operation feeding tourists and ferrying them to the lodges at the edge of the Park. Ecotourism is a major part of the Costa Rican economy and employs a great many locals and often Nicaraguan immigrants. (The Park is near the Nicaraguan border.)
The specially designed river boats seat three people across in about fifteen rows. Two outboard motors are skilfully played to negotiate the shallow canal obstructed by fallen stumps and dead branches. On this Caribbean side of the country, the weather has moved well into the dry season, so navigating was full of hazards. Along the edges of the man-made canals (from an earlier time) grew splendid trees, long grasses and gigantic bushes. I noticed morning glory
peeking out from the greenery. A little blue heron and a snowy egret delighted our eyes.
Our destination was the Evergreen Lodge
, where we were given a fruit drink on the dock and received our room numbers. Lunch was on our immediate agenda – it had been a long time from 6:00 breakfast to 1:00 lunch! The served buffet consisted of salads (including huge tomatoes), pureed sweet
potato, white rice, tilapia fish in tomato sauce, and stir-fried beef strips with peppers and onions. I had the tilapia, because I like it and it is raised in Costa Rica. Diluted passion fruit juice was served with the meal and a small fruit salad after. For the first time I tried the coffee (to get rid of a slight headache, which worked). The flavour was very smooth and mellow, almost spiced, although it wasn’t - quite different from a North American cup of coffee.
Ollie let us know that yesterday 27 flights were cancelled, after we had arrived, due to volcanic ash being blown across the airport. Perhaps my scepticism about our delay was misplaced.
After a blessed respite for a short rest, we got on a boat again for the short trip to Tortuguero village right at the entrance to the Park. At the nearby ranger station a set of explanatory boards gave a short history and the philosophy of the Park
, plus Ollie brought the chief ranger to talk to us - in the form of some basic questions and translated answers. Our boats had travelled south in the canal
parallel to the river’s long mouth to the
Caribbean Sea. The Park begins at a “cross canal” that joins the man-made part with the natural river. The turtles nest on the coast that also runs parallel to the river. A long stretch of the nesting area is outside the Park, although the sea off the coast of the Park itself is protected as a marine reserve. Locals are well-served with employment by the Park and its tourism; however, drug cartels try to use the coast as a link to other countries and they aren’t so concerned with turtles. The rangers are armed for this reason.
A few steps beyond the ranger station was an open building, with a fellow on the porch who rapturously greeted Ollie. His wife was inside doing something interesting with chocolate over a gas fire ring. We asked to see. Their business makes and sells traditionally processed chocolate. She was roasting a pan of cocoa beans. When they started popping, they were cooked, and she offered us a taste. The texture was slightly stringy and the flavour was “reminiscent” of a fine chocolate – not too strongly flavoured, and of course not sweet. After the roasting she would later crush the beans into
Everything in Tortuguero is recycled!
powder on a "metate", a specially shaped volcanic stone used with a stone rolling pin. Judy bought an ice-cream on a stick, and I wanted to buy a chocolate bar. Unfortunately, when I saw she kept them in a cooler, I had to ask about taking one home. She said the bars had to be refrigerated or eaten within hours. That didn’t work for me, because there is enough food on this tour, and because I wouldn’t eat that much chocolate at a time, especially as a snack. The bars were about the size and shape of a macaron. I satisfied myself with tasting the samples: the chocolate was soft and crumbly, not at all what we think of as a bar. The flavour was mild, and the sample with cinnamon was tempting.
The near-by Tortuguero village was dedicated to serving the waves of tourists, some like us who come for a few hours, some who stay for a while. Ads abounded for the same activities we will do over the next few days, such as zip lining and rafting, as well as kayaking and fishing. Lots of colourful little restaurants lined the single street, punctuated by individuals selling
their crafts, particularly pendants and bracelets. As we began exploring, a little rain began to fall. Ollie led us for a while, then gave us some free time.
The rain fell more heavily, encouraging us to stand beneath the roof of someone’s porch. As it lightened up, we wandered a bit further, past a small, plain Roman Catholic church and some well-tended front gardens with beautiful flowering bushes. Just when we got to the real tourist-trap store, the rain poured down. Their wide porch was furnished with a long line of traditional rocking chairs – dark carved wood with thick leather for the seat and back. I found twenty minutes of rocking and people-watching most refreshing. Then we got wet returning to the grocery store to find Ollie and then walking back to board a boat moored by the tourist trap.
I was ready for a rest! After an hour of the noise of pounding rain on the tin roof of the cathedral ceiling, I decided to go swimming. Although not minding the wet, I used the umbrella to avoid the annoyance of rain pricking my bare skin on the walk to the pool. By this time,
5:30, it was completely dark. Walking the distance of a couple of blocks with only a swimsuit on in the dark during the rain was distinctly eerie. The mildly warm water in the pool relaxed all muscular and mental tensions. Two couples were having a very good time soaking, and I had a good time swimming “lengths” in a turtle shaped pool.
Dinner: salad, tender grilled chicken, lightly steamed green squash, carrots and onions, rice which I flavoured with hot sauce and local salsa, Imperial beer