We made it to Tortuguero just in time to witness some of nature’s finest moments. The clue is in the name; there were turtles galore and, luckily for us, it was egg-laying season. As Alice (so eloquently) phrased it, ‘This is some David Attenborough shit!’. Check it out…
We were picked up in Puerto Viejo and driven to a small port called Moin in Limon. After a few minutes of waiting around aimlessly, we were introduced to our boat driver and piled on to a long, narrow boat. The journey was about 2 hours long and although this may sound like an extra effort after a car journey from Puerto Viejo it was actually quite the opposite. It’s like we’d booked an excursion – the river was so picturesque and the driver regularly stopped to point out sloths, birds and crocodiles.
I’ve learnt that this would not be an ideal future job for me. You’re probably thinking that this is because I can’t drive a boat and you’d be correct in saying that because I can’t drive anything (22 with a green licence, woe is me). But no, the reason why I couldn’t be a boat tour guide is because I’m useless at spotting wildlife. I excitedly pointed out a sloth to the girls and it turned out to be a really big leaf, every time I saw a crocodile it was just a floating log and whenever people would point out legit animals I would just stare desperately in the direction of their finger and nod without ever actually seeing anything. Vision express, step up my contact lens game, pls.
This was the first time on our trip that we haven’t been surrounded by a ton of other young people. Tortuguero seems to draw in more families than newly-graduated backpackers and it was actually quite comforting to see an array of Dads wearing souvenir t-shirts, filling their camera memory cards with 75,000 pictures of every bird they saw. Shout out to my Dad who would have been doing exactly that if he were there!
Upon arrival to the Tortuguero docks, all the other passengers flooded out of the boat but the driver, who had a soft spot for Abbie, told us to remain exactly where we were. A little confused as to why we weren’t allowed off the boat, we just went with it and before we knew it we were getting door to door service yet again – a direct drop-off directly at the dock of our hostel. Praise the lord for Abbie’s attractive face (disclaimer: I don’t agree girls should get preferential treatment based on looks but, to be honest, I also don’t like carrying my backpack for long distances so whatever)
The hostel we stayed at was called ‘Casa Marbella’. As I said before, Tortuguero is catered to a very different crowd so the hostels are more like hotels and the prices are higher because they know that older tourists will pay. We chose Casa Marbella because it was one of the cheaper options, but at $16 per person per night it was still pricey!
Luckily, our money went a lot further than we expected it to. We had a beautiful private room with one double bed, two singles, river-views from the window, free breakfast, a clean, modern en-suite and, wait for it…. towels folded into swans! After top-bunk traumas at La Ruka, it was nice to put our feet on the floor when we got out of bed. Although, I am being a jammy bugger and snagging the lower bunks wherever possible – anyone that’s travelled with me in the past will know that some of my worst injuries have come from falling off bunkbeds…. throw back to the time in Ecuador I got tangled in my mosquito net and punched myself in the face on the way down 👍 Co-ordination is an art form. One which I am not familiar with.
In all fairness, these perfectly sterile, generic hotel rooms are so easy to come by anywhere in the world and there is definitely a magic to quirky, jumbled, graffiti-ed hostels. We would never wish for this kind of plush accommodation across the whole trip but it was definitely a special treat. Alice still managed to flood the bathroom though, so maybe that was a sign that we aren’t cut out for the swan-towel life just yet.
There isn’t much to do in the town of Tortuguero other than go to the beach and wander up and down one long street of shops and restaurants. The main reason why people go is for the night tours to see turtles but there are no set times for these tours because it depends on the season. At around 4/5pm the tour companies and hotels around town will know what time the tours will depart for that day. We were told to expect either an 8pm or a 10pm departure and although we were praying for the earlier one so we could get more sleep (young, wild and free eh?) we were told it would actually be the latter. To kill time beforehand, we decided to make dinner an occasion. When I say an occasion, I mean we looked at some fancy restaurants in the town and realised we didn’t care for the prices or the American food styles so ventured into the backstreets and found a local ‘comedor’ where we ate gallo pinto, plantain and salad to our hearts content for just £3.50 each. An occasion indeed.
My only qualm with Tortuguero (and Latin America generally) is that they give out straws with every single drink you purchase. Seems a bit ironic that a town dedicated to turtles overloads you with one of the ocean’s biggest enemies. C’mon, we’ve all seen the heartbreaking videos of aquatic life having straws pulled out of their nostrils. I know that sometimes they’re unavoidable but say no to the popote (straw) if you can and if you do wind up with one then just recycle it. The teensiest things make the biggest differences.
Anyway, enough preaching, time to get to the good stuff. We were picked up from the hostel at 10pm and taken to the beach. The tour guide had a light so there was some degree of visibility to the front of us but when you looked behind it was just pitch black (and marginally terrifying). The walk took quite a while and it’s all guarded at night so that no-one other than the tour groups can get onto the beach. This is to protect the turtles – there have been issues with people stealing eggs, killing the turtles, scaring them away etc. in the past 😔
In order to write these blogs, I keep a notes page on my phone where I jot down all the exciting stuff that happens instead of having to remember things by heart. I may be losing my journalist touch a bit, however, as for this part of our trip I have just one thing written down:
‘4 stages of turtling’
Yep. That’s it. Turtling isn’t a word either… so that gives me pretty much nothing to work with. For the sake of my millions of fans (okay, maybe there’s only 20 of you) I am going to attempt to remember what our guide told us:
Although Tortuguero is home to many different turtle species, we visited during green turtle season. There are 7 stages of ‘turtling’, actually, but we only saw 4 of them that night:
1) The turtles dig a massive hole in the sand (this takes 4ever)
2) They lay their eggs (this was mesmerising – 20 come out all at once)
3) They bury the eggs (this takes 5ever)
4) They return to the ocean (and their babies never see them again – brutal)
We even saw a 5th stage when a turtle emerged out of the ocean and started to edge towards the beach. Unfortunately, it got a bit scared when it saw us and went straight back into the water.
The 6th and 7th stages involve the eggs hatching and the babies heading into the ocean. I think we’d have been there for quiiiiite a while if we’d wanted to see that.
We were told to wear all black, stay silent and bring no torch/phone/camera onto the beach. Although it’s kind of sad not to be able to take photos of something so cool (and just to show you guys how ridiculously big these turtles were), the flash scares them too much so everyone respects the rules. The guides shine small red lights instead, so that we can see the turtles in a way that doesn’t cause the them any harm or distress. Sometimes, though, our camoflage doesn’t work (the turtle coming up to the beach saw us) and we interfere with the process.
Essentially, we invade their privacy to witness things like this but there are so many careful measures in place to keep us as invisible as possible/protect the turtles so I think it’s ethical. Seeing animals in their natural habitat will forever be the number 1 way to fulfil the desire to see nature up-close!
At midnight, we started walking back to our hostel. The streets were empty, everything was dark and so we looked up for light. The stars in the sky were so indescribably beautiful, like those galaxy print leggings that edgy kids wear? Yeah, we saw them for real (poetic description, I know). Probably one of the most magical things I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Yay, for no light pollution.
So, this blog post may feel a bit pictureless and although I wish I could share the ‘turtling’ and the night skies with you all, I’m enjoying just being able to keep the mental images to myself for a change. If you stumble into Costa Rica at any point in your life and it happens to be turtle season, then just ignore the price, ignore the out-of-the-way location and head to Tortuguero… you won’t regret it!