Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Tortuguero National Park is a remote and protected wilderness area situated on the eastern coast of Costa Rica. Being accessible only by boat or air has paved the way for a much unchanged landscape, providing a glimpse into a virtually untouched jungle and marshland, away from hordes of tourists and traffic pollution. The experience of arriving into Tortuguero is most remarkable, involving an hour boat journey through a series of canals overlooked by thick jungle, with wildlife flourishing both on land and in water, perfectly setting the tone for what is to come. Infamous for it's biodiversity, Tortuguero National Park has much on offer when it comes to nature, although the only town residing in it, by the same name, is perhaps not what one would expect.
Tortuguero is a small village with Afro-Caribbean heritage, locked-in by canals to the west, ocean to the east and jungle to the north and south. The village is free of cars and, to an extent, even streets. One path runs vertically through the town and can be walked from start to finish in 15 minutes. Tortuguero was once a thriving business hub for wood export, which came to an end around 1972 with the aim of protecting the jungle. Whilst the preservation of the natural beauty was undoubtably needed, the result on the town was harsh; masses of working people within the wood industry fled, leaving behind economic instability, a lack of jobs and no income. Since then, the older families from the village have tried to rebuild by returning to farming, hunting and fishing, all of which is supplemented by tourism.
Being so isolated from the rest of the world has it's benefits - most notably that the nature is so well preserved, but it comes with it's share of downfalls too. Materials and resources are much harder to come by than in other parts of Costa Rica, and indeed the world. The locals and visiting tourists are reliant upon imports arriving through a manmade canal network which struggles to see boats through it's shallow beds during the dry season when the water levels are low.
An eclectic use of scarce buildings materials and vibrant paints means no two buildings look alike, aside from the uniform tin roofs which are used to take a beating from heavy tropical rainfalls and the searingly hot sun. The electricity running through is as sleepy as the village itself, often cutting out for hours (if not days) at a time. The village is very much rural, and despite being a popular destination for eco-tourists and animal lovers, the modern convenience of ATM’s do not exist here, and seldom do card machines, so one must barter and plead with the local supermarkets to withdraw money... or come prepared with cash!
The community feels somewhat stagnant, with everyone in their place and in their particular role, be it on the boats, in a shop, or even sitting on a particular bench, it’s all unchanging, making the same repeated rhythms day in and day out. The same group of men seem to congregate in a square near the taxi boats, playing dominos in the sun every afternoon. A lone artist roams up and down the tourist tracks, kneeling in the dirt as he meticulously carves turtle pendants out of wood. A man sits cross legged on the same bench under the gentle shade of a sparsely branched tree, drinking whilst looking lost and staring blankly ahead of him. The same group of boats knock at the shore line. The young children play along the one and only path and on the grass in their school uniforms, mimicking the village teenagers and showing off to the younger tourists that travel through. School classrooms and teachers are in short supply, so elementary and high school students alternate between morning and afternoon classes, meaning there's always children outside whatever the time of day.
The village beach has dark sand and is lined with palm trees, met by the thundering waves from the Caribbean sea. Jaguars, though an extremely rare sight to behold and a threatened species, can be spotted along this beach, emerging from the jungle to hunt the endangered green turtle and it’s eggs, which are nested in the sand. The national park runs adjacent to the beach, with a trail marked out to view wildlife, though it is perhaps not the best or most reliable way to guarantee close encounters. Unnatural and alien to the earthy surroundings, the village bar sends deep thumping house music beating through the jungle canopies and canals each night until the early hours of the morning, one of the few evening pastimes available to those growing up there.
The lodgings are as eclectic as the village itself, with accommodation built deep into the wilderness of the jungle, and often with critters of the jungle finding their way inside. Morning sounds like the gentle pitter-patter of rain drops pelting upon the soft roof and surrounding leaves, met by the distant screech of the howler monkey and the synchronised yet hazy hum of the insects around the hut. You can hear wildlife breathing and rising with the sun. The jungle here proves to be flourishing with nature and brings the close encounters one longed for in the national park trails. Families of white face monkeys swing through the trees, curiously watching whoever may be walking past. New and unusual bugs choose residency under the shelter where one eats breakfast, pushing the perception of ‘scary’ to new limits. Never again will one fear a daddy long legs spider!
What to do
The daytime brings an array of wildlife activities and tours by foot or by boat. A highlight would be the canal tour, where an experienced guide takes you through a series of narrow winding canals carved out of dense jungle, akin to a ‘mini Amazon’. Caiman crocodiles lurk in the shadows and swim past the boats, as river turtles sit poised amongst mangroves. The aptly named Jesus Lizard sprints across the water, as toucan’s fly overhead in the tallest branches. One turn may bring herons, another may bring howler monkeys, and an extremely lucky turn may bring sighting to a manatee or a bull shark which lurk in the depths of the deepest canal. The canoe is undoubtably the best way to experience the nature, though larger boats are available to drift through the larger canals.
Nighttime brings its own sense of wonder and natural splendour, though is perhaps not for the faint hearted. Evening jungle tours reveal the amphibians and insects one usually tries to avoid - namely poisonous frogs and snakes… such as the largest and most deadly in all of central america: the Fer-de-lance viper. In addition to this, tarantulas can be spotted on the giant leaves that sit a little below face height, poised and waiting to hunt.