Monday, June 22, 2009
Birdwatching is for the birds.
The alarm went off at 5am. It was surprisingly easy to get out of bed probably because sleep had been fleeting thanks to a lot of worry. But we had little time to worry about that as a van was coming to pick us up just after 6am. And it was right on time. We were met by Fran and Modesto, an American and Nicaraguan wife and husband team, who had been running tours to Tortuguero for the last 21 years. They were highly recommended but that came at a price - $175US each for two days and one night in the small town. Looking back that was way too much money, but at the time Costa Rica had tainted our sense of affordability.
Already in the van was a young couple Anthony and Sarah from LA, they were quiet and shy or just as tired as the rest of us at the early hour. And we stopped to pick up two more Americans, Lisa and Brenda, niece and aunt from Oregon. Brief introductions were made and was able to figure the reason for the high tour price – it was aimed more at the holiday maker than the backpacker. And in fact Anthony and Sarah were just beginning their 10 day trip and Lisa and Brenda were just wrapping up theirs. I just reminded myself that it was recommend and hoped it was worth it. Thankfully, that price included a stop at a breakfast buffet where we had a Nicaraguan breakfast, I mean Costa Rican breakfast of rice and beans, eggs, plantains and fruit. Then it was back on the road. We crossed over the continental divide while I was asleep, arriving in Moin at about 8:30.
Moin is essentially a port – I’m sure there was a town somewhere but all we saw was a giant shipping port. We passed by ships loaded up with Dole pineapples, Chiquita bananas, and dozens of others without brand names all headed to parts unknown. The van pulled up at a little hotel and restaurant on a canal behind the port. We were loaded onto a small lancha and began the next phase of the trip on route to Tortuguero. Our boat captain Eddie took us through the canals built by the fruit and logging companies to expedite the exports to North America. Now they were used instead of roads to get to the remote towns on the Caribbean shore. Fran and Eddie were awesome at finding and pointing out birds, bats, monkeys, crocodiles and sloths hanging out in the jungle that still lined the canals and rivers. Although most were too far away to get a good shot of. It was great – for the first hour but by the fourth hour we were all getting a little anxious to get to Tortuguero in our sleep deprived state. Plus, without an interest in birds it was a little much.
Finally we pulled up to Tortuguero. It was not so much a town as it was a jumble of houses and shops on thin strip of land between the canal and the sea. There wasn’t even a road just a dusty path that we followed to get to our room for the night. For the money we were paying, I expected our accommodations to be among the best we’d experienced. But our room was no different than any other room we’d had. It was clean with a private coldwater shower but no fancier than any other room we’d stayed in during our trip. Although looking out over the beach was nice.
Anxious to freshen up, we took a cool dip in the small swimming pool. We felt almost human and then headed out to the conservation area to learn about the sea turtles – that was, afterall, the reason we were up here. Tortuguero was named for the sea turtles that nest on the beach for 6 months of the year. Leatherback nesting season had just ended last month and the green turtle had yet to begin officially for another couple of weeks. But we were here so we crossed our fingers that turtles couldn’t read calendars and would start early this year. The conservation area was a small hut chock full of information on the history of the turtle program. It was begun in the 50s by an American named Archie something who noted the dangerous overfishing of turtles in the area and warned the government of potential extinction. It took a few years but they finally listened and let him set up the Caribbean Conservation Centre, to educate the locals about turtles and convinced them to stop the slaughter. Now it was run by his grandson and a bunch of other scientists.
Back at the hotel, we signed up for a night hike to search for nesting turtles but were warned that there was less than a 50/50 chance of seeing them. Oh well, I felt like gambling today. It was still a few hours before dark so Adrian and I set off in search of a phone to call home. The best tiny Tortuguero could offer was $2 phone cards that would only provide 5 minutes of talk time which wasn’t much help. We passed and found the only internet café in town to send an email home explaining the predicament.
For dinner we went to Miss Junnie’s, a restaurant known as much for its role in the history of the town as it was for its food. It was started as a café to feed the fruit and logging company employees. Then when the loggers and fruit pickers left, Miss Junnie adapted her business to serve the scientists and conservationists. And the town grew around the restaurant. Now 60 years later her granddaughter serves the same delicious home cooked food to hungry tourists. The food was good but we had to wait 1.5 hours for it. We quickly gobbled it down and rushed off to start our turtle trek.
Back at the hotel, we met up with Lisa, Brenda, Anthony and Sarah and our local guide and began our 2 hour trek along the beach. Despite the heavy duty lightening show over the sea, it was pitch dark. It was also very windy but still incredibly hot and humid. In the dark we didn’t find any signs of turtles but I did manage to find a coconut, a stone, a large tree branch and a couple of holes left behind by kids digging sand castles by tripping over them. The branch sent me flying and thanks to the layer of sweat on my skin I got up covered in sand. We passed another 20 people also searching for signs of the turtles before turning back. Oh well, we tried.
Once in the light of our hotel room I got a shock looking in the mirror. Despite shaken and wiping off what seemed like buckets of sand, I was covered in a thick layer of black sand. A long shower helped to get rid of most of it but I knew I’d be finding sand in my scalp and ears for the next week or so. It had been an exhausting day so we collapsed on the bed. No turtles. No phone call home. We were feeling very unaccomplished