Only in Costa Rica, perhaps, might a community unreachable by road be one of the country’s top tourist draws. And only in Costa Rica would residents – most of them, at least – actively fight the construction of a road that could link the area to the rest of the country.
“The goose that lays the golden egg is the uniqueness of Tortuguero,” explains naturalist Daryl Loth, proprietor of Casa Marbella, a lodge in this distant community of some 500 people on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast.
Accessible only by air or water, Tortuguero remains one of those getting-there-is-halfthe-fun destinations. Roads take you only so far on your journey here. The rest of the trip traverses a system of inland canals linking natural waterways, replete with abundant wildlife-viewing opportunities. The canals provide a much safer option than navigating up the turbulent seacoast.
But it was concern for a different type of egg that changed the history of Tortuguero forever.
The community takes its name from the tortugas (turtles) that nest on its shores. Generations of harvesting the region’s four species of sea turtle (green, leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead) and their eggs for food threatened the animals with extinction.
The turtles’ nesting ritual is as old as time itself, predating by thousands of years Christopher Columbus’ encounter with the sea creatures in his 1502 exploration of this sector of the coast. (Columbus first thought he was seeing rocks along the shore, according to information documenting the region’s history at the kiosk in the center of the village.)
A 1963 government decree regulating the hunting of turtles and the 1970 establishment of Tortuguero National Park halted the decline in the animals’ population.
Sebastian Troëng, until last month, scientific director of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, an area organization engaged in extensive research in protecting the turtles’ habitat and tracking their migration, happily discusses the benefits to the local economy of keeping the animals alive rather than killing them for food.
“Conservation benefits the community,” explains Troëng, co-author of “Money Talks: Economic Aspects of Marine Turtle Use and Conservation,” a report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund. He estimates that some 70,000 visitors pass through Tortuguero National Park annually, bringing $6.7 million to the local economy.
The turtles provide employment, too. Just under half the village residents work as guides. Despite the substantial visitor numbers, this is no free-for-all: accompaniment by a guide is required to view the turtles’ nighttime nesting rituals. Many other residents work in area hotels and restaurants.
Rain, or lack thereof, doesn’t define the tourist season in Tortuguero. (It rains here most of the year.) Tortuguero’s prime visitor activity skews its high tourist season to a February-to-October one, with the July-to-October nesting season for green turtles drawing the most visitors. But come here during Christmas week and you might have the place to yourself.
Then and Now
“Nothing but birds, turtles and monkeys,” remembers 68-year-old Junie Martínez of her childhood in the village. There was also no light, no radio and no telephones.
By most accounts, Martínez is the doyenne of Tortuguero, known to everyone as simply “Miss Junie.” (Older women in Caribbean communities are frequently addressed as “Miss,” regardless of their marital status.)
Martínez’s grandfather Walton, a sea captain who hailed from the Colombian Caribbean island of San Andrés, was one of the founders of the village.Martínez was born in Bluefields,Nicaragua, north of here, but came to Tortuguero when she was three months old. At the age of 9, she began cooking in the restaurant founded by her mother Sibela, which now bears the name Miss Junie’s. After 59 years of cooking, Martínez has mostly retired, and now divides her time between Tortuguero and the Caribbean port city of Limón.
“Tourism brought jobs and transportation links,” Martínez enthuses, while admitting that, as in any growing community, it has also brought a bit of petty crime, a problem the village is working to resolve.
Although a 2001 ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) decreed that there was no need to build a road through the park, pressures continue to improve overland access to the rest of the country. But the establishment of a public health clinic and a high school offering education through the 11th grade, as well as frequent, regular, inexpensive public boat transportation south to Limón and the Caribbean-slope towns of Siquirres and Cariari, have lessened residents’ sense of isolation.
Tourists seem not to mind the remoteness either.
“It’s not a sun-and-sand crowd that comes here,” Loth says. (The sea off the dark-sand beach is too rough for swimming, anyway.)
Tortuguero’s unusual location has given rise to a cottage industry of all-inclusive lodges on the canals outside of town. Packages run $180-300 per person for a two-day, one-night stay, including lodging, meals, guided tours and transportation from San José. Many budget lodgings exist in Tortuguero village, along with a small selection of yummy restaurants and guides who will take you out on turtle- or nature-watching excursions.