It’s just before 5 a.m. and 44-year-old nature guide Johnny Artavia is bent over at the waist, staring at shadows on the beach created by slivers of early morning light. The sun hasn’t completely risen over Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, but Artavia is wide-awake and excited about his discovery.
“Everyone come here,” he says to the group of groggy-eyed reporters, without taking his eyes off the sandy lump on the beach.
“Here’s one; there’s a little head. Keep your eyes on the hole, they’ll come scampering out and make a dash for the ocean,” he adds.
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One-by-one, in pairs and in trios, tiny green turtles the size of Matchbox cars flap and struggle up a sandbank, down into a shoeprint, up another large embankment and then into the whitewashed waves churning on the warm, sandy shore.
We stare in awe as the tiny turtles begin a perilous journey to sea that many won’t survive. The group of reporters snaps pictures and records video on iPhones. And then, in minutes, the baby turtles are gone.
Six hours earlier, in the pitch-black night, we stood on the same beach watching a giant green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) digging a nest and laying dozens of eggs. This captivating cycle takes place every year here, drawing thousands of tourists to Tortuguero National Park on the northern Caribbean coast. The endangered leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) – the largest sea turtle – nests here from March to June, and the green turtle nests from July to October.
The morning still young, we pile into a large motorboat provided by Pachira Lodge, hosts of the visit by local reporters, and head back down the Tortuguero Lagoon, turning right on the Río Tortuguero and into a canal system in the forested section of the park.
Our boat captain is aptly nicknamed “Eagle Eye” for his exceptional ability to spot wildlife in the thick mass of tropical rain forest along the canals.
In the early morning, the forest thrives with so many birds and animals that our guide cannot finish explaining one species before Eagle Eye sets off in pursuit of another.
Even Artavia’s description of native trees has reporters enthralled. “In Costa Rican vernacular, this is a guarumo,” Artavia says, as Eagle Eye maneuvers the boat over to a Cecropia tree. “Look, nothing grows on it. Nature has symbiotic relationships, which means that if I give something to you, you give something in return.”
Inside the guarumo lives an army of Aztec ants (Azteca andreae) that protect their home like a castle in exchange for lodging and food. Artavia taps the tree with a knife handle and hundreds of ants emerge, ready for battle.
“They’re highly aggressive,” Artavia explains, removing the knife before angry ants could confiscate it. “Howler monkeys eat the leaves, so they go up the tree, grab the leaves and hurry to another limb. They can’t sit around and hang out on a guarumo or they’ll be invaded by ants.”
Hunters to Guides
Tortuguero National Park, created in October 1975, spans 50,000 hectares of protected marine area and 20,000 hectares on land. It wasn’t always a nature-lover’s paradise, and before it was protected, humans were one of the biggest local predators.
“It was tough back then,” Artavia explains, referring to life before 1975. “There were no jobs in the area and people lived by subsistence hunting, artisanal fishing and living off of the turtles; not protecting them, mind you, but rather eating them.”
In the early ’70s, 15 families lived in the village of Tortuguero, a small strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Tortuguero Lagoon. Later, two timber companies moved to the area, providing jobs to local workers, who cut trees and prepared timber for export and domestic markets.
But 1975 saw big changes for local residents initially opposed to the national park’s creation. Many left the area, seeking jobs at nearby banana plantations or in the Central Valley.
“Residents of that era did not appreciate the creation of the national park. It was something that took food from their families. The idea of not being able to hunt seemed illogical to them,” Artavia, who was raised in Tortuguero, recalls.
For a decade, those who stayed worked in the timber industry. Then, in 1985, tourists started coming. Most of them were adventure seekers or rugged biologists, as the area hosted only one sport fishing hotel at the time, today owned by Costa Rica tourism pioneer Michael Kaye of Costa Rica Expeditions.
In the ’90s, the modest tourism industry grew, with small hotels and other simple lodging appearing near the national park. Local schools adopted an environmental curriculum, allowing students to prepare for jobs as nature guides.
Artavia was one of those students, enrolling in his first nature course in 1989. “I wasn’t born a nature lover,” he says. “One has to learn conservation. I started working as a nature guide in Tortuguero, and it just grew on me. Eventually I fell in love with the idea of conservation and protecting the environment.”
Artavia has worked for Grupo Pachira – owners of Pachira Lodge, and sister hotels Aninga Hotel and Spa (more high-end bungalow-style lodging adjacent to Pachira) and Evergreen Lodge Tortuguero (adjacent to the national park) – for the past 15 years. Hotel guests are captivated by his encyclopedic knowledge of local wildlife and plants, and he seemed unfazed by a group of journalists and their incessant questioning.
From rustic to relaxing
Attitudes towards conservation and tourism have changed dramatically from those early days, and today, some 60,000 tourists – 10 percent of them Costa Ricans – visit Tortuguero annually.
These are guests who don’t mind a little rain, which Pachira Lodge employees quickly point out is an inherent part of visiting a tropical rain forest. Tortuguero receives an annual average of 5,500 millimeters of rainfall. That means that trees here stay green year-round.
Other draws include several microclimates, including high-temperature wetlands, and rich biodiversity, including several species of amphibians, reptiles and mammals, all found in the national park.
The village of Tortuguero has grown in the past decade as well. Some 1,300 residents live here, many of them drawn to tourism jobs in the area’s 13 hotels. But there isn’t much room for expansion, and the area of conservation limits tourism growth (a plus for travelers).
That doesn’t mean that amenities are lacking. While tourism in the past relied on sturdy backpackers facing challenging conditions, today many local hotels offer hot water, private baths, and even luxurious swimming pools and a spa (Aninga Hotel, adjacent to Pachira Lodge, has the region’s only spa).
With the majority of visitors coming from Europe and North America, local tourism operators say they have to be prepared for more demanding customers. During our stay at Pachira Lodge, the hotel was filled with foreign travelers, who were treated to spacious, comfortable rooms built in the middle of the rain forest.
To escape the heat, Grupo Pachira’s three lodges have large turtle-shaped swimming pools, plus several large buffet-style restaurants, and bars with serene views of either the lagoon or the river, where visitors can sip on tropical drinks while watching lazy boat traffic float by.
Travel packages also include kayaks and several tours, including boat trips to the park, turtle viewing and hiking. Evergreen has the area’s only canopy tour.
Hotel managers also stressed their focus on providing good service, and they insisted that our status as members of the news media didn’t mean we were treated any differently than normal guests. If that’s true, I doubt many people would have much to complain about, as long as they’ve packed the bug spray, swimwear and ponchos.
As a visitor, it’s nice to know that there are still places in Costa Rica that have remained free from big tourist development. Artavia calls Tortuguero “the world’s other Amazon,” a “dignified place to come and admire wildlife and rich Caribbean culture.”
Sounds good to me.
Prices for overnight stays at Grupo Pachira’s three lodges (Pachira Lodge, Aninga Hotel and Spa and Evergreen Lodge Tortuguero) include ground transportation from San José, two boat transfers, all meals, lodging and tours. The group’s guest services office can help you decide which of the three lodges is best for you. Prices (through Dec. 15) range from $249 for a one-night stay to $329 for a two-night stay (includes tours). Discounts apply for Costa Rican residents.