Tortuguero: Turtles, eggs, drunks and the circle of life

August 5, 2015

With medical tourism big business in Costa Rica, the number of health-oriented facilities throughout the country is growing in tandem. Whether you’re looking for a secluded place to relax and recover after surgery, a treatment facility for drug or alcohol addiction, or a wellness retreat to honor your body’s physical, mental and spiritual needs, Costa Rica is sure to have a place that’s right for you.

The Tico Times compiled the following sampling of recovery, rehab and health and wellness centers around the country.

Recovery Centers

refugio montana
Refugio de Montaña recovery center offers care for the elderly as well as post-surgical patients in a mountain setting. Courtesy of Refugio de Montaña.
Refugio de Montaña in San Pedro de Poás, northwest of the capital in the Alajuela province, provides post-surgery care to medical tourists and also specializes in care for the elderly and for people with temporary or permanent disabilities. The facility is 20 minutes from Juan Santamaría International Airport and the San Rafael de Alajuela Hospital. Services and amenities here include medical care, transportation to and from the airport and medical appointments, all meals, monitoring and supervision of patient health conditions, a gymnasium and doctor office. Refugio de Montaña also can arrange tours, spa and beauty salon services, physical therapy and massage therapy. Prices listed on the website ($110 per person and $60 per companion per night) have been lowered to $90 per person and $40 per companion per night. The facility also offers wireless Internet access, free local calls, private bathrooms, laundry service and cleaning service. For information, visit
www.refugiopoas.com, e-mail info@refugiopoas.com or call 2448-5781. Paradise Cosmetic Inn, in the hills of San José’s western Escazú suburb, caters especially to surgical patients. The facility, which is part of the Best Western hotel chain, offers on-site nursing care, free 24-hour professional care and recommendations of qualified plastic surgeons in Costa Rica. It works directly with private hospitals CIMA and Clínica Bíblica, both accredited by the Joint Commission International. All-inclusive rates range from $75 for one patient in a standard room to $195 for a patient and a companion in a presidential suite. Prices include transportation to and from the airport and surgery appointment, three meals per day, nursing assistance, wireless Internet, private bathrooms, DirecTV and free calls to the United States and Canada after 5 p.m. Basic rooms without all the services start at $59 per patient per night. For information, see paradisecosmetic inn.com, e-mail info@paradisecosmeticinn.com or call 2252-3530 in Costa Rica or (786) 228-9148 from the U.S. CheTica Medical Recovery Ranch, in the mountains northeast of San José, is run by husband-and-wife team Lorena and Ruben Martin. Guests stay in independent cottages surrounded by 80 acres of pristine land while they recover from surgery. Patients receive around-the-clock nursing assistance, three home-cooked meals a day, help with doctor’s appointments, travel information and tours, transportation to and from the patient’s main doctor and hospital, and free airport transfers between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. The private cottages have over 450 square feet of living space and come equipped with cable TV and DVD player, private bathroom, stereo system and CD player, bottled water, microwave, refrigerator and wood-burning fireplace. Guests can also take advantage of free Internet and international phone calls. A single surgical guest is charged a flat rate of $85 per day plus tax, with discounts offered for additional guests sharing a cottage. A lowered rate of $75 per night applies for dental guests. For information, visit www.cheticaranch.com, e-mail info@cheticaranch.com or call 2268-7771. Villa Le Mas aftercare facility in the mountains of Escazú offers private villas and 24-hour specialized care. Decorative pools and waterfalls surround the premises, which feature a solar-heated swimming pool and a spa offering relaxing massages, manicures, pedicures and hair services. Tours of the area are also offered. Suites and villas include bottled water, cable TV, DVD access, telephone, kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, laundry service and free calls to the United States and Canada. Rates including tax start at $99 per night for a standard villa for surgical guests and $149 per night for a luxury suite. Nonsurgical guests receive a reduced rate. For information, see www.plasticsurgerycostaricaaftercarefacility.com, e-mail villalemascostarica@yahoo.com or call 2289-3767.

Rehab Centers

Costa Rica Recovery is a nonprofit alcohol and drug addiction treatment center in the western San José district of Pavas that offers 30-, 60- and 90-day treatment plans for up to 20 patients at a time. Services and amenities include individual and group therapy, daily gym visits and a personal trainer, transportation to 12-step meetings, recreational day trips and three meals a day. The first 30 days of treatment cost $3,500; each additional month costs $2,650. For information, visit www.costaricarecovery.net or call 2220-1713 or 8348-1369 in Costa Rica or (866) 804-1793 from the U.S. or Canada. Tropical Oasis offers a traditional and holistic approach to overcoming addiction at its treatment center in Esterillos, a small beach town on the central Pacific coast. The rehab facility provides intervention services, individual and group therapy, educational lectures and medication management. In addition to its 12-step philosophy, the center uses other spiritual approaches and tools such as cognitive-behavioral therapy in its treatment plans. It offers rehabilitation programs for alcohol, drug, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine addiction, as well as dual diagnosis and depression. Rates range from $10,000 - $15,000 depending on length of stay and accomodation type. For details please contact paula.kirbo@oasistropical1.com. Costa Rica New Hope treatment center caters to executives and professionals struggling with addiction or emotional problems. The Central Valley facility features a mountain setting and is run by husband-and-wife team Bill Bayless and Dakmare Bolaños Vaglio. The center’s physicians, therapists and activity director help patients design a customized treatment plan using a holistic approach that treats patients physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Plans include drug or alcohol detoxification, individual therapy, education and art therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, relapse-prevention techniques, exercise and on- and off-site activities. The facility features a thermal water pool, fishing pond and walking trails. Four weeks of dual diagnosis treatment normally costs $9,600, but the center is currently offering a discounted price of $8,000. For information, visit www.costaricanewhope.com, e-mail info@costaricanewhope.com or call 2213-1954 in Costa Rica or (866) 918-8302 from the U.S. or Canada.

Health & Wellness Retreats

Ascleipos
Pool area at Asclepios Wellness and Healing Retreat. Courtesy of Asclepios.
Asclepios Wellness and Healing Retreat, named after the Greek god of medicine and healing, sits on 12,500 acres of land in El Cacao de Alajuela, near Poás Volcano, northwest of San José. Amenities include a regulated ionized swimming pool, amphitheater, fitness center, yoga and meditation pavilion, sauna relaxation room and organic restaurant. The facility also offers naturopathy, detoxification and revitalization programs, stress and weight management techniques, Reiki, acupuncture, floral therapy, shiatsu and homeopathy, among other services. Special programs, such as the Purifying Journey or Anti-Stress Escape, are offered with a minimum one-week stay; shorter programs for two to four nights are also available. High-season rates start at $245 per person, per night, based on double occupancy. For information, visit www.asclepioscr.com, e-mail info@asclepioscr.com or call 2433-1668. AmaTierra is a holistic eco-retreat on eight acres of land in the mountains between San José and the central Pacific coast. Owner Jill Ruttenberg, a registered professional herbalist, offers a variety of wellness services such as aromatherapy massage, ear candling, exfoliation scrubs, yoga classes and holistic health guidance. Guests stay in private suites with bathtub, private terrace and garden with outdoor seating, refrigerator, phone and TV with DVD player. Standard high-season rates including breakfast start at $149 double occupancy. Meal-inclusive rates are also offered, as are a variety of wellness, yoga and honeymoon packages. For information, visit www.amatierra.com, e-mail amatierra@gmail.com or call 2419-0110 in Costa Rica or (866) 659-3805 from the U.S. or Canada. Health Oasis Costa Rica in Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast, is a wellness resort that offers a variety of therapies and programs with a specialization in fasting and colon-cleansing programs. Guests who come for these programs can expect to receive a health assessment and iris analysis upon arrival, one yoga and meditation class daily and a massage course, Reiki circle meditation and a wellness seminar every three days. Rates start at $880 for three days and go up to $1,780 for nine days. Other cleansing programs, such as blood and lymph or lungs ($450 for four days), parasite or kidney ($350 for three days or $680 for seven days) and weight loss ($650 for three days or $2,900 for 14 days), are offered as well. For information, see www.healthoasiscostarica.com. Costa Rica Body and Spirit, founded by Costa Ricans Carlos Echeverría and Patricia Howell, offers wellness vacations that involve the healing and creative arts in locations throughout the country. Guests can expect to enjoy activities such as yoga and qigong classes, meditation sessions, rain-forest walks and visits to healing herb gardens and butterfly farms. Upcoming seven-day vacations being offered are a qigong and dolphin package ($1,650 per person) and eco-yoga ($1,750 per person). Prices include all lodging, local transportation, meals, classes and tours, and are based on double occupancy. For information, visit costaricabodyandspirit.com. If you have a health-oriented facility to recommend, post your comments below. (A sampling of post-surgical recovery centers, drug and alcohol addiction rehab facilities, and health and wellness retreats around the country.)

TORTUGUERO, Limón — The first rule of turtle watching is “Wait, wait, wait.” The second is “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

We boarded a boat at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Laguna Lodge with our guide, Gerardo Alexis Torres, and as soon as we started to rev up, the captain threw on the brakes.

Out of total darkness, another boat blasted into our path at top speed, a dangerously short distance from our bow.

Torres uttered an obscenity and said, “What was that, mae?” The captain mumbled something I didn’t catch. But if he hadn’t spotted the oncoming boat, he probably would have revved our boat into its path, where it would have crashed into our port side at ramming speed. Torres said they should call the police and report the guy.

Calling the police, oddly enough, would turn out to be a repeat theme on a most unusual turtle tour on a muggy night in August.

We disembarked somewhere on the other side of Tortuguero village and walked to a waiting area above the beach. Here we were told to keep our flashlights off and keep our voices down so as not to disturb the turtles.

There were two or three dozen other people already in this waiting area, and Torres tried but failed to get other groups to obey his flashlight rule.

Torres explained that turtle spotters on the beach locate the green turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. The turtles have to be left alone while they dig a hole, because if a bunch of tourists crowd around to spectate, the turtles will abort the mission and return to the sea.

But once the turtle starts laying, she goes into a trancelike state and is not disturbed by spectators, so long as they are quiet and not flashing lights. Only one red light is allowed, for the guide, and he can shine it only on the rear of the turtle, not on the face.

Above all, we could not take pictures, or we could be fined and Torres’ license suspended.

And so (the first rule of turtle watching) we waited … and waited … and waited. I had read that turtle watching is not for everyone, as it usually involves a lot of waiting in the dark at night, sometimes for hours, and there’s no guarantee of seeing a turtle.

But finally the time came for our group to move to the on-deck circle … and soon it was time for us to actually start creeping onto the beach, and then …

“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” a guide practically shouted. “The turtle is at the waterline!”

I felt like a character on a reality show where the contestants are tormented by being asked to wait for a long time in a dark place and then told to run away from the dark place in the dark.

We ran along a trail strewn with beach debris, finding our way by the glow of a cloud-smothered moon and an occasional flashlight shined our way by the guides.

When we reached the beach, there was our quarry: a big green turtle, close to a meter long, beating a retreat to the ocean by sliding her bulky body along the sand with her big flippers. Something had spooked her (couldn’t be us?) and she decided to lay her eggs somewhere else.

We all ran down to the waterline and crowded around the escaping hulk. The guides asked the people in front to get down so the people in back could see.

I was in front, so I crouched down, while people standing up pressed in behind me.

Predictably, the next thing that happened was a big wave rolled in. I let it wash over my flip-flops and up to my knees, but the people behind me gasped and shrieked and staggered backward. Nathan’s mom, Rhona, took a blow to the chest from a tall man in front of her who suddenly backed up, nearly knocking her down.

 

The drunk tourist

Now that we had seen a turtle, I thought perhaps we could go home. But Torres had a much more ambitious agenda. He said that was the last turtle in this area, so we’d have to go somewhere else. We set out on a long, fast march to the next area, hurrying lest we miss the next turtle, with only Torres’ flashlight to light the way for our long column.

It was quite a hike, bringing us right into Tortuguero village, where I did a face plant, stumbling on something in the dark. Speed-hiking in the dark is not necessarily the safest activity late at night for people who got up at 4:30.

We came to another beach and were again told to wait while Torres went off to confer with the spotters.

He came back and said, “There’s a turtle there, and there’s a drunk tourist who’s practically on top of him. We’re calling the police.”

We waited some more while Torres walked off again. When he came back, talking about routine turtle stuff, we asked about the drunk tourist. He pointed behind us.

“He’s sitting right over there, and the police are coming.”

We looked back and saw a man sitting at the edge of the beach, looking at us. He was holding a large, clear bottle of what might have been guaro.

The man said he had a right to be here because he paid for a turtle tour last night, Torres said. The turtle guides told him that gave him no right to be here tonight, unaccompanied, disturbing a nesting turtle.

“I have 20 witnesses that he was almost right on top of that turtle,” Torres said.

Before long we saw the police strolling up the beach, three of them, one of them swinging a baton. Counting the spotters and Torres, five men went to confront the invader, though the leader told the rest to hang back a certain distance.

A few minutes later, invited to leave, the man left, striding to the gate at the edge of the beach with his head high and his bottle in hand. He may have been drunk, but he didn’t stagger. The posse of five watched until he was out of sight.

 

The secret sex  life of sea turtles

Tour guide Diego Castaing, 54, gave us the lowdown on green turtles earlier Sunday during a tour of Laguna Lodge.

“We have 35 kilometers of protected beach and 58,000 hectares of protected ocean right in front of it,” he said. “That makes this place the second safest place for turtles in the world after Australia.”

Female green turtles come ashore here practically every night from June to early November to lay their eggs, he said. Weirdly, most of these turtles are returning to the very place where they hatched — an outstanding evolutionary strategy, as this hatching beach is a proven success.

“When they hatch they can recognize very well the ocean map,” Castaing said. “That’s one of the ways they figure out how to get back.”

Cameras placed on the narrow strip of land within Tortuguero National Park on the slim, long island between the Tortuguero canal and the Caribbean Sea have determined that 29 jaguars come here for easy prey, Castaing said.

“And these are not all the jaguars we have,” he said. “These are the smart ones that learn about turtles. … It’s a very easy meal, they just lie down on a log and wait for the food to show up.”

Jaguars have some of the strongest jaws of all felines, and they attack the hapless turtles by sinking their jaws into the backs of their heads. The jaguars are very efficient killers, Castaing said, and the turtles do not suffer. And in case you’re wondering, the green turtle does not have a retractable head.

Most mother turtles survive their visit to land to lay eggs, of course, but the odds against their hatchlings are considerably worse.

“Maybe 1 in 100 will survive,” Castaing said. “There are a lot of predators waiting for them right there in the ocean. Sharks, barracudas, they’re waiting for them. But there are many. Thousands and thousands of turtles.”

The temperature of the beach determines the sex of the turtles, Castaing explained: At 29 Celsius (84 Fahrenheit), the turtles are born equally male and female. If the beach is warmer than 29, the turtles are born females; if cooler than 29, males. Tortuguero is warmer than 29, so it’s a breeding ground for females, which in turn makes a venue for repeat visits because females return to the place where they hatched.

Females take an astonishing 35 years to reach sexual maturity, then are receptive to amorous males for 10 years, and then they retire. Yet they live for 80 to 100 years.

Another green turtle oddity: When they hatch, they are carnivorous, but when they grow up, they become herbivores.

“The females come for 10 years, but they don’t come every year,” Castaing said. “They have the capability to save the sperm, the special sauce, so they can fertilize themselves.”

 

The circle of life

Torres came back from his next huddle with the spotters and said, “That drunk guy went over there and came down to the beach again. The police took him away.”

We laughed. Must be a real turtle lover!

(I clarified with Torres later that this man was a tourist, not a local. “Oh, no, if he had been a local, I would have grabbed him like this,” he said, miming a headlock.)

Torres said the turtle was almost finished digging its hole, but soon it would get into position for laying and it would be go time. There was actually a countdown: 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes …

Go time! The turtle was in position. Torres said when he flashed his red light at us, we should come forward and go to the two places he indicated, three on the turtle’s left and three on her right, and beyond that, we could stack up behind.

But we wouldn’t have long, as this was the only turtle in the area, so all the groups here tonight would want to take turns having a look.

Red light flashing! We hurried to the edge of the pit the turtle had dug and crowded around to look. All we could see of the behemoth was her rear, but as we kept our eyes trained on Torres’ steady red light, we saw large, white eggs oozing out of her and dropping into the soft sand below.

Someone remarked later that they looked like large, white, soft-boiled eggs with the shells removed.

To my surprise Torres actually had his hands on the turtle and was holding one of its flippers out of the way, like a turtle midwife. He later explained that in the trancelike state that laying turtles get into, they don’t care if you touch them.

We cleared out for the next group and got back in line for our second turn. The turtle was still laying. This time those who had been in back before got to get in front. The eggs were still oozing out of her, but now instead of dropping into sand they were dropping onto a gleaming white (and yellow) bed of eggs that preceded them.

Again we cleared out for the next group, and got right back in line for the finale.

“OK, this will be the last time we get to see the turtle,” Torres said. (I was immensely relieved to hear this, as I was completely exhausted.)

Torres explained that the mother turtle was about to finish laying her eggs, and then she would begin covering them up. He said this was something really special to see.

We took our third turn, witnessing the last two or three eggs drop.

And suddenly the flippers went into motion! Working blind with two appendages, the turtle expertly buried her eggs. One swipe with the right, one swipe with the left, and repeat. The eggs disappeared from sight in less than a minute.

“And she will go on doing this for 15 minutes,” Torres said. “Ready to go?”

The finale was frankly amazing. Any chicken can lay an egg, but to watch a big, green hulk of a turtle lay 4 or 5 dozen eggs and then deliberately bury them was to watch intelligence at work in a giant reptile.

In 60 days, if a raccoon doesn’t get to them first, these eggs will hatch and newborn turtles will crawl out of them, using the same flippers they will someday use to cover up their eggs if they survive, and they will scramble for the sea. And so the circle of life starts all over.

“The birth is beautiful — it’s like when you boil water, you see the first bubble, and then you see many bubbles, it’s exactly like this,” Castaing said. “That’s how they’re born, and they swim immediately for the sea.”

For more info: http://www.lagunatortuguero.com

http://tortugotours.com

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