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Costa Rica Update #2: La Viaje Caribeña

Posted by kevinwolz on June 2, 2011

This past weekend was our first weekend open for travel, and wow did we travel. In the interest of time, I am going to forego the Spanish edition of this post…I really want to write in Spanish for practice, but I just don’t have the time to write two posts at a time (Dec, I now forgive you for your past tardiness…partly).

For my first weekend, I traveled mainly with our Illinois group of eight students. The destination was the Caribbean Coast, which is in fact dramatically different from all other areas of Costa Rica for two reasons:

  1. The Caribbean culture of Costa Rica is heavily influenced by African and Jamaican culture (due to the many black slaves that were brought there to build railroads and work the banana plantations on this coast, and whose descendants who still remain there today).
  2. The Caribbean coast is home to Costa Rica’s wettest and most protected ecosystem: the tropical wet forest. Hot and wet means an extreme abundance of flora and fauna…something that I have been itching to see for a long time.

Our first destination was Puerto Viejo, a small, laid-back town nearer to the Panama border which is ideal for simply getting away from it all…which is exactly what we did. My day in Puerto Viejo was the first day in longer than I’d like to admit that I can honestly say that I had no agenda and nothing in particularly that I wanted to accomplish. We relaxed on the beach, swam in the ocean, took siestas in hammocks, and just generally enjoyed the beautiful setting without anything to worry about. What a feeling.

Alas, the relaxation only lasted one day, for we were off early the next morning for our next destination: Tortugero National Park. Tortugero is located on the other extreme of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, right next to Nicaragua. The national park and small village associated with it is only accessible by boat or plane, with its “main street” being a five-foot wide path. We took a four-hour boat ride through canals that wind through the rainforest to get there…a bit sketchy at times, but the views were unbelievable.

My primary goal for Tortugero was to see a sea turtle laying its eggs on the beach. Sea turtles climb ashore once each year (at night) to lay 100+ eggs in a whole they dig on the beach. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and Tortugero in particular, has one of the highest concentrations of sea turtle nesting in the world. So, we headed out at 8pm with a guide to walk the beach in search of any turtles coming ashore. We found many turtle tracks (several days old) en route, and even encountered a pair jaguar tracks. Finding a footprint the size of your head of a carnivorous animal (that is most active just after dark) just after the sun sets is both an extremely exhilarating and frightening experience. Okay, maybe the exhilarating part is only for biology geeks like me…

After walking about 3 miles out with not a single live turtle to be found, we decided to turn around and head back…quite disappointed, to say the least. However, this didn’t last long since, to our amazement, we quickly came across a large Hawksbill turtle that had obviously come ashore after we had passed. As we approached, the turtle was just finishing digging its nest and began to lay its eggs, which look just like ping-pong balls. Scientists that were with us counted the eggs (156) and tagged the turtle for future identification in the many population studies they do. The turtle certainly knew that we were there but, once it starts laying its eggs, is in a trance and cannot run away. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures to show of this experience as the beaches are highly regulated and lights/cameras are not allowed due to their potential to scare the turtles (we use a red light to see the turtles and find our way because turtles can’t see red light). Realistically, however, the experience of observing such an amazing biological process could not be captured in any picture.

The next morning, I went for a great two-hour hike in the national park’s forest. Highlights of the hike include: countless butterflies, very large insects, beautiful parrots, ants of every shape, size, and strategy, plants that I couldn’t even begin to identify, Capuchin monkeys, and spider monkeys that surrounded me and threw branches at me. Heck yes. I’d say this was a pretty awesome first trip!

Now, I’d like to wrap up this post and fill in the details of this weekend by listing the “lessons” that I learned throughout the weekend. If this past weekend was one of my greatest experiences ever, I can’t wait to see what next weekend will be like after having learning all these great lessons…

Lessons Learned

The following were all learned through personal experience…

1) When the doctor at the health orientation says not to sit directly in the sand on beach for too long at night because you will get lots of sand fly bites and look like you have chicken pox the next morning…he really means it.

2) When the doctor at the health orientation says the only thing you should avoid eating outside of the central valley in order to prevent diarrhea is lettuce (because it is washed with dirty water)…he really means it.

3) When the doctor at the health orientation says that the sun in the tropics is much stronger than the sun in Chicago and you will get burnt a lot quicker…he really means it.

4) When the government agent at the safety orientation says that you should always keep your eyes on your credit card when using it in a transaction so as to make sure it doesn’t get swiped through a card reader in a theif”s pocket that memorizes/steals your information in order to buy tires in Canada…he really means it. (Okay, so I’m not actually sure if this was my or my parents’ fault, but I did let my card out of sight once, so either way…karma). Good thing Visa is on top of things.

5) Hostels can charge you $5 per night and still make money because they sell beer for $4 per bottle. Buy beer at the corner store down the street.

6) ATMs do not exist everywhere…especially in isolated towns in the middle of the rain forest that are only accessible by a 4-hour boat ride. Therefore, when you explain to your friends how much money they should bring, do so in English and make sure they are actually paying attention. Otherwise, you will have to borrow money from the boat driver. Yes, the one with the machete.

7) Isolated towns in the middle of the rain forest do not have the most reliable electricity supply and tend to lose power quite often. Therefore, when traveling to such a location, it is foolish to leave the headlamp (that you specifically bought for Costa Rica) in your drawer at home.

8 ) The port from which the boats leave for Tortugero does not have legit food. If you skip breakfast so you can catch your bus, you will end up eating at the sketchy trailer on side street where cops drive by with fully automatic weapons.

9) The Costa Rican lowlands are hot. One t-shirt is not enough for a three-day weekend.

10) Hammocks are extremely comfortable to rest and sleep in. It is imperative to get one for my apartment next year.

11) It is possible to live without a cell phone, computer, and internet. In fact, when you do so, you feel a hell of a lot better.

12) Caribbean style jerk chicken is the juiciest, most tender food in the world.

13) Walking on a beach can feel like walking on chocolate cake.

14) Tropical ecology is sooooooo amazing.


Puerto Viejo & Tortugero


2 Responses to “Costa Rica Update #2: La Viaje Caribeña”

  1. Joan said

    Hi Kevin,
    I looked in my photo album from the Panama Canal cruise and it showed tht we stopped at the Costa Flores Tropical Gardens in Guacino in Limon Province. My camera malfunctioned and I didn’t get any photos. Stated that it is the largest flower farm & garden in the world! I hope you get to see it.
    We visited a turtle farm when we stopped at Grand Cayman. (huge turtles)
    I’ve seen movies of the turtles on the beach. That was really cool that you got to see the turtle with
    150 eggs!!
    Enjoyed your blog and good to hear you are seeing a lot and enjoying what you’re seeing.

  2. Rick said

    LOL at #11. Just kidding I am glad you update me on the reg. 🙂

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