Tortuguero Gone Wrong

Wet Season 2007

Traveling with a backpack, a Lonely Planet guide, and the hopes of city transportation with no concern of timeframe or itinerary was my idea of an adventure. I was traveling with one companion, and our trip had begun. While in Costa Rica we decided to venture to the Caribbean coast to the home of many rare species of sea turtles and birds. Tortuguero was in the northeastern portion of the country and received the greatest amount of rainfall annually. We traveled in the wet season to avoid overcrowding and high seasonal rates.

Our adventure began with a four-hour bus ride to Cairo, where we got off one bus and onto another older bus better described as an antique. Another 3 hours on this bumpy hot ride through flooding that challenged our buses ability to stay grounded and we were to the safety of our docks. This is where it got interesting.

Ticos (the local term for a Costa Rican) use the term “dock” very loosely. First off, there was no wood or cement structure to which to tie a vessel. Instead there were trees along a shoreline and small six to seven foot boats were tied up to a tree keeping them “secured.” The locals explained that the location of these “docks” could be hundreds of feet away depending on the amount of rainfall they had recently had. The international travelers and locals alike disembarked from our antique bus and climbed onboard to our trusty dingy with our confident captain that proclaimed that we could indeed all fit into his boat without sinking. I couldn’t help but notice that there were only a few life vests on the boat, but after all, we were in Costa Rica, “Relax”, I told myself. It took about 30 seconds after we pushed off from our tree to encounter our first major problem.

It seemed that steering wheel was not working. Somehow the connection between the one outboard motor that drove us and the steering column had disconnected. Meanwhile, the front of the boat was drifting into a section of barbed wire (why there was barbed wire in the middle of nowhere in swamp lands I have yet to figure out). Our captain’s trusty deck hand was out on the bow of the boat and noticed the wire just in time to jump over the section and grab hold of a sand bar. Once temporarily secured to the bar I looked over my left shoulder where we had almost drifted. Only to see a raging chocolate river charging the opposite direction of travel, churning with vehemence. “Ok,” I said to myself, “Now it’s time to worry.” I have white water experience and know that if we would have drifted into this raging river at the angle we were going we would have been flipped like a burger at McDonalds. The captain apparently noticed this too, because he went through the small boat and rolled open the plastic windows (which were previously blocking the rain, and would have also blocked our emergency exit in the event it rolled).

The captain also proceeded to place the few life jackets he had onto the children on the vessel. So I recapped to myself, even the captain thinks that we are going to flip. He proceeding to talk to the passengers in Spanish, “I was really wishing I had studied more Spanish right about now.” Just when I thought that I could not be more terrified I remembered that there were caiman and alligators in these waters… Then our leader devised a plan. He commanded his deck hand to hold the throttles, freeing him to climb to the back of the small boat and direct the outboard manually pushing it right or left as needed. When he needed more or less speed he simply shouted to his compadre. The moment of truth was when we shoved off of the sand bar and held our breath as we entered the furious water. The captain skillfully commanded the appropriate entry speeds and angles to keep the vessel upright. Thirty minutes of white water and knuckles later we entered a large throughway, allowing the rest of our two and a half hour journey a more cope static ride. One last hurdle was a tree branch that assaulted and broke the blade of our outboard motor. Fortunately, our captain had one spare blade (this, it seemed, was a common occurrence). He tinkered with the motor until the repair had been completed and we arrived safely in Tortuguero.

Tortuguero was more of a village than a town sitting barely above water between the Caribbean Ocean and the river-ways of the Amazon-esc portion of Costa Rica. The small hostels were inviting with a small town neighborly feel. Tortuguero had no banks or ATMs so some planning ahead was necessary. After one night in our cozy new village a stubborn storm set in that seemed as if it had no plans of ending. We spent much of the second night out in the elements with the hopes of seeing the leatherback turtle make it’s journey to shore and lay her eggs as they often did in this region. Unfortunately, the turtles had more sense than we did staying away from the storm that would have met it at shore.

The village flooded, thankfully our room was on cement blocks, however walking anywhere required rolling up your pant legs and tromping through shin to knee high murky waters of god knows what. We overheard the locals say that this was worse than it was a few years back when they evacuated the gringos; that was our cue, it was time to go. We found a resident who had a boat and offered to pay him for a ride down to Limon (a four hour trek down a canal that paralleled the Caribbean) he accepted stating that he needed to leave in 10 minutes. We made a mad dash to our room; meanwhile six other European travelers took cue and joined us for the ride to our next adventure…