Saturday, July 31, 2010


July 22nd to 26th

After Flores it's flat riding to Guapiles, then on to Cariari.

We want to visit Tortuguero, a national park protecting 22kms of beach where 95% of the world's population of green turtle return to nest. Getting there is a bit of a step into the unknown as the road into this virgin area of rainforest is not marked on our map. We need get to La Pavona to catch a small boat that plies the old logging canals between there and the isolated village of Tortuguero. Eventually we do get some consensus from the locals and set off along 10kms of paved then 20kms of dirt through a maze of banana plantations....

Closer to the sea, the style of houses changes and the lands starts to look more like it's Caribbean brother Belize than Costa Rica. There are brightly painted, rickety wooden huts, often raised above the bitey things of the jungle floor on slender stilts...

The butterflies are stunning....

This one appears to have a futuristic looking helmet shaped head and a bright red tongue....

When we arrive at the boat launch there is bad news - the captain will not take our bikes as his boat is too small. He recommends we lock them to a tree in the bus station car park along with most of our kit and that we carry just a bag each aboard. Hmmm - I can maybe see a problem with just leaving all our kit unattended in the middle of nowhere for 2 or 3 days. We start to consider turning back and the disappointment of a fruitless ride to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. This was the main reason for taking this route and we're about to waste a few hundred kilometers of riding.

Sad pouty lips and long faces finally have the desired effect though and a boat captain relents and finally lets us on board for a small tip that goes in his back pocket.

It's a slow boat to Tortuguero as the captain picks his way through the debris swept along the canals and rivers. Submerged logs threaten to hole the boat whilst slumbering crocs lie in wait for easy pickings should he err and spill his cargo....

Finally after an hour and a bit we arrive at the dock and are immediately accosted by the 'tour guides'. Life away from the gringo trail means we often forget this side of travel that is a daily nuisance to bus bound backpackers. We avoid the worst of it and set out to find a cheap hostel.

Green turtles nest at night and the area is rigorously controlled - you have to have a guide. We book with 'JJ' a guide staying at our hostel who convinces us of his qualifications and local knowledge. We are to meet at 8pm.

At 6pm we realise his knowledge relates to the local bars in town when he turns up staggering drunk and proceeds to noisily break into his own room with a very large blade. Perhaps the trip is off!

Shortly afterwards a man arrives purporting to be JJ's cousin who will take us with his group at 9:40pm. Dress in dark clothes, cover yourself in insect repellent and absolutely no cameras he warns us. I have seen pictures from other turtle nest sites in Costa Rica so it looks like they are becoming more strict in an effort to not disturb the mother as she lays her eggs. That's to be applauded, but I hate not having a camera to record such a memorable event. So this is the only picture I have of a turtle....

We meet our group and for some reason we are the only ones dressed like ninjas. I guess no one else heard the news about the black clothes and now we feel like we are at the wrong fancy dress party.

We take a half hour ride along the coast by boat taxi with another couple where we're surprised to see the twinkling lights of several expensive looking 'resort' hotels with their fancy restaurants lining up white linen tablecloths to the fine views at the water's edge. Eventually we find ourself in the middle of nowhere with a guide who only grunts – 'Wait here' and disappears for 15 minutes. We're just beginning to think we've been abandoned – the rest of our group are nowhere to be seen having taken a different boat when he returns and gets us to follow towards the beach. It's another surprise when we emerge from dense foliage and step out onto an airport runway seen dimly in the moonlight. That explains how the better class of guests get to the expensive hotels

It's not every day you get to witness a miracle! By the light of a full moon, seeing a 500kg green turtle haul itself from the ocean, crawl laboriously up the beach to nest; before dragging it's weary body back to the water comes pretty close. Every third year or so the females return to the same beach where they were hatched. There they dig a pit into which they lay up to 200 ping pong ball size eggs before covering them over with four immensely strong flippers. Usually they will mate three times in a season and lay first 200 then 100 and finally 50 eggs. Once she begins to lay her eggs we are allowed to approach and watch this amazing sight – before that we stay hidden as turtles are easily spooked and will turn back to the safety of the sea if they see movement. After that, she is incredibly tolerant of us watching, but her pitiful gasps for air on her return leave you feeling helpless and you have to restrain yourself from 'helping' by giving her a push. Once she touches the water, this lumbering beast undergoes a dramatic change as she casts off her heavy clumsiness and powers off into her element.

For the eggs she leaves behind, the odds are not good. In a month they will all hatch on the same night and the lottery can begin. Running the gauntlet of dogs, birds, crabs and hungry fish, 80% will not make it as far as the sea. Abandoned by their parents, more will be eaten before the exhausted newborns can reach their feeding grounds. Less than 1% will make it to 25 years old when they will return to nest and the cycle can begin again.

It's all sobering stuff as we return at 1am. The boat back to La Pavona leaves at 6am so we opt for a lie in and a rest day on this beautiful deserted Caribbean beach....

Exploring the 'town' does not take too long. Main street disappears off into the rainforest after 200m or so and houses on the edge look like they are slowly being reclaimed by vegetation...

An early start next morning sees us catch that return boat which acts like a delivery service to locals who magically emerge from the trees as the boat pulls up at makeshift docks – more just gaps in the mangroves...

Can any one spot a potential problem with that bike seat hanging over the edge?

There's a slight snag as we pull up alongside another boat back in La Pavona and my seat post is bent at a 90° angle as it collides with a steel strut on the other boat - we jerk to an abrupt halt. Unwrapping my bike from around both boats, there is a possibility I won't be riding today. Slightly shamed, the captain attempts to make amends for his poor steering by fixing the problem with a rather indelicate 3 foot length of steel pipe.

He promptly snaps my seat clean off!

All doubts are now gone and I definitely won't be riding today! You have to hand it to the locals though as they all rally round and try to come up with a solution. First they flock round a bus driver - but he refuses to take us explaining there is no room. Costa Rica seems to differ from the rest of Central America in that there are rules and safety concerns. The bus driver does get down from his seat though, leaving a full load of passengers to wait while he moves off to chat to the 'Gasoline Guy'. Eric makes the twice weekly run from Cariari to deliver ten 225 litre barrels of petrol to the Tortuguero village that supplies them with all their energy. He agrees to give us a ride and straps a couple of empties on top of his load to make room for my mangled bike and our kit. Many thanks Eric....

Unfortunately this is a Sunday and the chances of anywhere being open to help fix my dead bike are slim, but incredibly there is a bike shop in Cariari. The second problem is that my seat post is oversize and you can't get a replacement in Costa Rica, so we hit on the solution of welding a smaller post inside a length of the tube I have left from my old seat post. Of course the welder is closed, but luckily the bike shop also have cheap cabins to rent and we are forced to stay overnight to await the welder.

It's been a frustrating start to the trip with stops and starts due to illness and now bike sabotage. Ever the optimist I arrive at the shop when they open at 7am, but being Central America, nothing really happens for a couple of hours so we resign ourselves to another wasted day in Cariari. Finally, my bike does reappear though with a Heath Robinson repair job and we can get cracking again....


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