Despite its isolation – 254km from San José by road and water – PARQUE NACIONAL TORTUGUERO is among the most visited national parks in Costa Rica. Tortuguero means turtle-catcher in Spanish, and turtle-catchers have long flourished in this area, one of the most important nesting sites in the world for the green sea turtle, one of only eight species of marine turtle. Along with the hawksbill turtle, the green sea turtle lays its eggs here between July and October.
First established as a protective zone in the 1960s, Tortuguero officially became a national park in 1975. It encompasses 190 square kilometres of protected land, including not only the beach on which the turtles nest, but also the surrounding impenetrable tropical rainforest, coastal mangrove swamps and lagoons, and canals and waterways. Except during the comparatively dry months of February, March, September and October the park is fairly wet, receiving over 3500mm of rain a year. This soggy environment hosts a wide abundance of wildlife – fifty kinds of fish, numerous birds, including the endangered green parrot and the vulture, and about 160 mammals, some under the threat of extinction. Due to the waterborne nature of most transport and the impenetrability of the ground cover, it’s difficult to spot them, but howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys lurk behind the undergrowth. The park is also home to the fishing bulldog bat, which fishes by sonar, and a variety of large rodents, including the window rat, whose internal organs you can see through its transparent skin. Jaguars used to thrive here, but are slowly being driven out by the encroaching banana plantations at the western end of the park; you may also spot the West Indian manatee, or sea cow, swimming underwater. It’s the turtles, however, that draw all the visitors. The sight of the gentle beasts tumbling ashore and shimmying their way up the beach to deposit their heavy load before limping back, spent, into the dark phosphorescent waves can’t fail to move.
As elsewhere in Costa Rica, logging, economic opportunism and fruit plantations have affected the parkland. Sometimes advertised by package tour brochures as a “Jungle Cruise” along “Central America’s Amazon”, the journey to Tortuguero is indeed Amazonian, taking you past tracts of deforestation and lands cleared for cattle – all outside the park’s official boundaries but, together with the banana plantations, disturbingly close to its western fringes.Read More
Most people come to Tortuguero to see the desove, or egg-laying of the turtles. Few are disappointed, as the majority of tours during laying seasons (March–May & July–Oct) result in sightings of the surreal procession of the reptiles from the sea to make their egg-nests in the sand. While turtles have been known to lay in the daylight (the hatchlings wait under the cover of sand until nightfall to emerge), it is far more common for them to come ashore in the relative safety of night. Nesting can take place turtle-by-turtle – you can watch a single mother come ashore and scramble up the beach just south of the village or, more strikingly, in groups (arribadas) when dozens emerge from the sea at the same time to form a colony, marching up the sands to their chosen spot, safely above the high-tide mark. Each turtle digs a hole in which she lays eighty or more eggs; the collective whirring noise of sand being dug away is extraordinary. Having filled the hole with sand to cover the eggs, the turtles begin their course back to the sea, leaving the eggs to hatch and return to the waves under the cover of darkness. Incubation takes some weeks; when the hatchlings emerge they instinctively follow the light of the moon on the water, scuttling to safety in the ocean.
Tortuguero is one of the best spots in Costa Rica to observe marine turtles nesting, as three of the largest kinds of endangered sea turtles regularly nest here in large numbers. Along with the green (verde) turtle, named for the colour of soup made from its flesh, you might see the hawksbill (carey), with its distinctive hooked beak, and the ridged leatherback (baula), the largest turtle in the world, which weighs around 300kg – though some are as heavy as 500kg and reach 2.4m in length. The green turtles and hawksbills nest mainly from July to October (August is the peak month), while the leatherbacks may come ashore from March to May.
For hundreds of years the fishermen of the Caribbean coast made their living culling the seemingly plentiful turtle population, selling shell and meat for large sums to middlemen in Puerto Limón. Initially, turtles were hunted for local consumption only, but during the first two decades of the 1900s, the fashion for turtle soup in Europe, especially England, led to large-scale exports.
Turtle-hunting was a particularly brutal practice. Spears were fashioned from long pieces of wood, taken from the apoo palm or the rawa, and fastened with a simple piece of cord to a sharp, barbed metal object. Standing in their canoes, fishermen hurled the spear, like a miniature harpoon, into the water, lodging the spear in the turtle’s flesh. Pulling their canoes closer, the fishermen would then reel in the cord attached to the spear, lift the beasts onto the canoes and take them ashore dead or alive. On land, the turtles might be beheaded with a machete or put in the holds of ships, where they could survive a journey of several weeks to Europe if they were given a little water.
Today, turtles are protected, their eggs and meat a delicacy. Locals around Tortuguero are officially permitted to take two turtles a week during nesting season for their own consumption – the unlucky green turtles are considered the most delicious. The recent sharp decline in the populations of hawksbill, green and leatherback turtles has been linked, at least in part, to poaching. This has prompted the national parks administration to adopt a firm policy discouraging the theft of turtle eggs within the park boundaries and to arm park rangers. Meanwhile, should you find a turtle on its back between July 10 and September 15, do not flip it over, as in most cases it is being tagged by researchers, who work on the northern 8km of the thirty-five-kilometre-long nesting beach.
It is not just the acquisitive hand of humans that endangers the turtles. On land, a cadre of predators, among them coati and raccoons, regularly ransack the nests in order to eat the unborn reptiles. Once the hatching has started – the darkness giving them a modicum of protection – the turtles really have their work cut out, running a gauntlet of vultures, barracudas, sharks and even other turtles (the giant leatherback has been known to eat other species’ offspring) on their way from the beach to the sea. Only about sixty percent – an optimistic estimate – of hatchlings reach adulthood, and the survival of marine turtles worldwide is under question.