The greatest appeal of Costa Rica has to be its natural diversity. The number of beautiful places and animals that live in this small country was the main reason I wanted to visit it. And it did not disappoint: monkeys and turtles, active volcanoes, beautiful beaches and national parks everywhere. Nevertheless, my least favourite part was one of its most famous and “protected” areas, the turtle sanctuary and ecological town of Tortuguero.
Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and belongs to the province of Limón. The village is part of Tortuguero National Park and, because it’s on a sandbar, it’s a bit hard to access: you have to get to La Pavona by car or bus and then take a 1-hour boat ride to Tortuguero. The town is really small and its economy depends on tourism: thousands of people come here to see turtles, jaguars and other exotic species. There’s a Sea Turtle Conservancy research station which runs different guided tours and expeditions. These tours are very expensive and the money is supposed to go to conservancy jobs and research.
Knowing all this, arriving in Tortuguero was a bit of a surprise for me. As soon as we stepped out of the boat, some guys from The Sea Turtle Conservancy approached us to help us find a hostel and sell us any of the various “eco” tours they offered. I thought that bore a considerable resemblance to how things are done in some protected areas in México, such as Yucatán and Quintana Roo, where there are not many regulations as to how many tourists are allowed in a certain area or how close people are supposed to get to wildlife. We thanked these guys, accepted some recommendations and finally settled for a cheap hostel called 7 Backpackers, where we were told there was nothing to do in Tortuguero other than the activities offered by The Sea Turtle Conservancy, nothing we could do on our own at least. That day we visited the beach and went back to the Visitor Centre to plan our next day in Tortuguero.
At the Visitor Centre, we were offered many different activities: night-walks to watch turtles, morning canoeing and kayaking wildlife-watching tours, turtle hatching expeditions, guided hikes in the rainforest, etc. We had to choose only the cheapest activities: a night-walk in search of turtles and a morning canoeing tour. We paid $60.00 US dollars for these activities and I must admit I did not know what I expected. From what we were told at the Centre, these tours were the only ways to spot turtles. When we added Tortuguero to our list, the turtles were the main reason. Three different species of turtles hatch in Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast: green turtles, leatherbacks and Carey turtles—, but something felt weird about paying 30 dollars for a secretive walk in a restricted area of the beach. I guess what I imagined we’d see was baby turtles making their way to the sea.
Stalking a Leatherback Turtle
Night came and we met at the Visitor Centre at 9.30 pm. We waited for other four people and made our way to the beach with two guides from the Sea Turtle Conservancy, who explained we might or might not see any turtles at all. If we were lucky, one of the guides said, there would be a female turtle laying eggs at the beach. “Laying eggs?”, I thought, “that sounds kind of private”. As soon as we arrived at the beach, another guide came and told us there was indeed a turtle making its way to the shore. Suddenly we were walking fast, our guide leading the way with a red flashlight, for that kind of light doesn’t bother the turtles, she said. We all were supposed to follow in complete darkness. And there she was, a giant turtle, black and heavy, making its way from the ocean to where the palm trees were. She was walking slowly, apparently not noticing the small crowd around her, and not hearing two loud guides name some facts about her species.
As mesmerising as it can be to see a leatherback turtle, I could not help feeling out of place. Is this eco-tourism? Stalking turtles in the middle of the night? Things just got worse when the turtle started digging a hole to lay her eggs. Another group of tourists had arrived and now we were taking turns to watch the turtle, who at least seemed unaware of the loud, bickering crowd about her, pointing at her private parts with a lantern. By this time my friend and I were a bit confused and fed up, and decided to stay back. There’s something unsettling about a group of tourists stalking a turtle while she performs one of the most beautiful acts in nature. At the time I thought it mightnot be that bad if the $30 we paid for the “tour” were destined to the conservation of the turtles, even if it meant contributing to the idea that the whole world, its wildlife, plants and rocks exist purely for human enjoyment. But the next day in Tortuguero made me realise my naiveté.
Confused and with a dark cloud of guilt hovering over our heads, my friend and I returned to the hostel and tried to sleep for the next day’s adventure: the canoeing tour. We got up at around 5.00 am and made our way to the decks, only to be further disappointed. We basically just sat in a canoe for an hour “searching” for wildlife in the rainforest: birds, sloths, crocodiles, of which we only saw a couple of birds and a small crocodile. The worst part was seeing a float of canoes and kayaks everywhere in the river, full of eager eyes searching for the animals that were no doubt hiding in purpose.
Later that afternoon we went on a hike in the Tortuguero National Park, on a trail that runs parallel to the beach and has many exists to it. The further you go on the trail, the more deserted it becomes, and there are plenty of signs warning about rip currents. Nearing the end of the public trail, we decided to walk on the beach to go back. This was the worst idea. On our way back, we saw hundreds of plastic bottles and other plastic items lying on the sand and floating in the sea.
We kept walking on the beach and suddenly saw a guy standing very still some 20 meters away from us. He signalled to us and I approached him. I could see something was wrong as soon as I had a clear look of his face. He looked on the verge of tears and was looking at the floor, so I looked too. Around us lied some fifty dead baby turtles, coal-black, the size of a pinecone. The guy explained to us he’d seen some these turtles alive and had tried to lead them to the ocean, but he was not fast enough and by now they all had died.
On the expedition of the night before they had told us that only about half of the turtles make it to the sea. Some of them get confused because of the lights and go inland, some of them hatch in the day and can’t stand the heat, some of them get eaten by natural predators or are impeded to join the sea by humans. However, the way turtles behave these days is not entirely “natural”, it can’t be because they’re so close to human settlements and research centres.
I still wonder today what would be the best thing to do in these cases? Should we blame the Sea Turtle Conservancy for these invasive tours, for not organising beach clean-ups, for not helping these baby turtles make it to the sea? Would helping them be worse, an invasive practice? Should we let nature follow its way even if we think it cruel? Can nature follow its path, undisturbed? Certainly not anymore. I’m only sure part of the blame lies on people who, like me that day, support this kind of tourism. It is, in fact, part of the same problem we see on Instagram every day, we do not care for protected areas anymore, we want to see it all, not only watch the sunsets and walk the trails, but become a witness of every act of nature, even those that are not meant for our eyes, for our lanterns and our chattering.
I had the feeling of interrupting something sacred that day. As much as I love animals, I have promised myself not to take part in any wildlife-related activities, unless I can be certain of not disturbing anybody. I have thought a lot about our experience with the turtles in Costa Rica—and about other “fashionable” activities such as swimming with dolphins and interacting with elephants—, and every time I come to the conclusion that the blame lies not on any individual or organisation alone, but in the way we as a society see the world that surrounds us. Fortunately, that has already begun to change for the better. I can only hope we can learn to coexist without harming and support wildlife organisations without wanting to involve ourselves in their tasks.
However saddening and insightful this experience was, I must say that is not the way the rest of the trip was. In almost every place in Costa Rica we met wonderful communities that are very well informed and concerned with climate change. It is a wonderful country that, for the most part, respects its wildlife and natural resources in a way I wish mine could. They indeed honour their motto, “pura vida”.