Post-Trip Reflection: Tortuguero

Trip Start Dec 28, 2004
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12
Trip End Jan 11, 2005


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Flag of United States  , Iowa
Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Visit Klenske, Ink.

When most people think of traveling to Costa Rica, they feel a warm pacific breeze blowing and soft white sand between their toes. They picture posh resorts, the glowing Volcan Arenal, a misty rain forest, or the zip of a canopy tour. But there is another side of Costa Rica, one well worth adding to your itinerary of places to go while traveling in the country. A side accessible only by boat, winding through black-water jungle canals. Isolated from any bustling towns, tourist traps, and even roads, it is a side as diverse in tropical wildlife as in the experiences it offers. Here, on this "far side" of Costa Rica, the dense jungle palms of Parque Nacional Tortuguero gently bow towards the turbulent waters of the Caribbean Sea. It is here, on the far side of Costa Rica, that my wife, Kara, and I began our December/January, 2005 trip to the nation.

Actually getting to the Tortuguero area is an adventure in itself. We arranged our three-day tour with Turtle Beach Lodge. Like most of the area lodges, the tour includes transportation, lodging, meals and several guided tours or activities. After an early morning pick-up from our hotel in San Jose, we boarded an air conditioned bus and set out on a four hour ride down bumpy country roads. The highlights of the bus trip included passing through Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo (so large it encompasses five life zones), and a quick stop at the Del Monte banana plantation, where we observed the immense amount of work that goes into "making" the banana you enjoy with your breakfast.

The bus trip cumulates at the port of Cano Blanco, where we transferred to a boat that carried Kara and I through the black-water canals (the color due to a toxin put into the water by a local species of palm) and to our jungle lodge. The canal journey serves as a tour of the surrounding rainforest and a "Highlights of Costa Rican Wildlife" show. As the jungle raced by at my sides and my sight became blurred because of the wind, suddenly Alfredo, our guide, jumped out of his seat, telling the driver to pull the boat over to the left bank. Within seconds we were staring at a three-toed sloth, lounging contently in the tangled branches of a tree. Alfredo would inform us on all aspects of the animal's existence while the driver made sure everybody had a good view and a chance to take pictures. Along with numerous sloth of both the two and three toed variety, we also saw a crocodile basking in the sun, a white-faced capuchin monkey, howler monkeys, green iguanas, turtles, numerous species of water fowl, a caiman, several chestnut-mandible toucans, a boa constrictor, and a great green macaw.

As the boat nears the lodge, the canal narrows and the forest becomes increasingly more dense. I look up and see the trees creating a archway of shade, which cast shadows along the already dim waters. The air becomes thick and muggy. My clothes are damp with sweat. The jungle floor is nothing more than a swamp and I can sense the beady eyes of the caimans and crocodiles watching me, intently. My surroundings become filled with noise. The screech of a parrot soaring high above the invisible canopy; the cat-like growl of a territorial male howler monkey; the low pitched plunge of a crocodile, as it slowly dips under the water and disappears into the shadows of the canal; and the increasingly thick, lawn-mower buzz of the oversized, mutant mosquitoes. Yet, suddenly, in this abyss of wild, a dock slowly materializes. Then I spy the tops of a thatched roof hut, followed by rows of quaint wooden cabins, a turtle shaped swimming pool, a splendidly cared for garden, a billiards table, dozens of hammocks, and, most importantly, a fully stocked bar.

When not swaying in a multi-colored hammock or strolling down the drift-wood invaded beach, we were exploring the rainforest. Parque Nacional Tortuguero surrounds the lodge and is a unique park, in comparison to the nation's other parks, in that it is almost only assessable by boat. The entrance station, where you pay a minimum fee of $7 USD, is located near the town of Tortuguero. Like the park, this town is only accessed by boat. It offers the visitor a quaint glimpse of Caribbean coastal life, which is an interesting contrast to the culture found in other parts of the country. A highlight of the town includes several well-stocked gift shops and the Caribbean Conservation Corps' visitor center, a small building that shows the must-see documentary on the area's sea turtles. A guide is almost mandatory if you are to get anything out of the park, and most lodges provide guided tours. Several hours on the canals provided us with an ample opportunity to view wildlife and appreciate the diversity of the pristine tropical rainforest.

Our second day at the lodge happened to be New Year's Eve and we split the day between reading in a hammock and hiking the property's private rainforest reserve. Since December is the rainy season on the Atlantic coast (opposite the rest of the West Virginia-sized nation) there was not much in terms of wildlife to be seen, besides the clouds of mosquitoes. But being covered in DEET and hidden inside a mosquito net, the hike was enjoyable nonetheless, if simply because of the ridiculous rubber boots we had to wear.

Once the darkness of the year's final night descended and the New Year festivities commenced, I soon realized I was in the middle of what I call, "one of those nights". I travel for nights like this. One of those nights that cannot be captured in a simple still frame or antidotal tale. It is nights like this New Year's Eve that define a trip and become etched permanently in your archive of travel memories.

After several embarrassing failed attempts at billiards against a Danish couple and two local pool-prodigy kids (the oldest being eight years old, a fact that added insult to injury), I surrendered my pool-shark fantasy. Instead I joined the rest of the guests and employees around a table covered in a spread of cervezas, tequila, laughter, and music. We were from Costa Rica, the U.S., and various European countris. Half of us could not speak the other half's language. But we all could sing, or at least pretend. And there happened to be two guitars and two guitarist, one Costa Rican and one American. We spent the last hours of the year as a group of strangers-turned-friends, under a straw thatched roof, taking turns singing songs. Some sung in English, some in Spanish, and others in the universal language called Spanglish. We all raised our drinks and swayed in unison to the "nah, nah, nah, nah, nahnahna" refrains of Hey Jude, right up to the stroke of midnight.

Fireworks from the beach welcomed 2005 to the "far side" of Costa Rica. Bottles of wine were opened, hugs and kisses given, salsa dancing danced, emails exchanged, and new friendships made. After a final "salud" to the night, I retired into a hazy-but-content sleep, knowing that there was no better way to begin the new year than here. For it is here, on the far side of Costa Rica, that I truly understood the deeper meaning of the "pura vida".

Travel Writing Tips at Klenske, Ink.
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