Why Leo's day has been a "1" for the last week
Updated: Oct 30
In addition to our almost nightly "grateful" cards (which, in truth, turns into more of an extravagant art session where the kids write a quick - albeit genuine - "grateful" sentence, but then spend 15-20 minutes illustrating their card, which just stresses Johel and me out - please, can we just wrap this up and go to bed?), we at night are still doing our dinner check-in on a scale of 1-10. This tradition is losing a bit of steam, mainly because now it is unnecessary....we've all got our routines and are settling pretty well into our Tico lives (maybe I miscalculated that we were in the "rejection" stage of culture shock), in particular now that, this morning, Yori joyfully exclaimed: "This house is finally starting to feel like my home!" (YAY!) However, we still continue the day-rating as more of a tradition. Johel is stuck at being an "8", Yori is almost always a 10 (unless she's tired, and then she's a 3 or something ridiculous because three minutes prior someone looked at her funny and her day-score came crashing to the floor), Ollie is generally an 8-9 because - heaven-forbid - he could just go a day without finding some fault in it, and no one even asks me about my number (I'm more the facilitator, I guess?). Leo, since Monday, has proudly explained that he's a "1" because "the turtles didn't come out of the hole and go to the beach." Then he smiles, meaning his day was really a 10, but he thinks it's funny to keep complaining about something he doesn't truly care about.
These turtles he's referring to are the baby leatherbacks that we were on a mission to see hatch during our first of what is planned to be every-other week outings to elsewhere - near or far, wherever - just a chance to explore the country. This first destination, which was slated for October 2020 waaay back on a cold winter's night in January in Madison as we all poured over library travel guides in search of the places that we most wanted to see during our time abroad, was Tortuguero. Why Tortuguero? For a ton of reasons I'll delve into shortly, but primarily because Ollie's birthday is in October. And Johel's entire family is Jehovah's Witness. Meaning no birthday celebrations. Big problem. This is the polar opposite of our U.S. tradition of a day-of family celebration followed by another big-family celebration and most likely another friend celebration of some kind. I love birthday celebrations, so the thought that Ollie, early on in our trip, would have a bummer birthday on top of having to adjust to everything else being different inspired me to find something unique would top any ol' birthday party. I figured seeing turtles lay eggs and then baby turtles hatch and scramble to the sea should work just fine. So our gift to Ollie? "We'll give you turtles instead!"
Our trip half-delivered on both targets, but nevertheless it was incredible and a great, crisis-free first outing. Other than the location, we hadn't formally planned a thing until the Monday before we left (which was on Friday at 7 a.m.), yet everything pretty much went off without a hitch. Here's the story:
Tortuguero is an "island" - although from a map, you wouldn't think so - but it is in fact its own piece of land separated by narrow channels winding to the Caribbean. It's long and narrow and is only accessible by lancha (a long, thin, motor-powered boat) and plane (presumably something small and therefore - to me - unsafe. No thanks.). To arrive, you drive from our town 2.25 hours "straight" East (this is laughable if you've ever driven in Costa Rica) through beautiful banana country to a dock where you park your car and load up.
The one hour boat ride meanders through canals full of jungle and sandbars (per Ollie, it seemed "so slow". Only when we were approaching a hairpin bend in the narrow canal and another very long boat came at us at this "so slow" speed did we realize why....our driver cranked the motor hard to the right and we made a very close passing - yikes!). The small canal connected up to something bigger and soon you are on the equivalent of a lancha highway. Lucky for us, it's low-season/COVID, so there were hardly any boats.
We drove by towns and bigger "resorts" and "intersections" where various canals met and in the middle of the jungle there is an equivalent of a highway sign telling you how many kilometers to the next town (awesome!). The village of Tortuguero itself is small and butts up to the Tortuguero National Park, which is divided into three sections (each of which, it's worth mentioning, involves a different entrance fee - which for non-residents is steep enough to be annoyed at - grr!)
Visiting during this end of the high season was perfect. We were literally one of maybe 3-4 foreign tourists we saw during our entire four-day stay. The village has one main paved street where you have to watch for bikes, the only way to transport. Other smaller, winding roads snake back into more residential areas. Parallel to the main street on the very narrow island is a dirt/sand path, lit at night by red lights (to minimally bother nesting turtles) that runs just a few meters in from the beach.
After settling into our hotel on the canal, we immediately headed to lunch: fabulous Caribbean food. I'm not gonna lie: it seems like our local Costa Rica food, but a step up. Apparently, just by cooking everything in coconut milk, it tastes fabulous. Patacones (green plantain "french fries"), rice and beans, fish or chicken, and salad...mmmmm. We tried a different restaurant for almost every meal (until the last night when we found a small soda by Dona Maria, and we broke our family rule and headed back the next day for seconds...AMAZING!)
After trying our first taste of yummy food, we immediately headed to the beach. The guide at our hotel warned us about swimming any farther out than the depth of your neck, as there are strong rip tides at Tortuguero. One look at the ocean and rip tides were the least of my worries: the water and waves themselves just looked angry. You had to be in it to see just how scary they were. The waves came in from all directions, creating pulls and crashes that were hard to calculate. The beach was beautiful black sand, but the water was a bit freaky. We tested it out on day-one in our clothes and determined that if everyone stayed in knee-waist deep water, the waves still made it crazy fun while giving us total control over any pull. Within minutes of arriving at the water's edge, Ollie and Yori were laying in the ocean - fully clothed and happy as can be.
Leo, meanwhile, discovered that the local stray dogs have the skill of sniffing out little sand crabs and digging like crazy til they find them to bite them (just enough to injure, unfortunately. We never actually saw a dog eat a crab....). We followed this one amazing dog down the beach as he passed his nose over every possible crab hole, pausing for a sniff. Once he detected one with promise, he set out furiously to dig it up. He'd dig for forever (realistically a few minutes, but he was so determined that he just kept going...) until the crab scuttled out and then he'd run frantically down the beach trying to nip it up. It was hilarious. So much so that Leo got inspired. He'd park himself right up next to a dog and start digging like a madman trying to find something under the sand. More than once, his over-zealous digging actually caused the dog alongside to pause with a sideways glance to ponder what the hell this kid was doing.
While kids dug for crabs or soaked for hours in the water, Johel and I coaxed them down the beach in search of turtles. It was fascinating to notice how the minute you crossed the invisible line on the beach into the national park (which is a combination of jungle/beach/canal), evidence of turtles exists all over the place.
Large areas scooped out of the sand line the edge of the beach where it meets the jungle: everywhere. You see shells of baby turtle eggs (soft and wrinkled like soggy paper that curls up in the sun - which, I learned, you only see if a predator dug up the eggs. Babies that hatch themselves leave the eggs underground.) We found bones of huge turtles, entire shells in various stages of decomposition, long drag trails of mama turtles heading up from the sea and rain-drop like trails of hundreds of baby hatchlings heading down to the sea, baby shells (sniff!), and even a huge (bigger than our 6 year old!) green turtle, mid-egg laying in her nest, dead from a jaguar. So strange! We learned that, since this is still turtle-laying season, there are enough turtles coming to the beach nightly that the jaguars don't even necessarily eat the ones they kill. They just leave them for other scavengers (which, ironically, is how Johel found this one. He spotted a group of sopilotes - vultures - down the beach and went to check it out).
We walked for hours each day and only at 5:15 p.m. on our last night (it's pitch black and the beach closes to the public at 6 p.m. to protect incoming turtles) did Johel spot what we think were leatherback babies hatching. We sat by the emerging nest to watch as it every so often heaved up and down once as baby turtles hatching below started to push their way to the surface. Apparently, they hatch entirely underground and then slowly work their way up, causing the sand above them to filter underneath them and serve as a new, elevated base. We watched and watched and waited and waited. It was getting dark, we had a good 15 minute walk back to where we could connect up to the town, it was our last night of the trip after hours of scouring the beaches daily for babies, and.....they didn't come up in time. We managed to see a few at the top of the nest, still a few inches below the beach level. ARG! And to make it an even bigger bummer, when we finally decided we had to - very quickly - head back down the beach before 6 p.m., we crossed an area where an entire nest had hatched, as there were fresh hatchling marks all over the sand in an area we'd walked over not 25 minutes earlier. Double ARG!
Regardless, I think Johel and I were more disappointed than any of the kids. We only the night before had taken a night walk with a guide to catch the tail end of a green turtle (one of the four marine turtles who nest at Tortuguero and of the seven in the world - pretty awesome!) working to camouflage her eggs. As we stood behind her to watch the process, she routinely threw sand on the kids with her front flippers. "How many kids at your school can say they were bullied by a green turtle!?" I asked. The process, which takes about 30 minutes normally, 45 or more if done while stressfully being viewed by tourists, ends with her then lumbering around and heading down the beach only to get swallowed up suddenly by the enormous waves. It was incredible. And not two minutes after she disappeared, our guide, in the pitch black, told us to wait, as he sensed another turtle nearby. (These guides are seriously incredible. They have somewhat of a sixth sense, because I couldn't see a thing in the dark). He paced a bit around where we were standing until he found, a few meters away, another green turtle mama recently heading up the beach. This one, however, sensed us early on in the process and turned around and headed back to sea before laying eggs. Either way, two turtles in a matter of minutes - not bad! And, en route back with, by then, three very exhausted children, we passed a red-eyed tree frog to wake us all up a bit and keep them walking the last little stretch to the hotel.
Our other notable day was that of visiting two sectors of the national park: Cuatro Esquinas (the area with the canals) and Cerro Tortuguero, the tallest point on the Caribbean coast with incredible views of the rainforest, canals, villages, and Caribbean sea. We took a scenic, wildlife lancha tour at 5:45 in the morning - fun for the kids for about the first 20 minutes until they realized how slow you have to go to pass through the park canals and meet your objective of finding wildlife. They were exhausted and mildly hungry and momentarily amazed at most critters but less inspired between sightings. Nevertheless, it was incredible: we saw a crocodile and caiman, monkeys, basilisks, iguanas, and a gazillion birds.
After arriving back at the hotel, we hired a lancha-taxi driver ("Chapulin" was his nickname and at probably 50 years old, he had never driven a car in his life!) to take us 10 minutes up river to hike the Cerro. Supposedly 700+ steps according to someone we passed en route, it was actually surprisingly easily to hike and we were at the top (without leaving any kiddos behind) in about 25 minutes. The view was breathtaking. The sea, the island, the canals, the villages, and the rainforest. It was well worth it (even the kids agreed). The only critters of note were two "Buho" owls on a fascinating netted fungus, two small Red Frogs, and a gazillion Orb-weaver spiders, which at first glance look quite dangerous, but are harmless and truly beautiful in both color and markings.
After our descent, we waited on the edge of the canal in the grass while two locals fished. As one turned to ask if our kids wanted to see his fish, we saw he had a WISCONSIN t-shirt! What?! At the base of Cerro Tortuguero (where there was literally no-one), fishing as we wait in some random pick-up spot for our water taxi? Wisconsin connections everywhere! It turns out it wasn't even chance that this man had his shirt, liked he'd purchased it from an American secondhand store, but he in fact had a legitimate connection: his nephew had traveled to the U.S. and Wisconsin and had brought back the shirt as a souvenir. So random.
So Tortuguero turned out to be about a nine out of 10 (except for Leo, who will surely continue to label it a "one" until he thinks of something better to pretend-grumble about....). And tail-end of high season seemed to be a fabulous time to go: you get the best of both worlds: turtles laying and turtles hatching. Plus few to no tourists. Wins all the way around. Even Ollie didn't really feel like he missed his U.S. birthday traditions. Mission accomplished.