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Turtle touring in Tortuguero National Park

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It is pitch black as we await our turn in the dense foliage. With only the bright stars above us, I can feel sweat prickling my skin from the inside of my waterproof jacket.

It is sweltering, and the humidity is suffocating. I think to myself, what exactly am I doing? But suddenly… vamános vamános, it is all go, says our guide in hushed tones. Armed with a red laser torch, he leads the way. Our small group shuffles from the cover of the jungle’s vegetation to the volcanic sands.

The turtles are here, and it is nesting time.

Tortuguero National Park, accessible only by air or boat, is a strip of protected wilderness that hugs the Caribbean coast in the Limón Province of northern Costa Rica. An eco-tourism hotspot, and for good reason, it is one of the rare areas in which the green, hawksbill, and leatherback turtles nest and lay their eggs.

We see an endangered Green Sea Turtle. She has made her way from the ocean to the top of the beach. A majestic animal, so much larger than I had anticipated, and breathtakingly close, we witness her layover 100 eggs, then bury them.

The park is renowned for its biological diversity, home to 11 different habitats, 170 species of reptiles and amphibians, 60 species of mammals and 300 different species of birds which all span over an area of 47,000 acres. Conservation programmes allow visitors to get close and observe the turtles at night.

After 6pm, the protected 22 miles of beach can only be accessed with a qualified guide from the Sea Turtle Conservancy. The park exists to protect, conserve, and educate, using tourism to sustain and develop their conservation projects.

Costa Rican sea turtles spend most of their lives in the water feeding and mating, although female turtles return to the beaches to nest. Incredibly, the female turtles usually return to the same beach they were born to safely lay and bury their eggs

Tortuguero is home to three endangered species including the Green, Hawksbill, and Leatherback turtles. The nesting season for Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles is during the rainy season between July and October (peak-season in August), and, for Leatherback Turtles, peak months are between February and April.

On the Pacific Coast at the Ostional or Nancite beaches, visitors can see Pacific Olive Ridleys between August and November. This is when the phenomenon of arribadas or “mass arrivals” occurs. The hatching of the eggs ensues between the months of August and October.

Credit: Eve Willis

Tortuguero National Park can be reached by plane via Sansa Airlines or Nature Air. The cheaper but significantly longer option is to take a two-hour coach from San Jose central bus station, followed by a two-hour journey on central America’s “chicken bus” riding through banana plantations. Upon reaching the canal, a two-hour boat journey along scenic canals and park rivers will take you to the small village of Tortuguero. It may be necessary to book a tour since making independent travel arrangements can be difficult.

The village of Tortuguero has a population of 1,500 people, dependent on income from tourism and reliant on waterways to connect the village to larger civilisation. There are several hostels, eco-lodges, and restaurants located within the town where visitors may relax during their visit to the national park.

A nature lover’s paradise with tropical downpours, dense green foliage, and wild Caribbean beaches, Tortuguero National Park is an escape into the Costa Rican jungle where visitors can immerse themselves in la selva. Ideal for spending days hiking through the park or taking canoe safaris, those exploring the area can slow down to Pura Vida time while knowing that their presence is contributing to the conservation of the increasingly endangered and beautiful sea turtles.

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