How would you like to journey to a secluded corner of the world where you can immerse yourself in a spectacular setting teeming with ocean life? What if you also learned that these beautiful sea creatures were endangered, and that your travel experience could have significance for ocean conservation, too? If adventure and stewardship tickle your fancy, then make Tortuguero, Costa Rica your next destination.
Known as “The Land of Turtles,” Tortugero is loaded with biodiversity, natural beauty, vibrant culture, delightful people, and of course, sea turtles. This beautiful island, bordered by the Tortuguero River and Caribbean Sea, is located on the Northern Caribbean coast in the Limon Province. It is accessible only by boat or plane, but I highly recommend the boat. Winding through the jungle on a narrow river in a 25-foot boat taxi is a magical experience. The boat captains exercise precision while navigating the shallow waters, sand bars, and 90-degree river bends. It’s an unforgettable ride, and when it finally opens into the expansive Tortuguero River, it comes as no surprise why visitors refer to it as “Central America’s Amazon.”
The original inhabitants of this region were similar to the Mayans. The area was a vital point along the Mayan trade route that ran along Costa Rica’s North Atlantic coast. During the Colonial Period, Tortuguero became a Spanish settlement. This soon gave way to the Afro-Caribbean influence that heavily shaped the culture of the region that still exists today.
Beginning in 1940 and lasting until 1972 is what is known in Tortuguero as the “Wood Era.” During this time, the population increased and infrastructure was greatly developed, including travel capability as a result of the many canals dug for wood transport. The logging industry was ultimately unsuccessful, and when the woodwork ceased many of the workers left. The remaining tightly-knit population, which first formed around 1500, consists mainly of old local families with a few new ones.
The beaches of Tortuguero are a critically important nesting site to four species of sea turtles, in particular the Green sea turtle. In 1959, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (today known as Sea Turtle Conservancy) became aware of the dramatic decline of Green sea turtle numbers and began conservation efforts to study, protect, and help replenish their population. Working closely with the Costa Rican government, they helped establish Tortuguero National Park in 1970, a move that offered protection to the turtles and ample opportunity for research and conservation.
The National Park is also home to an incredibly rich variety of biodiversity that includes insects, resident and migratory birds, and mammals such as the jaguar and four species of monkeys. The park’s 19,000 hectares and 22 miles of nesting beach extend from Parisimina (south) to the mouth of the Rio Tortuguero (north). The existing village of Tortuguero is located within the National Park, and the park’s establishment guaranteed that development along the coast would never stretch beyond the existing village.
Where travel to the island began as more of an educational/research pursuit, it has now developed into much more of an eco-tourism destination. The livelihood of the locals depends almost entirely on Tortuguero remaining what it is today. The majority of residents are owner/operators or employees of tourism-related businesses. Within the village are a few small hotels, restaurants, and bars serving local and western cuisine that cater to visitors and researchers. The village’s central path is lined with shops full of handmade art and jewelry crafted by residents using locally-sourced materials as well as other more traditional handicrafts.
At the south end of the village is the entrance to Tortuguero National Park. More of the locals work here as boat and trail tour guides, taking you through the various corridors and canals of the National Park spotting its abundantly rich biodiversity for the untrained eye of guests. One can take a leisurely boat ride through the National Park in the morning, enjoy a local dish, cold beverage and casual island stroll in the afternoon, and be wowed by a carefully guided tour of a sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs in the evening.
The picturesque beauty, kind people, unforgettable biodiversity, and hugely successful conservation initiatives is much of what makes Tortuguero the place that it is. Other locally-driven endeavors like Planta Tratamiento Tortuguero, a waste disposal and recycling operation show how the island community truly values the environment and strives toward harmony and sustainability. This rare and otherworldly place to visit offers a unique experience and serves as a model for sustainable tourism.