I’ve started a new adventure: backpacking in Central America.
I arrive in Costa Rica safely and meet up with my travel companion Sasha at a hostel in San José. It’s a big, dirty city. Streets are lined with neon casino signs, tourists, and wandering borrachos. We quickly decide we don’t want to stay for longer than a night and make plans to head to the coast. Carlos, a friend of Sasha’s from earlier in her trip, said he is going to a little beach town called Tortuguero. The town of Tortuguero is in Tortuguero National Park and sandwiched between a wide river and the Caribbean Sea. Surrounded by rainforest and far away from the large port cities, we understand the town’s appeal and quickly decide to join him.
After an hour or so in a hard-seated, non-air conditioned bus we cram into an open hulled boat with several people and our luggage. We motor along a network of waterways through the rainforest occasionally stopping to catch a glimpse of a monkey or watch a crocodile peer across the surface the brown, muddy water. The sounds are the most fascinating feature of the rainforest. The impenetrable wall of mangroves and vines shields our view of what lies behind it but the sounds filter through in an almost unhindered capacity. The calls of Howler monkeys pummel through air. A variety of bird melodies float all around us. We even hear cows on occasion when we pass through areas where the agricultural fields meet the river’s edge. Villages dot the waterway. Some huts are held up on old degenerating stilts, some are built on uneven docks. Children playing with dogs watch and wave as we pass by.
Our little tributary meets a fork in the road and we join a larger, faster moving body of water leading us closer to the coast. We pass several boats and turn onto another tributary. I wonder how long it would take to learn these routes – I’m unable to pick out any unique landmarks.
We approach a village that looks more occupied than the others. Our boat slows and positions itself to dock. We’ve arrived at Tortuguero. Dogs come to greet us, and a few people come to advertise their cabañas. There are a few men working on their boats and it smells like fibreglass resin and paint. Carlos bargains with a couple of boys to get us a cheap rate at a hostel on the other side of town. A leisurely stroll along a wooden boardwalk and sandy alleyways leads us to the seaward side of town. Our hostel is here just behind a grassy field that spreads out towards the white sand beach and turquoise water. It’s a rustic place, to say the least, with no kitchen or hot water, just a few rooms with uncovered mattresses and a noisy (but essential) electric fan. It is here, for the first (and only) time, that I experience the almost unbearable, unforgiving wrath of bed bugs.
We unload our belongings and set off to find food and a refreshing drink. Walking along the boardwalk we realize it is the main transit route. There are no cars; the only vehicles with wheels are bicycles and wheelbarrows. We find a little café and I eat my first real Central American meal which would end up being similar to almost every meal I eat during the next four months – rice, beans, fried plantains, and fish (chicken when away from the ocean), seasoned to perfection in the local fashion. In fact, taking pleasure in local cuisine would become a focus almost everywhere we visit along our journey. On our way back to our hostel we buy a few bottles of water and a ripe pineapple to have for breakfast.
After an entire night of feeling like I was being eaten alive I get out of bed to find I am covered in little red spots. Quite disgusted, I pack up and decide to buy a hammock as soon as I can so this will never happen again. I go out to the balcony to help Sasha cut up our juicy pineapple and we watch Carlos climb the nearest tree to fetch ripe coconuts. A coconut is a great source of food. The meat is filling and the milk can perk you up on those muggy, head-fogging days. Climbing a coconut tree requires a lot of strength but there are usually strapping young men around who are eager to perform.
Over breakfast we decide to rent a canoe and explore along the river. We were intrigued with what we experienced on the way out here, and thought we could experience much more by paddling quietly along the shorelines. We spend the day slowly paddling as far up a tributary as we can. We are totally immersed in tropical noises. A jumble of bird melodies, monkey chatter, and humming insects surrounds us. As the day goes on we notice a change in the voices – less birds and more Cicadas. When I tune my ears in the chaos I pick out a rhythm that gives the impression that everything knows its turn. We watch turtles sunning themselves on logs and the odd crocodile lurking in the water.
Once we reach the end of our tributary we beach our boat and walk into the forest. We stop a little ways down the path to decide if we want to go any further and figure it would be a good time to turn around. Right then I notice had we gone any further I would have been the first to walk directly into the thickest spider web and ugliest spider I have ever seen. We took a few minutes to walk around the web to get a look at the spider’s underbelly. I get goosebumps thinking that I could have walked right into this thing. I run my finger along a thick part of the web – it feels like nylon fishing line.
We crawl back into our canoe and let the river take us slowly back downstream. We all lay back and look up to the forest canopy. The blue sky is gone and the clouds are getting darker. It’s either getting late or a storm is coming. We take turns pushing the boat off mud banks and out of log jams but mostly we just lay there, watching the canopy pass above us and listening to the jungle. Once we reach the main river it starts to rain, then downpour, then lightning highlights the clouds and thunder booms closer and closer. The air is still so warm and calm so we avoid the urge to paddle back. We float and watch the heavy drops bombard the water and lily pads. We get drenched within a minute. The fuzzy brown monkeys and gangly spider monkeys continue to hang from their branches – reaching for fruit and berries – taking no notice of the sudden change in weather. The rain slows to an end as we reach the dock and we get out of our canoe leaving the jungle world behind.
After another delicious dinner of coconut fried fish, rice and beans we sign up for a tour to search for sea turtles on a nearby beach. We hop in a boat with 5 others and a guide and motor along the river to a nearby sandy bay where we beach the boat. We hike a little way to the seaside. Our tour guide radios to another guide and finds out there is a turtle laying eggs at another beach. We rush back to our boat and speed to the other beach. Once we reach the spot we are joined by several other groups of people, all yearning for a glimpse of the turtle. I’m overwhelmed by the lack of guidelines around protecting the turtle as she lays her eggs. She is totally vulnerable to the twenty or thirty people crowded around her. Halfway through her ordeal she stops and heads back to the water, leaving her eggs exposed in the sand. I learn that in order for a sea turtle to stop in the middle of laying eggs she must be under extreme stress and it is very uncommon. We hear news of a nest of turtles hatching just down the beach, not a hundred yards away. The excited crowd heads in that direction. As if it’s not already enough of a challenge for baby turtles to reach the water’s edge, some of the crowd blocks the way. I make a personal pact to avoid these types of tours in the future, and to do more research before booking “eco” tours.
We take a swim in the warm Caribbean after nightfall. Another storm rolls in. The effect of the lightning, thunder and crashing waves is totally surreal. We stand out in the water and have an unobstructed view of the unsettled atmosphere around us. Lightening illuminates the clouds for miles ahead of us and reflects the stormy water out to the horizon.
We decide to sleep in the field that night to brave the mosquitoes and avoid the bed bugs. With hopes that no more storms are on their way we hang up a net and lay down a nylon sheet and doze off in the fresh air.
We wake up at sunrise and lazily crawl out of our makeshift tent. We make a plan to head south to Puerto Viejo – a slightly bigger town located just north of the Panamanian border.
The first part of the trip is a cruise along the river which runs parallel to the coastline. It’s fantastic. We see flocks of flamingos, huge crocodiles, and adorable little black monkeys with white hairy faces. After a few hours of cruising through the jungle we reach Puerto Limon – a port town known for its banana exports, pollution, and rough locals. We transfer to a bus which will take us the rest of the way to Puerto Viejo.
Once we reach Puerto Viejo we walk along the elevated sidewalks to our hostel. Incense and Bob Marley fills the sticky air and we know instantly that we will like it here.