Taking the Scenic Route to Tortuguero

tortuguero boat dock

I swung myself up over the side of the narrow ten passenger boat, that would take me into the unknown or at least to “the lesser known.”  The boat wobbled unevenly as I made my way to my seat and I immediately noted the absence of life jackets and paddles, as well as the beer in the hand of our “captain” as he fired up the engine.  It was 9AM and this was already shaping up to be a ‘Captain Ron’ experience.  He had all his eyes but less teeth than Grampa Simpson. 

It's not that difficult to get there.....
It’s not that difficult to get there…..

In all my time in Costa Rica, I have stuck to visiting places that can be reached by car and maintain some resemblance of civilization.  This time, however, I wanted a little more adventure.  I had always heard about Tortuguero, a small community on the northern Caribbean coast. It was in the middle of nowhere or as the locals say, “the anus of the world”. Therein lies Tortuguero’s appeal: its proximity to the ocean and the surrounding rainforest, and the fact that it is only accessible by plane or boat.  I would soon

realize that just the journey to Tortuguero alone would highlight the trip.

The journey to get to the boat had started in the capital city of San José on paved roads and then continued through a side-winding, hair-raising mountain pass. The route forms a part of a majestic national park, but the scenery is difficult to enjoy when you have to be prepared for landslides, rain, fog, or a broken down vehicle at every turn.

After a couple near misses, we came down the mountain pass and hit the hot and sticky  Caribbean lowlands.  From there the towns became fewer and fewer, the paved road eventually dissipated into gravel, then dirt, and finally, we were at a small boat landing in the middle of a banana plantation.

We pushed off from the boat dock and made our way down a narrow waterway with the rainforest

See the croc?
                                    See the croc?

teeming on all sides, muddy waters, and crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore. The waterway was littered with rocks, trunks, and submerged tree branches. Some of the trunks that had been brought to shore had tribal faces carved into them, almost as if to warn the boaters of their trespassing.  From the incessant Cicada bugs to parakeet canopy chatter, the sounds were amazing…  The only thing not Jurassic about this experience were the missing dinosaurs.

Everything was going well until we had to make a tight pass between two tree trunks.  Our boat was about halfway through when there was a big clunk and the motor killed.  An eerie, dead silence shuddered through the boat. The casual chatter came to an abrupt halt.  We were stopped dead in our tracks, no paddles/lifejackets, and muddy waters with who knows how many predators.   I was recalling the tribal carvings and wondering if this was a trap when I heard a splash.  Our “captain” had just abandoned ship.  Maybe he knew something we didn’t know? 

Instinctively, I was waiting for an ensuing crocodile attack, however, the captain emerged the splash, standing in water that was barely knee deep.  How could this be?  We had just seen Jesus Christ lizards that could run on the surface of the water, but this was unprecedented. Was he an X-men living in exile? He must be on a tree branch or something, I thought, but then he walked right up along side the boat and began washing the place where the clunk had happened.  “I don’t like it when they critique me.” he chuckled, as he passed by on his way to the front of the boat, whereas as if were the routine, he grabbed the front of the boat and pulled us through the rest of the pass.

What could possibly be in that water??
         What could possibly be in that water??

After a while it turned into a guessing game as to how he would navigate the hazards.  I began to notice how he instinctively stayed away from the sandy side of the canal and kept us close to the rocky edge.  You could tell he had some experience, or at least instincts when it came to this waterway.  I’d find out later that the water level was at a record low, and that only suffering one engine killing clunk was actually pretty impressive. 

Shortly after that, we exited the narrow waterway and entered a more traditional river way.  We began to notice scant signs of civilization along the banks which were mostly boat landings surrounded by a few homes on stilts.  We pulled into one of the landings to drop off some passengers and the silence was deafening.  There were no noisy motorcycles, or loud busses that I had grown accustomed to in my town.  There was peace and quiet.  This would continue as we made our

Tiny towns...
                                       Tiny towns…

way to Tortuguero, with the exception of a few single engine fishing boats, we were the only ones making a wake.  The fisherman all used canoes and the most sophisticated ones had small electric motors to drift in and out of the river inlets and marsh areas.

When the captain docked us in Tortuguero, we could all let out a sigh of relief, this officially concluded our adventure for the day.  I cherished that sigh as I knew it would only last a few days until we got back on the boat to journey out of Tortuguero and back to the paved land. 

Tortuguero itself was rather boring in comparison to the arrival.  Here are some pictures from the stay:

           Like I said, a relatively boring town
                               Tortuguero beach
         Night critter in downtown Tortuguero
                        Main Street
                  Getting gas for the boat
        Power lines over the river, only source of                                      electricity for town
                             Welcome man?
       When you reach the end of the                                 trail….

Escorting students brings me a guilt trip

Note: This post was originally written in January 2015 for a local newspaper in Verona, WI.

It is with immense guilt that I admit this.

I am an enabler.

I open doors for people, allow them to walk through and then get out of the way. Even though I can’t control what happens after that, I still feel a responsibility for setting off that chain of events that has an irreversible effect on one’s life.

The most recent incident happened with a group of 14 University of Minnesota construction management students who spent two weeks in Costa Rica.

Bear in mind, my role was purely logistical. I put a roof over their heads, meals on the table and made sure they experienced what Costa Rica had to offer. Costa Rica did the rest.

But still I feel guilty.

They experienced the beaches and rainforests. They culturally immersed themselves so much that in two weeks they could not only tell you where coffee comes from but how to ask locals for help finding a bathroom. To top it off, they completed a capstone course to put the finishing touches on their collegiate careers.

But then they had to go home.

I recall my first visit to Costa Rica, how painful and heartbreaking it was to leave after six months. I can’t imagine how it would have felt after only two weeks.

This particular trip had gotten off to a rough start. Within 20 minutes of arrival we were forced into a local shopping mall to wait for some students who arrived on a different flight at the same time but were stranded on the tarmac. (Apparently there weren’t enough gates; who would have thought you could land 15 planes in an hour at an airport that serves a country the size of West Virginia?)

As a result, my Costa Rican chocolates melted in the shuttle bus and our highly entertaining Costa Rica trivia game garnered only an emergency contact card as a prize. In an unrelated note, it was also uncovered how old I am, as only half the group knew who Scottie Pippen was.

We cruised through the Costa Rican countryside and came within view of San Ramon just as the sun began its descent behind the mountains surrounding the town. The anticipation was building as only moments separated the group from their first “real” steps into this foreign land.

Could we drink the water? How do we greet the locals? Will we eat with our hands?

In order to calm their nerves, I had strategically devised a pizza delivery combined with an NFL playoff game to avert a full-on culture overload. However, come Day 2, we were back to immersion.

We began with both the most majestic and erie canopy tour I had ever witnessed. Imagine

That might be a monkey...
That might be a monkey…

a foggy, old abandoned ghost town, but instead of buildings you have trees and branches that appear at a moment’s notice as you’re flying through the rainforest canopy suspended by a cable.

For a first-time rainforest experience, this couldn’t be beaten. From there, we lunched at a local family’s home and toured their farm. Many were impressed that this family could produce almost all the food they needed just from their plot of land.

After lunch, I scheduled an orphanage visit to show the students what a typical Costa Rican orphanage looks like, knowing that they would later design an addition for another one. Despite the intent of our visit, our focus would be deterred shortly after meeting the children.

“Gringos! Gringos!” they greeted us excitedly. Since I had expected this to happen, I somehow assumed the students were expert balloon animal makers. But it turned out only two students could make them and a few others had the actual lung capacity to inflate the narrow suckers.

We weathered the chaos and the bigger takeaway had to be brightening the children’s day.

These experiences provided many conversation-starters as we wound down the day at the hot springs fed by the Arenal Volcano. With plenty of mental and physical exertion, I knew this group would be craving for more.

And so it would continue. I couldn’t do enough to satisfy the group’s appetite.

¡Qué pasión!
¡Qué pasión!

We visited the impoverished community of Bajo Tejares, where the students would prepare a construction proposal for a women’s empowerment group, then went to the orphanage site where we finally achieved  a cultural breakthrough with the children via the construction of some highly technical paper airplanes.

Salsa lessons, taste testing coffee batches at the local processing plant, cultural museum visits, and even a weekend excursion to the beach were wholly chewed and swallowed. As was lunch and dinner at Soda Xinia’s (Soda means a small restaurant that serves local foods, and in this case, it was the patio at the home of Xinia, a housewife by day, master chef at a moment’s notice).

All of this concluded with the successful presentation of two construction proposals to help

The university crew
The university crew

our local partners – Mujeres de Cambio women’s empowerment group and the orphanage – advance their missions and serve the community.

Wow! Getting that all down on paper does make me feel a lot better.

I should have felt proud for all the experiences they had. But I feel guilty I was only able to hold that door open for two weeks. And that only 14 students had a chance to walk through that door.

I am confident, though, that they have jammed that door open, broke the closer and, some I’m sure, have even removed the hinges and turned that door into a hallway.