Thursday, March 22, 2012

Costa Rica, February 2012 - Days 3 and 4

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The boat ride to Tortuguero is, at the best of times, somewhat slow. Since the Rio Suerte was running very low it was even slower for us.

The hotel in Guapiles, called Suerre I believe, is a massive place. I touched on this in the last entry and I still do not know why it is so big. To add a bit of insult to injury, though that is actually a bit strong, the rooms are nothing special: standard hotel rooms with the basic amenities you would expect in a modern hotel. That includes a complete lack of character which is wholly at odds with Pacuare Lodge and the place we stayed at our first night. It was a place to sleep and that was good enough. Today was a travel day. The travel is governed by the schedule of the boat that makes the river run to Tortuguero 3 times a day along the Suerte River and the Rio Tortuguero- a journey that takes about 75-90 minutes depending largely on the level of the water especially in Rio Suerte. We had the bulk of the morning to kill and I suppose we could have gone into Guapiles and explored but it just did not look like their was much there based on the drive in. We hung around the hotel and really did nothing until it was time to gather at the lobby for the bus ride to where the boat would pick us up. That ride took about an hour and we passed by numerous banana plantations along the way. At the ferry dock there is a restaurant that is reputedly known for its chicones (sp - deep fried portk with beans and rice and some sort of banana). It was OK but I think I was expecting something a bit more though I am not really sure what or why. The first boat puttered on it at about 13:00 and it was clear it was nowhere big enough for everyone that was waiting. We loaded it up with many people but our group of 11 had to wait for the second trailing boat to arrive. We boared with a french family and departed perhaps 20 minutes after the first boat. The water level in Rio Suerte is very low. The boat captain has to clearly have a detailed knowleddge of the currents, eddys, rapids, hidden logs and rocks, and so on to navigate this bit of water. If you have read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and his time serving as a riverboat pilot I suspect the guys running the boats here must have comparable knowledge. We definitely scraped the river bottom a couple times and came close to many rocks. We also were lucky enough to see some birds including heron, egret, something large and white, and some other avians. SOme were lucky to spot a caimen and an American crocodile too. The river at this time is mostly a dusky brown which contrasts starkly with the rich green of the Pacuare the last couple of days. We slowly wormed our way along the twists and turns of the shallow river to the much larger Rio Tortuguero where the captiain clearly did not have to worry about running aground and was able to open up the throttle to the point where we had a substantial wake and were catching a fair bit of stinging spray in our faces. The french family were dropped off at a lodge in the community of San Francisco and we continued on to Tortuguero which is the main village in the region and home to about 1,000 people. It is an interesting mix of modern and far less modern aspects. They have only just recently gotten a high school. They do have electricity everywhere along with full telecommunications (i.e., cellular and internet access). At the same time many of the omes seem to be a bit of a hodgepodge as far as their construction goes and look less well off. But during the tourist season the national park that Tortuguero sits just outside of does see 1,000 people per day and given the challenge of coming here that is pretty good. We found ourselves with a few horus to kill before dinner so we did a bit of exploring. P1000484

Casa Marbella is quaint. The rooms are high ceilings and are pretty spartan. But it turned out that they would be adaquate.

Tortuguero sits on a spit of land with the Rio Tortuguero flowing north-south to the west and the Caribbean pounding the shore just to the east. If this bit of land is more than a couple hundred meters wide I would be very surprised. Somehow everyone in the village nestles in a fairly short stretch of land. We first walked north to the far end of town where we found some fencing blocking our way. We checked out the beach which is a dark brown sand beach and boasts a surf that is definitely not really suitable for swimming (and for some reason we did not see anyone swimming in the river either). We stopped in a couple of the little stores that are selling local handicrafts to a general store that sells all sorts of things a village resident might need. The bakery next door furnished us with a milkshake and carrot cake both of which were tasty. Heading south takes you to the national park entrance and we found an information kiosk that told us plenty about the region and the life that it supports all of which is quite interesting. Aong the way we dodged kids and adults on bikes zipping down the hard dirt main drag. We saw a few cats and dogs out and about and I suspect most are just that: out and about left to their own devices. It is an inteeresting place. Dinner at Ray's, who is a friend of our trip leader Greivin (sp) was a low key affair. He reputedly specializes in making food with a Caribbean bent. Perhaps he does but I am not enough of a foodie to know. I do know that the fried breadfruit was very good and the rice and beans dish was certainly good enough. I did not hear any complaints about the chicken. I hope Ray can make a go of this newly birthed place that will also include some rental cabins. But I have to say that the food didn't knock my socks off the way the meals at Pacuare Lodge did. It is now a bit after 21:00 and thankfully the temperature has dropped and the fans in my high ceilinged small room are helping keep me cool. It is a very modest style of room that comes far closer to rustic than anything we have seen to date. The bed is a double but a cheap one at that. The shower produced warm though far from hot water and the only soap I found was a dispenser of Palmolive (the real soap turned out to be in a glass on a shelf). Mom is right their is a bit of the dormetory feel to the place though as far as I know all the rooms have en suite bathrooms. I am sure it will be a fine place and as long as it isn't too noisy with either jungle sounds or , maybe more likely, people partying I will have no complaints. Tomorrow we get up early for a 06:00 boat tour of many of the natural and artificial canals that will hopefully afford us some great wildlife encounters.

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We took a sunrise boat tour through the canals and Rio Tortuguero. The jungle is incredibly dense and you can't see into it. If you are lucky though you do get to see some animals, especially birds, as you float quietly along.

The sounds of the night were nowhere near loud enough to bother my sleep. I think the greatest noise probably came from a couple parties that were taking place not that far from Casa Marbella (our hotel). I heard some critters like night insects and some noctural birds and the occassional spurt of dog barking but if I was expecting to be regailed by the soundscape of howler monkeys and the sounds of a jungle you think you know from watching television shows and movies I was dissapointed. We had an early start with a sunrise motor boat ride along the Rio Tortuguero into various natural and artificial canals in the national park, The boat was captained by a local named Roberto who along with Greivin who served as the primary guide. The only real way to see the jungle is by water unless you are willing to hack your way through the staggeringly dense forest with machetes and I am sure that is not for the faint of heart or unskilled. I wish I could report that I saw the wildlife that was pointed out but that would be untrue. I had to settle for hearing the critters and just absorbing what was told to us. People were certainly quite pleased to see birds like green Ibis, heron, wrens, and perhaps even a green macaw. We were fortunate to also spy a couple of caimen along the way and I think people spotted howler monkeys in the trees. The howler monkey makes a remarkable sound that can be best described as a fantastically upset stomach rumbling for its life. Of course, if your stomach was as loud as a howler monkey's howl you are probably in serious need of medical help. We also were lucky to spot some type of ant eater that was high up in a tree of some type happily devouring ants or maybe termites as it clung with its prehensile tail and huge claws to the branches up on high (I wish I had seen that). It was an interesting 3 hour tour though our enjoyment is a bit tempered by the fact that we were wholly passive. You are just sitting in the motor boat watching and I certainly would appreciate a chance to do more though exactly what that means in this context I can't really say. DSCN0352
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The narrow stretch of coastline is dozens of miles long. We enjoyed our walk along the Carribbean coastline even though this is a beach that will never win awards for loveiness.

When we returned to the hotel it was time for a light breakfast of local fruits: pineapple, watermelon, and papaya, and pancakes. The group broke up into parts and we decided to take a stroll along the Caribbean Sea beach and see what we might find. The beach is narrow, made of deep brown sand, and in places actually a bit steep. If the tide had been in I am sure parts of the beach would have been unwalkable. As it was we had plenty of room to walk comfortably When the sea surf did swirl around our feet we could feel the pull of the retreating water quite strongly. If you want to take a dip in this surf you are playing with fire so to speak. The water is warm and the sand pleasant to walk across in bare feet. Just watch where you step sometimes as you have to avoid driftwood down by the surfline and plenty of plastic crap that has washed up against the tree line just a couple dozen yards away. Seeing the trash is a bit sad and a reminder that polution is pretty much everywhere (we actually saw some water bourne pollution in the Pacuare River when we paused by a waterfall on our second day; I suppose that foam was coming from one of the little communities of people who live along that remote stretch of water). The walk along the beach was quite enjoyable even though it is clearly not a beach you are going to just lounge around on. We walked north about 1.5 miles and found our way into the Laguna Lodge which appears to be a very fancy resort type establishment. They'll come fetch you from San Jose and bring you all the way in (we saw guests from that lodge at dinner at the Budha Cafe so unless they walked along the beach the 1.5 miles along the beach or the powerline right-of-way they surely came by private boat. One thing of particular interst on the beach are the seris of markers, spaced aoubt 100 meters apart, that strecch the entire length of the beach which is, I think, some 50 miles long. This beach is a vast nesting ground for green sea turtles that come from all over the Caribbean and in some cases as far as Australia to lay their eggs every summer and late autumn. The markers are used by the people whose job it is to protect the turltles as keys to finding the active nesting sites. The Costa Rican government seems to be pretty serious about this which is a good thing for the tuttle popolation which was decimated by human hunting and poaching. If you are looking to wipe out a couple of hours in Tortuguero taking a beach walk is a good way to go especially since the breeze on the beach makes the otherwise hot day very pleasant. P1000499 - Version 2

Sitting rock solid still in an open area like the one we found this iguana in is probably not the best survival strategy but I suppose it was all this fellow had going.

After our usual issue figuring out what to do about food when we are left to our own devices we settled on picking up what we could from one of the local grocery stores. I think their are at least 3 such stores in this small village and none of them sell what you would consider staple fare if you were trying to feed a family. It makes one wonder where residents get their food. We picked up the fixings for sandwiches and went back to the hotel for a quick lunch at the riverside dock before joining everyone else for an afternoon stroll into the national park. Greivin took us into the forest along a nature path and found many things of interest to point out to us. It started even before we reached the park entrance as we crossed a field in the village. An orange and black striped Iguana was partially covered by a big stick which a person moved away. At first you might think the animal was injured or dead as it was not moving but it seems more likely that it was playing dead - standing rock still trying to convince us that there was nothing here to see. That might work well if you are amongst some plants with big leaves but in the open it is a strategy that just is not going to work too well. He (I assume though I have no basis for that) was really quite stunning and an hour or so later when we returned that way the iguana was gone so hopefully it found a better place to hang out. Entering the forest we left stifling heat and found ourselves in much more comfortable shade. Now and then as we would past an opening to a path that led out onto the beach we woulc catch a cooling breeze that was always welcome. I was a bit surprised that we did not hear much in the way of animal calls as we strode along the wide dirt path. Perhaps this was because it was about 15:00 and everything was taking a siesta. We soon found some astonishingly large active termite nests and some wondefully complex spider webs. Greivin also pointed out an assortment of plants but I confess that now I can't tell you what they were. It was nice to just amble along the path. It would have been made all the better had we actually been able to find the geocache that was reportedly planted just off the trail by one of the paths that lead to the beach. We did not spend all that much time trying to find it and it is possible it is not there anymore anyway. All told we probably walked about 3 miles out and back. We were left with a couple hours to kill before dinner at the Buddha Cafe and as you would expect in a tropical village like this where you still have access to modern amenities like a shop that sells beer and ice cream bars (think large Dove bar on a stick) we settled down on the dock to relax for a time before freshening up for the meal. For some reason I did not think Buddha Cafe was as large as it turned out to be. It was really quite extensive and the menu is varied. We ended up following our guide's example and tried a pizza which was pretty good and definitely larger than we needed. It was a very relaxed affair perhaps due in part to the fact that I do not think they have a big staff. No one was annoyed by this; things move at a more languid pace here in the tropics at least on the Caribbean coast. One last thing to note about the village is the bakery that is next to Casa Marbella. We stopped there the previous day for a milkshake, very tasty strawberry, and a piece of carrot cake. They have very long hours opening up around 05:00 and closing well after dark. If you need a quick bite to eat or refreshing drink this little place is worth remembering when you are killing time in Tortuguero.
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