Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 5: The History and Flavor of Tortuguero Village

Destination: Tortuguero

Tortuguero villageThis morning we decided to explore the tiny but picturesque village of Tortuguero. Located on a narrow strip of land between river and ocean, the village is surrounded by the humid rainforest of Tortuguero National Park and the palm-fringed Caribbean coastline. The small town is dotted with simple wood houses built up on stilts intermixed with mini-supermarkets, a few restaurants and family-run tour companies.

It reminded me of the southern Caribbean town of Cahuita, with its Afro-Caribbean influence evident in the local cuisine, language and culture.

Tortuguero churchMany of the town's inhabitants originated from Jamaica, San Andres or the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua. Along with a bit of English, locals speak a mixture of Patois (a Jamaican Creole with English and African roots) and Spanish.

We had the pleasure of joining Cloied Martinez, a member of one of the first families to settle in Tortuguero. Cloied is the son of Miss Junie, who owns a popular Caribbean-style restaurant/hotel in the village. Under the shade of an almond tree, he gave us some insight into the history of Tortuguero.

Local artisan in TortugueroOnce an untamed frontier, the jungles and beaches of Tortuguero were primarily visited by Miskito Indians (from Nicaragua) and Spanish fleets during the turtle nesting season. The green sea turtles were harvested in alarming quantities and sold for their shells, meat and eggs. In the 1930's, Cloied's grandfather, a wealthy captain from San Andres, purchased land in Tortuguero in hopes of exporting lucrative coconut oil.

The village consisted of little more than a few scattered ranchos and a house or two that captain Martinez had built. Over the next 20 years, the village slowly grew, with more immigrants arriving from the Caribbean islands to work coconut and cacao plantations. In the 50's, U.S. logging companies set up shop in Limon and worked at stripping the interior of precious hardwoods. The companies began constructing artificial canals to help transport the cargo to Limon.

Docks at Tortuguero villageAs more workers were brought in, the village continued to expand. It wasn't until Dr. Archie Carr arrived and began working closely with the Costa Rican government that the seeds of tourism were planted. Dr. Carr formed the non-profit Caribbean Conservation Corporation and helped spearhead the creation of Tortuguero National Park. By the late 80's, Tortuguero was a small blip on the tourist radar. Today it is one of the country's top-visited destinations, thanks to the resurgence of the green sea turtle.

I couldn't leave the village without sampling some fabulous, coconut-infused Caribbean cuisine. Visitors can try everything from spicy jerk chicken to the sweet but rich rice and peas cooked in coconut milk. We dined on chicken stewed in allspice and coconut curried crayfish. Cloied provided a gingery jungle-rum punch that kicked the meal off with a bang.

Turtle-shaped poolWe hung out on a riverside dock in front of one of the larger souvenir stores and awaited our afternoon boat transfer to Turtle Beach Lodge. One of the area's newer lodges, Turtle Beach is located a few miles north of Tortuguero, in Cano Palma.

Guides Nacho and Mario greeted us with warm smiles and transported Vincent and I, along with 25 others, upriver to the secluded lodge. I loved the hotel's thatched-roof buildings, and our rooms were spacious and comfortable, with great breezes. The lodge had many acres of elaborately landscaped grounds and a large, turtle-shaped pool.

Tortuguero beachOur rooms were a short walk to a beautiful but completely deserted beach. The sand was cocoa-colored and covered with scraps of driftwood. We had been warned that the waters were full of bull sharks, barracudas and strong riptides. With swimming out of the question and my afternoon free, I wandered through the lodge's medicinal plant garden before settling down with a good book.

The dinner bell rang at 7:30 p.m. and we descended upon the open-air dining area, joining Nacho's table. The dinner buffet was varied and tasty and served by friendly staff. Guests later retired to the pool or took an evening stroll down the beach. I followed the softly-lit trails back to my room where the hum of cicadas lulled me to sleep.

Day 5: The History and Flavor of Tortuguero Village in Pictures