Posted by: Chip Small | January 25, 2016

Thoughts from the Land of the Turtles

As a preface to today’s post, I head today that eminent Harvard ecologist Richard Levins had passed away at age 85.  Levins began his career as a farmer in Puerto Rico before going on to become a leader in the fields of ecology, biomathematics, and the philosophy of science.  He made this observation in an interview last year: “Biology has become molecular biology and graduates are less likely to tramp through a forest or sniff the earth.  They may not even know anything about the animals they study, just the tissue extract.  So throughout my career I have encouraged students to look at such things as connections between human activity and forests, and changes in human population and agriculture.”  After nearly a month of tramping through forests in Costa Rica, I can attest that our students now know quite a bit about the animals they study, and how humans systems interact with these natural ecosystems.  Perhaps our course, then, is a fitting tribute to Professor Levins.


It’s not easy to get to Tortuguero.  Boarding the bus in Guapiles, we pass through miles of banana plantation with familiar corporate logos—Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte.  We weave through the busy streets of Cariari, and then inch along a pothole-strewn dirt road for another long hour.  This road mercifully ends at a small dock on the Rio Suerte—the lucky river.  Here we climb aboard a boat piloted by Juan Carlos behind the wheel, and his assistant on the bow with a long pole.  We move slowly down the river, as the water level is low in the dry season.   Sand bars and floating trees, together with the swift current, test the skills of our captain.  We pause to observe a crocodile, laying motionless on the muddy bank as the wake from our boat washes over the tip of its long snout.  Eventually the river widens, Juan Carlos pushes the throttle, and the farmland turns into solid forest.  We come to an intersection of sorts.  Juan Carlos points to the right—“Three hours this way to Puerto Limon” he explains in Spanish.  He points left.  “Two hours this way to Nicaragua.”  We go straight, pass a surprisingly steep hill and the tiny village of San Francisco (where you can tie your boat up to the grocery store).  Around one more bend is the seaside village of Tortuguero, perched on a peninsula 29 kilometers long and only about 200 meters wide.

Tortuguero means “Land of Turtles”, and this stretch of beach is the prime nesting ground for the green sea turtle (~20,000 nests per year!), and is also used by leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead sea turtles.  Well into the 20th Century, its human inhabitants made their living hunting turtles and jaguars.  Logging companies came in an cleared most of the forest in the 1950’s–the rusting remains of this equipment is still displayed prominently in the village.  Around this time, Dr. Archie Carr discovered the importance of this beach for Atlantic sea turtle populations, and eventually persuaded the Costa Rican government to create the nation’s first national park at this site.  Today the village’s economy is supported almost exclusively from eco-tourism.

boat ride.jpg

Here are some of our students’ impressions of this unique place:

We were all very excited to reach our final destination of the trip; we were excited to be on the beach and finish one last big project for the class. However, Tortuguero has been so much more than any of us expected. We were given a tour around town and the national park by a man named Luis. We were all impressed by his pride in his home and his job. As we spent more time in town we saw that everyone was very environmentally conscious as well as helpful to us throughout our time spent here. We have finally realized that Tortuguero is more than just beach and sun, but about a truly beautiful place along with a people that is committed to keeping it beautiful.

-Brennan Arendt



Tortuguero is not easy to reach by any means, but the destination is well worth the journey. Arriving by boat, one can see several species of animals such as crocodiles, iguanas, basilisks, and even the endangered Great Green Macaw before they set foot in Tortuguero. The village itself thrives on ecotourism, and this can be seen while venturing through the city and passing various souvenir shops that are run from many local’s homes. Tortuguero Village prides itself on the conservation of many endangered animals, and they do an excellent job of promoting this conservation through various methods such as the Tortuguero National Park.

-Nick Hable


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