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TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK

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The Canal de Tortuguero, a 160-kilometer stretch of natural rivers, lagoons and estuaries, and connecting man-made waterways, runs from Moín almost to the Nicaraguan border. The canal is the main "highway" of the northern coastal region. Cargo and passengers move on narrow, tuglike, 30-foot-long launches.

Several hours and 55 kilometers out of Moín (80 kilometers north of Limón), the cleared fields suddenly give way to what first appear to be green cliffs towering above the canal and lining the rivers that stretch inland. A closer examination reveals that they are unbroken stands of trees, many over 100 feet tall. A sign and checkpoint announce that you have entered Tortuguero National Park.

Trees canopy the waterway, and trail vines. Pastel-colored toucans and macaws, monkeys swinging through the trees, sloths hanging from branches, alligators taking the sun, turtles lounging on logs, and, perhaps, some of the coatis, jaguars and ocelots that roam the forest will come into view, if the frequent, heavy rainfalls do not inhibit your sightings. The screams of monkeys and whistles of birds pierce the air.

Tortuguero National Park is most famed for the nesting sea turtles that give their name to both the park and the adjacent town. Every year from June to November, turtles waddle ashore at night, climb past the high-tide line, excavate cavities in the sand and lay their eggs, then crawl off, exhausted. Only fifty years ago, the waves of turtles were so dense that one turtle would often dig out the eggs of another in the process of making its nest. The eggs were gathered by locals almost as soon as they were deposited, and enjoyed great popularity not only as a food, but because of their alleged aphrodisiac powers. The turtles, too, were often overturned and disemboweled for their meat and shell.

Tortuguero is one of the few remaining nesting places of the green Atlantic turtle, a species that reaches a meter in length and 200 kilograms in weight. Other species that nest at the beach are the hawksbill, loggerhead, and the huge leatherback, which weighs up to 700 kilograms. Each turtle comes home to Tortuguero every two to four years, and returns several times in the season, usually at intervals of twelve days, to nest again.

Even with human enemies partially under control in the park, the turtle eggs, slightly smaller than those of hens, face numerous perils. Raccoons, coatis and coyotes dig them out and eat them up. The hatchlings that emerge two months after laying face a run for the sea made perilous by crabs and lizards, and birds that swoop down and pluck off tasty morsels of leg or head. Only a small fraction of hatchlings reaches the sea, and fewer still make it to adulthood. The odds are being improved somewhat by programs that see to the safe transfer of hatchlings to the water.

But protection of the eggs is only a partial solution to the multiple threats to turtles, and to their survival as a species. Fibropapilloma, a cancer that attacks green, Ridley and loggerhead turtles, is on the increase worldwide. (The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, is making important advances in understanding the disease and how it is transmitted.) Pollution of the seas kills turtles slowly and horribly. Heavy oil glues jaws shut, and plastic blocks digestive systems. Turtles that ingest junk starve over a period of six or seven months, as their fat layer is consumed.

The park is also an important conservation area for other plant and animal species, as much of the tropical forest nearby is cut down. Fresh water turtles, manatees and alligators are found in canals, as well as sport fish, and sharks that reach up to three meters in length.

Forest animals include the jaguar, tapir, anteater, ocelot, white-faced howler and spider monkeys, kinkajou, cougar, collared peccary, whitelipped peccary and coatimundi. You’ll probably hear these rather than see them in the dense vegetation. Over 300 bird species have been reported, including the endangered green macaw, Central American curassow, and yellowtailed oriole. Most easily sighted are the large birds that frequent the waterways, such as anhingas, flamingos and kingfishers.

All of Tortuguero is wet - rainfall averages 5,000 millimeters (200 inches) per year - but there are several vegetation zones. Morning glory vines, coconut palms and shrubs characterize the sandy beach area, while other sectors are covered with swampy forest that bridges the waterways. In the forest on higher, less saturated ground, orchids and bromeliads live at all levels and take their nourishment from the air, and "exotic" house plant species, such as dieffenbachia, flourish. Tortuga Hill, a 390-foot rise, is the highest point all along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

The Tortuguero Canal terminates at the settlement of Barra del Colorado, which sits astride the mouth of the Colorado River, a delta branch of the San Juan River that borders Nicaragua. Barra prospered in the forties as a lumber center and depot for cargo coming downriver from Nicaragua. But as woodcutting and river trade declined, so did Barra’s fortunes. The population is now down to a few hundred, many of Nicaraguan descent.

Barra serves today as a sport fishing center. But it also has its attractions as an out-of-the-way place with a friendly populace, where one can stay on the edge of the wild in relative comfort. Flora and fauna in the surrounding area are protected, at least nominally, in the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge.

The wide San Juan lies entirely in Nicaragua, but Costa Rica enjoys full rights to use the river. More than a hundred years ago, Cornelius Vanderbilt established a combination riverboat-ferry-stage coach service that used the San Juan as part of a passenger route across Nicaragua connecting with steamers from both coasts of the States. The service was disrupted during William Walker’s takeover in Nicaragua, and as part of the post-war settlement, Costa Rica pushed its border north to the banks of the river. Panama thereafter dominated interoceanic transport, though the San Juan has been proposed from time to time as part of a new canal.

The most famous navigators hereabouts nowadays are the sharks that move between Lake Nicaragua, upstream on the San Juan, and the Caribbean. Sharks frequent the coast down to Tortuguero as well, feeding on the abundant fish and making swimming one of the less peaceful diversions available.

Although remote, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is world famous for sport fishing. Tarpon, or sábalo, is the most notable (or notorious) species, most easily found in rivers and lagoons from January to June, with March and April the best months (though tarpon habits are unpredictable, and some claim June and July are best). Tarpon generally weigh from 60 to 100 pounds. A world-record 182-pound tarpon was caught from the Tortuga Lodge in 1987.

Second to the tarpon as sport fish is snook (róbalo), generally caught from mid-August to mid-October and averaging over 25 pounds. Other species are snapper (pargo), machaca, guapote, bass, mojárra, king mackerel, grouper, catfish and jacks, which generally run under five pounds.

Almost all the fishing along the coast is in fresh-water river estuaries and lagoons, which at times are converted into furious cauldrons of spawning fish. At the right times, not having a good catch is virtually impossible. However, fishing is said to have declined in recent years in inland waterways, due to sedimentation and contamination by pesticides.

Fishing in the open waters of the Caribbean is a risky business, due to the unpredictability of winds and storms, and heavy surf at estuaries, but some lodges have large boats to get fishermen out, or will fish in open water during the limited calm periods.

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