Let’s get right to the point… you get to pet sea turtles. Real life, 450 pound, behemoth sea turtles. Maybe “pet” is the wrong word… The amazing STC biologists call it a body check; you swipe away the sand and check the health of your patient (sea turtle!!) looking for damage to their shells, checkin’ on those flippy flips and last but not least, make sure their little not-so-tiny heads are free from barnacles and wounds. The fact is, every part of “working the turtle” is important for the researchers but every time we found a nesting mama, you can bet I was whisper-yelling, “Body check! Called it!” It was my favorite part.
(The STC research station boasts an informative museum & many photo opps.)
I also don’t think I was fully prepared for how amazing it was to work with/on the sea turtles. They’re ancient creatures with average life spans much longer than ours, and they are really, truly not meant to be on land. But here they are, coming back year after year to lay eggs on the same beach they were born on. I could say the margaritas and french fries by the pool was my favorite part… but it would be a big fat lie. I think about the mama turtles almost every day and I miss them dearly.
(Pool Boi - a resident iguana sunbathes on the pool bridge.)
The first leg of our retreat starts at Hotel Bougainvillea which boasts a botanical-garden-level of plants on premise.
We got up at daybreak for an hour long bird watch with our guide Ivan - and for those of you who don’t care about watching birds, you can instead take photos with all the weird and wild plants and critters roaming about. Also… take note to really savor the cool valley temps because a couple hours later in Tortuguero it is H.O.T.
(Ticos sell mamon along the roadside; a soft & spiny exterior yields a delicious grape-like fruit inside.)
The trip to Mawamba Lodge doesn’t disappoint. A quick stop for a traditional tico breakfast followed by acres and acres of banana plantations (great viewing if you’re not falling asleep. #jetlag). Then we arrive at Guapiles, which they’ll say is a “dock” but it’s not like any dock you’ve been to in the States. It’s more of a muddy slip with tiny boats all lined up. Our guide finds us a local kid to haul our luggage in a wheelbarrow. We watch as a man tries to haul a boat out of the canal with his pick-up truck and ends up spraying a wide fan of mud all over 15+ people getting ready to board. The whole crowd erupts in laughter as the man utters “perrrr… doooon” with a mortified expression.
After an hour on the canals we finally arrive at Mawamba Lodge, where they’re not messing around with a glass of fresh juice & prime wildlife viewing. The iguanas roaming around will make your heart skip a beat; literal dinosaurs!
We take a couple hours to unwind, lunch and then head over to STC for some training.
For the next 5 nights we head out at 8pm, or midnight, dressed fully in black, with headlamps and raingear (just in case). And that’s when the magic happens. In the darkness you can see shell after shell after shell of giant sea turtles crawling out from the sea. It takes them 20-40 minutes to find the perfect spot to nest, so we pass many as we look for a mama who’s ready.
Researchers catch the turtle eggs as they’re being laid so they can track how many sea turtles (on average) are surviving the first stage of life. Once mama is done with the hard part, we check her for tags, do a tissue sample, and finally, a body check to make sure she’s in good health. It will take her another 15-20 minutes to get back to the sea.
In the morning we have the option to explore the beach in the daylight with the researchers. Again, I don’t think I was prepared for how beautiful this stretch of sand would be. There were coconut shells everywhere, and many of them were sprouting, doing their best to start a new life as a tree. The ground was covered in a thick web of floral groundcover, which is super annoying to traipse over at night but seeing it in the sun helped me not hate it as much.
We took a boat out to the tip of the beach where the river meets the sea. From there we walked about a half mile towards the resort, identifying new turtle nests and counting tracks to see how many ladies crawled ashore the night before.
A nesting green sea turtle's tracks are about 3 feet wide. The streak down the middle is where her tail drags.
Sadly, we saw evidence of poaching & predation at several nesting sites. We identified dog, possum and crab tracks. Another team on the opposite end of the beach found poached turtle parts in a plastic bag (why?!?!) and a turtle who was eaten by a jaguar. It’s pretty wild out here…
Most difficult for me, though, was the amount of plastic litter. The researchers said they clean constantly but it just keeps washing ashore. A few days later I organized a beach clean-up (because I’m extra), where we found a hatchling crawling from his nest, surrounded by plastics. It was heartbreaking. I was also stunned by the level of commitment from the researchers. Not only did we clean up hundreds of pounds of trash, but they came equipped with separate bags for each type - plastic, foam, metal, glass, rope, etc.
After a full week on the beach, the cinder + salt team was, honestly, really effing tired. We were all eager to head to the rainforest for a few days to relax. As soon as we were packed and on the dock I felt super sad to be leaving the turtles. It’s no joke that I think about them all the time. This trip was such a great reminder of how small we are as individuals, how vast the earth is and how many ecosystems and species survive and thrive on this blue rock.
Hatchling tracks from nest to sea.
Nevertheless, we must go have fun!
In Sept 2022 our post trip extension is at Pacuare Lodge, which is a bit more upscale than the resort we stayed in Sarapiqui in 2021. We chose the new location to be a bit more fully immersed in the jungle, and to have more on-site activities like white water rafting (must-do), zip lining and hiking to waterfalls. Plus… the food pics?! Yes please!
It’s also really important to have a super relaxing final few days because the turtles and the beach will work you. The jet lag takes a minute to adjust to, and working at night if you’re usually a morning person, is a special kind of hell. Pacuare Lodge offers some top notch accommodations with an on-site spa to really relax our weary bones.
As the trip leader, I felt so fortunate knowing that I was going to come back and do it again a year later. From the first time I stepped foot in Costa Rica (in 2016) I knew it was my home, emotionally and philosophically. The emphasis on nature from EVERYONE you meet there is so humbling, endearing and inspiring. It’s like every single tico knows the scientific name of every single bird species, and they like it!! You’ll never see more people excited about fruit, or plants, or monkeys, or turtles in your life.
A legit toucan I photographed with my crappy iphone SE!
If you need an escape; if you need a reminder of where we are on this Earth; if you need an encounter with giant prehistoric animals… you need to book your spot on this retreat.