I always love visiting this spectacular park (see my blog post  of October 10, 2012)—a place of exceptional biodiversity and the third most visited park in Costa Rica.
I first visited Tortuguero in 1991, and have made regular visits since then… most recently six weeks ago, when I spent a few days exploring Tortuguero National Park and the community—Tortuguero village—that is the hub for the region.
The park protects the Western Hemisphere’s principal nesting beach of the Green turtle , and the wetland forests that extend inland of the 20-mile-long nesting beach.
Annually as many as 30,000 greens Green turtles haul onto the brown-sand beaches every year June–October (the greatest numbers arrive in September). During the 1950s the Tortuguero nesting colony came to the attention of biologist-writer Archie Carr , a lifelong student of sea turtles. His lobby—originally called the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle—worked with the Costa Rican government to establish Tortuguero as a sanctuary where the endangered turtles could nest unmolested. (The sanctuary was established in 1963 and the area was named a national park in 1970.)
About the time I first visited, tourism was only just beginning and the community saw the turtles as an economic boon to harvest… despite the fact that the endangered species is protected and harvesting turtle eggs and killing turtles is illegal.
Slowly, but surely, the local mood shifted as more and more tourists flocked and saving the turtles gained a greater economic imperative.
Gradually some semblance of order was established. Visitors were banned from the beach without a guide after 6 p.m. in turtle-nesting season, when local guides escort turtle walks at 8–10 p.m. and 10 p.m.–midnight (10 people maximum per guide per night).
Meanwhile, guard posts were established for each of the five sectors in the park.
It was never perfect. Any Tortuguero resident who wishes can apply for a license, for example. And many locals have proved to be unscrupulous… often, for example, working with partners who dig up nests to reveal supposedly spontaneous hatchings that the group can stumble across. Meanwhile, poaching of eggs continues for illegal sale to brothels and bars.
The problem has been compounded by the oversized hotels that have opened in the last decade offering cut-price tours to huge groups using the cheapest, not the most qualified, guides.
That’s a key reason that ProParques  implemented the “Tracker Program”  (ProParques was founded in 2006 by Steve Aronson, founder of Café Britt —see my blog post  of October 27, 2012—to improve national park facilities, foster a professional Park Rangers corps, and implement other changes that contribute to the woefully underfunded park system’s economic viability). Funded by donations from tourists who wish to visit the turtles, the program (which is administered by the local Sea Turtle Conservancy ) trains locals who locate nesting turtles and communicate by radio to the tour guides.
Despite this noble and notable effort, on my most recent visit it caused me dismay when some of the environmentally active locals I interviewed spoke of the situation not being well nor as it appears.
Apparently, unscrupulous guides are still operating. One environmental activist reported that guides who are known to dig up turtle nests go unpunished. The park is still woefully understaffed by rangers. And the beach is unpatrolled by rangers at night (one unconfirmed report had them boozing in the bar instead of fulfilling their duties), so that concerned citizens and environmental organizations have had to volunteer to fill the roll.
The first hint of another crisis was when a helicopter landed at the airstrip, and made repeated visits.
“What’s going on?” I asked a local, as I watched the ‘copter toing and froing over the course of an hour.
“Drugs!” he replied. Apparently, he wasn’t kidding.
If true, it didn’t surprise me. This corner of Costa Rica has long been a major gateway for trafficking (last month in nearby Barra del Colorado , on the Nicaraguan border, I chanced upon a squad of 12 policemen armed to the teeth on an anti-drug patrol).
“So openly?” I countered.
“Sure!... all the time.” came the reply.
“Who would traffic so blatantly?” I asked. “The police station is just two kilometers away in the village!”
All I got was a laugh.
Meanwhile, back on the beach… the incidence of jaguars  killing and devouring turtles has quadrupled since 2005. One biologist explains it as reflecting increasing destruction of this highly endangered species’ habitat within and around Tortuguero by loggers, large-scale fruit companies, and homesteaders setting up farms on and inside the western perimeter of the park. This will only get worse if existing pressure to build a road into the park from the west overcomes environmental opposition and legal hurdles.
Still, as my blog post  of October 10, 2012 suggests, a visit to Tortuguero is virtually guaranteed to be a sensational and enriching experience.
One way to ensure that’s the case is to volunteer to assist in the park’s preservation efforts. For example, Basecamp International Centers  posts volunteers who work on environmental educational projects with local people, and to help patrol and maintain the park.
And ProParques’ Amigos del Parque  membership system lets folks who are visiting Costa Rica support the park system by buying multiple park entry cards that also deliver such benefits as discounts at participating affiliate businesses.
Now that you’re excited to visit Costa Rica and Tortuguero, be sure to buy the latest edition of Moon Handbook Costa Rica .
If you're traveling only to San José and the Caribbean, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to the beaches of Nicoya, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to Arenal and/or Monteverde, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Arenal&Monteverde  pocket guide.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker .
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker