Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Turtle Saviors

Back on the road, we kept rolling until a couple people made the worst mistake in the world--looked friendly and waved. Needing a place to stay, we circled back and once again got a yard to camp in. These peoples were way easier to understand and incredible hosts. A perfect combo of Spanish and English, curious but still gave us our space, and super helpful offering chairs, water, a place for our bikes, and even coffee that the man got specially roasted in the morning with tortillas and cream, as well as a local crisp pastry. Energized, we were able to ride all day to a town called Samara. The road there was literally a roller coaster, both in terms of hills and emotion. Every time we started a downhill we thought was the final push to the ocean, we'd round a corner and climb right back up. Nevertheless, before it was too late in the day, allowing time for a swim, walk on the beach, nap/reading time in the hammocks, and dinner. Besides a palm branch and coconut falling and scaring me half to death, it was a wonderful stay.

Rolling out early yet again to beat the heat, our roller coaster continued, except bigger. Most of the hills we were going up were far too steep to ride, especially since the roads turned to dirt and rock. The scenery was probably our best of the trip, however, with consistent views overlooking the ocean and vast stretches of the greenest fields I've ever seen. Costa Rica may be expensive, but you get what you pay for.

We battled the hills and the tough roads all morning until we came to a fork. We had to decide if we wanted to keep following the roller coaster of the coast or head inland on a more direct route to the ferry leading us across the peninsula we're currently on. We weren't sure what would be better, so luckily a third option presented itself. Right at the fork, we stopped in an office to ask about road conditions and noticed a sign that said "volunteering" on it, not knowing we had just discovered our next four days.

It turns out the office we stoped into for directions is a hub for turtle conservation, and for only $5 per day we could go to a "rustic" location with a nearly isolated beach. And our fee included food! Unable to believe our luck (and she was excited to hear we weren't turned off by rustic) we got our precise directions: go 9 km total down the dirt road, up the big hill where the road gets worse, right at the v of dirt, and go through the barbed wire gate.

The directions were good enough to find the place called Turtle Trax at Playa Caletas because before long, we stumbled on a wooden hut with a tarp roof and a number of people super excited to see new faces. It turns out not many people volunteer at this beach since there are less comforts, but the turtle activity is better so pretty much perfect for us. Getting a quick tour and introduction, we dropped our gear in a hut full of bunk beds and made ourselves at home. Dani, the area leader gave us a quick turtle talk for backgound information on turtles and the outpost, followed by a lesson in turtle nest digging. Essentially what this place does is patrols the beaches at night looking for turtles and tracks, digs up the eggs, and transplants them into a hatchery so predators and poachers don't find them, greatly increasing the success rate of birthing turtles.

Shortly after our nest lesson where you must "think like a turtle" to properly dig the channel, we were called to the hatchery because one of the nests was hatching and baby turtles were crawling everywhere. Normally, due to ideal temperatures, they hatch at night but we were lucky to see an early nest in the daylight. Each of us put on a glove, played with the baby turtles, took an obnoxious number of photos, and we headed down the beach to release them into the ocean. As soon as you set them down, the turtles start scurrying towards the water. Apparently they're drawn to light (the sun or moon reflecting over the water) so during the day it's pretty straightforward but at night you have to use the red light setting (they can't see it) or else they follow the flashlight. We had so much enjoyment watching them crawl and get repeatedly tossed by the waves, but eventually every baby turtle was out in the ocean.

That night, after dinner, we took our first patrol. Kai and I went with a Welsh girl while Jon headed the opposite direction. Luckily, since our bed time is usually around 7 and that's when our 3 hour shift started, she was more than happy to do a majority of the talking while we stumbled along in zombie mode. We walked 10 km, up and down the beach looking for tracks. For almost an hour and a half, we saw nothing. However, eventually we stumbled upon dark lines in the sand and followed them up to see a turtle. It's shell was 67cm by 74cm and it had already laid its eggs by the time we found her. If you wait for the right time, they get in such a trance while they're laying eggs you can dig a hole behind them and catch the eggs, tag the turtle, and measure it without any trouble. However, since we were late with this particular one, the trance was over and we had to dig up the nest, searching for the looser sand by pushing in sticks. The nest was almost 40 cm deep, and has an inverted mushroom shape where there's a narrow channel down and a wider bottom to fit the eggs. Grabbing 108 of them out, we put them in a bag to bring back and transplant into the hatchery. Tired from a long day and past our bedtime, all three of us passed out. Hard.

The next day, we got a better feel for the place. On turtle time, most of the work is done during the night shifts. During the day, most of the work is pretty minimal. You sit, relax, do your two daily chores at your convenience, and entertain yourself however you desire. I found a copy of "A Walk in the Woods" which I'd been meaning to read and was happy to lounge in a hammock. Apparently in town a bar was having a grand opening and Kai went with most of the outpost to check it out, but Jon and I stayed back with one other guy named Melvin from Nicaragua to thoroughly do almost entirely nothing. For being able to reset physically, not break the bank, play with and learn about turtles, as well as meet new people, this volunteering stop couldn't have worked out much better.

Over the next 4 days, we gradually learned more about turtles, went on our night beach walks to find turtles, took up some hatchery shifts to protect the transplanted nests and wait for turtles to hatch, and got to know the group better everyday. Even though you spend your nights at Turtle Trax sweating, trying to find the perfect sleeping bag to body temperature to sand fly protection ratio, and you stay up at night, it's a place I will never forget. The steady ocean on a remote beach, the glow of biolumenescense as you walk on the sand, the excitement of seeing dark tracks in the moonlight, the peace of mind sitting inside the hatchery while the tiki torch burns are exactly the sort of reset we were needing. However, what was truly the best about our experience was the people. They were incredible welcoming and sincere, and we actually had a chance to speak English with other people and enjoy a family dinner. Few places on our trip so far have had a feel of any sort of home, but getting to know everyone and everything about the outpost was as close as we've come.

Setting out after an unhealthy amount of coffee and a stack of pancakess, we were back on the road. We pushed down a dirt road towards Playa Tamarindo, and arrived just in time to see the ferry we wanted float away. Luckily, we were tired and a nap sounded like the greatest gift in the world so we found a shadey tree and passed out until the next boat was ready to leave. Watching another sunset on a boat ride, we made it across the water in time for it to get dark and start raining. Since we'd spent all of our remaining money on boat tickets, we rode through the rain until we found an ATM. Seeing it as a sign from the heavens, we noticed a pizza place next door and each had what was undoubtedly the best calzone I've ever had. Back on the mainland side of Costa Rica, we're excited to keep heading south along the coast, keep sweating more than we ever thought was possible, and see exactly where we end up.


  1. Glad to see you are doing well and able to be a part of some wonderful experiences! Love and miss you Kai! Praying for you and your companions, Aunt Sue.

  2. Hey guys!

    Great reads so far! Every post makes me smile. Sometimes I think you guys have it too easy, so feel free to post some pictures of the rough times too :P

    Had to cook any meals over a tiny portable stove perhaps?

  3. Haha we're usually less inspired to take pictures during the harder times, but I'll see what I can do :) Glad you're enjoying the posts and yes, the little stove has been huge for us! We use it almost twice a day everyday and only costs us about $0.50 to refill the fuel bottle. Without warm food or coffee in the morning from that thing, I promise you the blog posts would have been significantly less cheerful!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I'm so glad you guys had a great experience at Caletas!!! I am so impressed with what you guys are doing. Good luck in the rest of your adventure. I hope you don't mind I shared the post on our Facebook page:

  6. Not at all! Thanks for featuring us!

  7. Not at all! Thanks for featuring us!