Getting to the tiny island is an adventure in itself. Bus from San Jose to Siquirres, change station and make it on time to a bus to Cano Blanco, then hop on a boat to the island. After missing the first bus, I ended up in an expensive taxi, but the information was worth it. The drive is on a mostly bumpy, rocky road surrounded by corporate banana trees. Miles of hanging pesticide filled blue bags that protect the fruit from bugs. Cars and buses often stop for bananas crossing the road on automatic pulleys. Closer to Cano Blanco, rolling farm lands cover the distance and one outdoor cantina that was jammin mid-day. After an hour and a half drive, the friendly driver and I were well acquainted. Folks are extremely friendly here and full of stories. Since my timing was off, I missed the public boat so the driver deposited me into a private boat of a friend. He turned out to be the cousin of my house mother on the island, who are both friends of Chito Loco in Siquirres. Small place indeed.
The little boat docked right up to the island next to the one of two restaurants on the island. A dirt path leads to the karaoke bar and a sign for the turtle volunteers. The office provides a meeting space, book exchange, and an air-conditioned office to use the computer and watch informative videos. I was lead to a little pink house and introduced to my house mother Irma. She showed me to my private room with a double bed and mosquito net. The house has small holes to the outside, no screens on the wide wooden windows, but all modern conveniences are inside. Laundry is provided, cable TV, clean cold shower, and microwave. Irma served cold lemonade and cookies while we chatted totally in Spanish. A young volunteer arrived to give me a tour of the island. We walked on the dirt paths while he pointed out the school, small stores called pulperias, clinic, and exotic plants. He provided a history of the 400 person island. Everyone knows one another and welcomes volunteers to their home. One hotel offers all meals and a room for $20 and one other place offers high class accommodations. During fishing season, cabins on the canals, camping, and tours are available. Volunteers can stay for a week minimum, to months, and visitors donate $3 to walk with guides on night patrol. Four shifts are staggered from 8pm until 4am covering miles of beach during the night. After a home cooked meal, my house mother walked me to the hatchery and beach volunteer office. First night volunteers are assigned the 8pm to midnight shift. Usually a video is shown and instructions are explained before the first walk. That did not happen for me so I set out with one bilingual guide, one Spanish speaking guide, and two dogs. Within 10 minutes the dogs stood behind a leatherback that was just starting to sweep her flippers to dig a hole. I listened to instructions and we waited for 45 minutes before she started to nest. With a plastic glove I stuck my arm into a hole almost up to my shoulder when the eggs started to plop and transferred them to a plastic bag. I learned the next day at the "turtle talk", the fluid dripping on me was protective against bacteria for the eggs. During hatching, turtles go into a trance providing the guides the opportunity to check the tag and measure the mother. With a red flash light, they showed her "crying" and explained the release of salt through tears. We bagged up the 112 eggs and trudged to the "vivero", a 24-hour guarded hatchery.
After a short break, we walked the beach until bright white flashlights shined ahead. White lights mean poachers and we sat down to radio back to the office to call the Coast Guard. Before the rescue program started 6 years ago, turtle carcasses littered the beach, eggs were gathered for sale and meat was grilled in the jungle. Now a few poachers have joined in the protection effort and earn money every night instead of only when eggs could be found. Only one or two baby turtles from each 1,000 will survive to return to the beach and nest in 20 to 30 years. Protection is crucial as is boycotting restaurants that sell turtle eggs or meat.
My house mother was very welcoming and cooked delicious meals always with rice and beans and fresh fruit. She made my favorite juice drink, guanabana, and other tasty concoctions. Conversing completely in Spanish greatly improved my skills.
Activities during the day, like canal tours, surfing lessons, or relaxing on the beach, are up to volunteers. Bring lots of insect repellent and water for patrolling the beach. Walking for 4 hours on sandy terrain requires good physical condition. The best time to visit is early July when leatherbacks are still nesting, tortugitas are hatching, and green turtles mate on top of the water sometimes wash up on the beach. Get off the beaten trail and help save sea turtles. http://www.costaricaturtles.com