A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

 

 

 

 

A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

When our guests travel with us to Ecuador it’s normally via Quito to the Galapagos Islands, but I wanted to see what else there was. So, from the history and culture of Quito, I took a short domestic flight to Coca in the Amazonian part of Ecuador.

© Shutterstock – Goran Safarek

© Shutterstock – SL Photography

Within a couple of minutes, a young Tapir comes out of the jungle and stands on the bank looking at us.

The flight is only about 30 minutes but the starting and finishing environments couldn’t be more different. The altitude and more rugged habitat of the highlands and mountains is replaced by the humid and lush Amazon rainforest, which couldn’t be more evident than when you step off the aircraft. As you step down from the aircraft a waft of dense humid air welcomes you as you walk from the aircraft to the arrival’s terminal in the newly rebuilt airport, only opened in early 2019.

A 5-minute taxi ride took me to the boat dock where you don a life vest and board the long, covered canoe like boat for the river journey to the lodge. It is a great way to start this part of the journey as within about 15 – 30 minutes of arriving you are travelling down the Napo river amongst the other everyday river traffic. You begin to get a sense of the jungle on either side of you as you pass villages on the river banks and see the winding expanse of river stretch ahead of you.

After about two and a half hours on the river we arrived at the dock where my bags were taken for me on a hand cart and while we walked along a raised wooden walkway into the jungle for about 10 minutes. At the end we board a smaller hand paddled canoe, our bags go in another, but before we set off our guide stops and listens, then begins to call out. Within a couple of minutes, a young Tapir comes out of the jungle and stands on the bank looking at us. “That’s Tony.”, the guide says and while he is wild, he is also quite friendly and curious. I’m 10 feet away and it is probably the closest I have been to a wild animal of that size (like a large pig) in its’ natural environment. Tony seems a little non-plussed and ambles off to do Tapir things.

 

Our canoe is then paddled through a mangrove swamp for about 10 minutes and at this point you can really start to smell the aroma of the jungle, hear birds, insects, monkeys and other wildlife, which belies a stillness underneath it all. It is easier to experience than describe but the jungle seems to draw you in and hold your attention as if you are listening through the natural sounds to the heart of something.

We come out of the mangrove swamp to Lake Challuacocha, where Sani Lodge is nestled among the jungle canopy with its’ more traditional wooden structures. It is owned and run by the Sani Community who are an indigenous people of around 600 inhabitants with stewardship over about 40,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest.

 

© Shutterstock – Mark Richard Waller

It is worth noting that the Sani Community face constant pressure from oil companies to sell parts of their land for oil exploration, pressure which they continue to resist as they protect their way of life and environment. Their aim is to promote sustainable practices so that travellers like myself and like you can experience their way of living in harmony with the forest. They are incredibly friendly and genuinely enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and stewardship of the forest in conjunction with sustainable ecotourism.

I lived in the Amazon jungle in Northern Peru not far from the border with Ecuador for three years, and I developed a close feeling for it mixed with a lot of respect. So I was pleased when my Sani guide took me on a tour through the jungle to the tallest tree in the area, where the Sani staff have built a covered metal tower stairway that takes you to the top of the tree canopy. At the top there is a metal gangway which reaches out to a wooden platform the staff built into the tree. From this platform, 45 metres (150 feet) from the ground, you can see the tree canopy of the forest stretching out into the distance as far as you can see in all directions.

© Shutterstock – Dr Morley Read

After walking through the forest floor below for over an hour, the view from above is impressive. There is not a single man-made structure (except the stair tower!) to be seen anywhere but neither can you see the ground beneath you, just the canopy of thousands of jungle trees. Primary tropical rainforest is vertically divided into at least five layers: the overstory, the canopy, the understory, the shrub layer, and the forest floor. The overstory refers to the crowns of emergent trees which soar 20-100 feet above the rest of the canopy. The platform I was standing on is in the ‘Overstory’ and the view is breath-taking, we sat up there for an hour and chatted.

When I say chatted, I mean I asked about a hundred questions and my guide, thankfully, responded with the same enthusiasm. What impressed me is their intimate knowledge of the jungle and all the different life in it. They know how to walk through the jungle as part of it, where you and I would hack and stumble and likely get lost. They know which plants are food and which are medicine. They know the signs and trails of creatures, when and how to keep their distance from those with young. Intimate is the correct word for their knowledge as they do, in a real sense, share an intimate and living connection with it.

© Shutterstock – Magda Chonillo

There is an entirely different pace and feeling in the jungle. If you have just come from Quito you might likely just lay on your bed after sunset, which happens around 6pm everyday and is quick, and listen to the night sounds. There are few things like the sound of a jungle at night, a feeling of mystery and the unknown, that may sound a little poetic but it is true for me. We are used to different sounds in the UK, often man made but natural ones also, the jungle chorus at night sounds a little alien but entirely natural and is quite compelling. For me it becomes like a lullaby and eventually puts me to sleep.

The amount of life is also quite compelling, there’s barely a millimetre of space in the jungle that isn’t supporting life in some way. If you walk 50 metres, you’ll pass dozens of different flora and fauna, some of the most important of which your guide will point out and explain. Many jungle plants are studied by pharmaceutical firms for their medicinal applications, for the indigenous people the jungle is their pharmacy and this is part of the cultural heritage they are seeking to sustain and protect.

© Shutterstock – Zaruba Ondrej

A visit to the Amazon jungle is quite safe if approaching this environment in the proper way, taking light weight trousers, boots (provided by the lodge), long sleeved shirt, a hat and following the advice of local guides. Moreover, the rewards are worth it. It is an environment that along with the diverse and abundant wildlife and plants which can be seen, also takes you away from 21st century life in to a remote place which seems, certainly at night, otherworldly yet undeniably natural.

My time here, sadly, finishes and I take the river journey back to Coca and the short flight back up to Quito.

©Shutterstock – Luis Louro

Recreate Rory’s journey with our five-day Sani Lodge Amazon Discovery trip, or enjoy a three-day cruise on the upper Napo River, Ecuador’s primary Amazon tributary.

To explore even more of mainland Ecuador, take a look at our 15-day Highlands and Amazon holiday – or why not enjoy the classic combination; a 15-day Rainforest and Galapagos adventure?

Do not miss out on Quito, gateway to the Galapagos

Do not miss out on Quito, gateway to the Galapagos

Don’t miss out on Quito – Gateway to the Galapagos

Quito is not a place on the wish list of most travellers but as gateway to the Galapagos Islands, it’s an opportunity to see a little of Ecuador.

We receive a lot of enquiries from clients who visit our Galapagos Specialists website and, as you might imagine, the focus of these enquiries relate to visiting the Galapagos Islands.  To get there you do have to fly into Ecuador first – usually Quito or Guayaquil – and it seems a pity to miss the fantastic often unthought-of gem which is the Ecuadorian mainland and the city of Quito.

 

© Shutterstock  – Alessandro Pinto

Most Tribes’ guests fly into Quito first, and often have just the one night there. You are likely to be surprised on arrival at how modern the airport is. It was only opened in February 2013 to replace the old airport which sat in the middle of the city and could no longer safely handle the increasing volume of larger aircraft and passenger numbers. It sits about 11 miles East of Quito (at 0 degrees Latitude on the Equator) To make this easy for you, we generally have a representative meet you in the arrivals hall to guide you through to your private transfer for the 40-minute journey (a little longer at peak hours) to the city centre.

Quito itself, a UNESCO World Heritage City, sits at 2850 metres (9350 feet) in a spectacular setting. It is quite something when coming from the mainly flat Suffolk, where I now live and work, to be surrounded by mountains (and an active volcano) on all sides.

I looked around at residential houses on different hills and, while they are only separated by short distances in a straight line, getting from one to the other looked like a game of snakes and ladders. I asked my guide how people visited each other, to which he wryly replied, “Down, around and then up.”

It’s also a pretty good description of walking around Quito, either going up or going down, but the architecture and views are certainly worth it. I did a little online research before leaving and read that, “The historic centre of Quito has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centres’ in the Americas”, and it is a sentiment I can certainly agree with. I was fortunate to be accompanied by a genuinely interesting guide who clearly possessed a depth of knowledge of Ecuador’s pre- and post-colonial history, people and culture.

© Shutterstock – Papa Bravo

Two things which fascinate me – and travel provides the opportunity to experience them – are nature and culture. I was glad to have a good guide in Quito so that when we visited the Church of La Compañía de Jesús, a Baroque style church begun in 1605 and built by Native Americans, he was able to point out some things which he knew would interest me.

The church itself took 160 years to build; men spent their entire working lives on it and went to their graves never seeing it completed. Inside, the whole church is profusely decorated with gold leaf, the attention to detail is something that must be seen to be believed. I am not religious at all but found it to be quite moving.

My guide wanted to show me something at the high altar and, as he pointed out the different figures, he asked me what I could see above them all. It was the symbol for Inti, the ancient Incan Sun God, so I asked him how it got there in a Catholic church.

“That’s how the Spanish encouraged the native people to embrace Christianity. They said ‘Look, even your own Sun God shines down on our religion.’”, he replied. Right there above the altar was the historic intersection of two very different cultures 400 years ago, preserved in gold leaf. I would have easily missed it without my guide, instead it turned into one of the memorable moments for me where a work of art brought history and culture alive.

There is so much more to see and do that I wished I had longer there myself. One night is definitely not enough to do justice to the culture and architecture of this amazing city. A gateway to the Galapagos, yes. But also a destination in its own right.

© Shutterstock – SL-Photography

Argentina – away from the city

Argentina – away from the city

 

Argentina – away from the city

 

After eight years sailing the seven seas, there are only a few coastal regions of the world I haven’t visited, although escaping into the interiors of countries has eluded me. But not in Argentina!

The stage show Evita has a lot to answer for…

There are a few places in the world that have always fascinated me. The Egypt of the Pharaohs, the China of the Dynasties – and Argentina. I must admit that the stage show Evita has a lot to answer for in that respect. From her humble beginnings as an illegitimate child in Los Toldos, to her rise as the First Lady of Argentina, the story of María Eva Duarte de Perón fascinated me. So it was no surprise that I made it my mission to get there!

Of course, I had to see the Casa Rosada, the pink palace in the centre of Buenos Aires from where Evita held court, and the cemetery at Recoleta where she was buried, in October 1976. This was 24 years after she died and her body was removed from its resting place, travelled around Argentina, to Milan, Madrid and finally back to Los Olivos where it was restored before going on public view beside that of her recently deceased husband. In Recoleta (pictured above) it was finally placed in her family’s mausoleum, where she lies five metres underground, in a crypt fortified like a nuclear bunker, so that no one should ever again be able to disturb the remains of Argentina’s most controversial First Lady.

Although Buenos Aires is home to many a fascinating story based around the Peronistas and the coup that deposed Evita’s husband, President Juan Peron, there is more than just the city.

 

San Antonio de Areco is an 18th century town just under two hours outside of Buenos Aires, a pretty town in the Pampas, on the Areco River. Famous for its links to the Gaucho and Criollo traditions, it still provides a valuable insight into their lives, with museums and artisans who still provide fine silverwork and saddlery for the horsemen and women. And if you’re there in November you can catch the at the “Día de la Tradición” when they ride through the town in all their finery, with their horses adorned by the local crafts.

I started my day in San Antonio de Areco at the home of Paula Mendez Carreras, a local chef who runs cookery courses. The space was light and open, and I was with a group of seven others some who liked to cook and some, like the guys, who never cooked. On our lesson plan for the day, we had empanadas, alfajores, and chipas.

Traditionally, alfajores, which are a huge part of Argentine culture dating back to the 19th century, are two crumbly biscuits filled with of dulce de leche but you also see them rolled in coconut or covered with chocolate or glazed sugar. The alfajor is the most common snack for schoolchildren and adults alike. There is no ‘right’ time to eat alfajores… any time is the right time to indulge!

Empanadas are a small version of a pasty really, but filled typically with a variety meat, cheese or vegetables. To be honest any combination would work, if you love it, the sky is the limit! Traditionally oven baked or fried, they can be prepared in advance and served as an appetizer, snack or as a meal in their own right.

And chipas… I ate these little cheese buns constantly, usually while sitting in one of their many sunny parks thinking of the rain in London, so it was great to learn how to make them. Especially as they were also gluten free which, unfortunately, is a must for me.

 

As the dough needed to prove for the empanadas we had a chance to wander, which is how I came upon the Draghi Museum, a unique, fascinating view into the family history of one of the world’s most prolific silversmiths.

Señor Juan José Draghi was on hand to show me around the museum, which features all types of silver inlaid Gaucho implements from belts to spurs, whips, knives, mates, bombillas, horse bridles and stirrup work. He also showed us the traditional processes, how the silver is worked and some of the original designs of pieces that were made for heads of state, such as a belt buckle design for President George W Bush while he was in office.

Then it was back to Paula to see how the dough was! Within the hour, we were sat around the table enjoying the delights of our lesson.

I could have spent longer in this beautiful historic setting, an ideal stepping stone to the Pampas and perhaps riding with the Gauchos, or for further travels across to the wine regions of Mendoza’s high altitude Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. I’ll save that for my next visit here!

If you’d like to embark on your own Argentinian adventure, take a look at our Highlights of Argentina and Patagonia Deluxe holidays – or talk to us about tailor-made.

Whale tales

Whale tales

Whale tales

When we planned our family trip to Costa Rica, one key question was ‘where will we have the best chance of seeing whales?’ Tribes’ Alex Neaves recommended the Osa Peninsula, a spectacular region in the south west of the country, combining rainforest with coast – which turned out to be a great suggestion!

We chose to spend five nights towards the end of our holiday at Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge on the Osa Peninsula. This lovely, welcoming place is perched on the hillside overlooking its own beach and is adjacent to the glorious Corcovado National Park. When I say ‘adjacent’ I mean it literally – the private path through the lodge’s beautiful grounds borders the park and you simply step off the path onto a trail in the park.

The lodge is reached by a boat trip past palm trees, beaches, hill-side houses and colourful landscapes on one side and nearly turquoise water on the other.

We kept our eyes peeled for whales, though in truth I didn’t really know what I was looking out for. Would the ocean be full of whales leaping out of the water, twisting and turning in front of us? Or would we only spot a tiny figure in the distance?

On that particular journey we saw nothing at all…

However, arriving at the lodge more than made up for the lack of cetaceans on the journey there. 

It’s a lovely place, set in gorgeous gardens and surrounded by jungle on three sides and the coast on the other. Howler monkeys whooped and grunted in the trees and a pair of long-married scarlet macaws flew low overhead before settling in a tree for a rather noisy quarrel.

That first evening at Casa Corcovado we began what became our daily tradition – the 4.30pm cocktail hour at the lodge’s Margarita Sunset Point.

This beautifully manicured piece of land has a jaw-dropping view down to the ocean and across to Cano Island and has its own little bar that is open for just an hour each evening, so that guests can enjoy a drink and nibbles as they watch the sun go down.

 

 

I sat, margarita and camera equally to hand, and marvelled at the natural show of colour and light we were being treated to.

Then the barman said ‘Look! Can you see the whale?’

We all gazed down to the water close to the shoreline and I felt frustrated as guest after guest said ‘Yes! There it is!’ while my eyes darted back and forwards across the water. Eventually I made out a dark shape for just a fraction of a second, then it was gone. I think that’s what everybody was exclaiming over… If this was to be my sole experience of seeing a whale it was hardly the jaw-dropping, spine-tingling experience I’d hoped for. But I had seen it. Well, briefly… I think. Then the sunset arrived with full, glorious force, and all thoughts of whales were temporarily forgotten.

 

 

The following day we took the Cano Island snorkelling trip. This is a 45-minute boat ride from the lodge, and we had been told that the guests who did this the day before had seen whales, and plenty of them.

35 minutes into the journey we suddenly veered off course, towards where two other boats were sitting still in the water.

“We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!”

Then it happened. About 30m away, a black, curved shape, slick with water, slid out of the water then back under the surface, looking like a giant, smooth-treaded tyre being rolled along.  A few seconds later came the tell-tale spurt of water – noisier and higher than I’d imagined, and the ‘tyre’ appeared again. This time with a smaller one alongside!

We were in the presence of a mother and baby humpback whale and it was beautiful. No dramatic breaches, no great thrashes, just gentle movements. Cue slightly red eyes and a few sniffs and gulps all round…

We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!’.  A large flock of seabirds was circling round in the distance. A group of dolphins were on the hunt, creating a ball of fish – those birds knew where to find a good meal! We were treated to the sight of dolphins leaping out of the water and the birds’ impressive diving ability as, wings tucked by their sides, they hit the water with a precision that would put Tom Daley to shame.

Snorkelling in the clear, warm waters off Cano Island was great fun, with a lovely assortment of colourful fish weaving their way amongst the coral. The lodge’s manager Stephen said that he was going to see if he could hear whale song beneath the water. He dove down about 4m then raised both his thumbs; he could hear it. Unfortunately diving while snorkelling is not a skill I’ve yet mastered. I wasn’t alone in this, but my 20-year-old son was one of those who took the plunge (literally!) and enjoyed the most magical experience, as beautifully eerie sounds echoed all around him. On the way back to Casa Corcovado Stephen pointed out jets of water in the distance as he spotted other whales, and we had another mother and baby encounter.

Two days later, my husband and I took a private boat trip with just guide Cynthia and the boat captain back towards the waters around Cano Island. We had no specific timetable, just two to three hours to hang about on the boat, following any whale sightings that might come up. It was possible that we wouldn’t see any, of course…

 

We stopped en-route to drop some cold drinks off to fishermen in exchange for some of their catch.

A magnificent frigate bird had chosen to make the air above their tiny boat his temporary home, continually circling us and them at a low altitude in search of a free meal.

That day turned out to be one of the most special experiences of our lives.

It was a beautifully still, calm day, bathed in sunshine, the water almost mirror-like at times.

We saw several mother humpbacks and their calves and then, drawn by tremendous splashes in the distance, we honed in on a large male.

For at least 15 minutes we sat, probably only about 20m from him, as he thrashed his huge tail repeatedly, then he rolled onto his side and started bashing enormous flippers from side to side, great plumes of water streaming from them, our boat juddering with each ‘smack’. The noise was incredible, a mighty, thunderous crash that you could hear long before you got close to him.

We were so near that we could make out the barnacles and sandy creatures on his tail. It was immensely powerful, stunningly beautiful and also a tiny bit intimidating.

 

Then, between us and this magnificent creature, appeared another mother and her baby. Our guide stiffened and said ‘sometimes the males can hurt the babies’ but, as if riding to the rescue, five dolphins shot in from the side, swimming around the mother and calf, leaping out of the water in a joyous fashion.

They were so near, I could have leant out of the boat and touched them. The mother whale got so close to us that when her back breached the water the only thing filling my camera lens was her skin. Then, as this incredible spectacle continued in front of us, I looked behind and to the side. Four more whales were there, some breaching, some sending out fountains of water… For the next 15 or 20 minutes, wherever we looked there were whales.

All four of us were silent on the way back to the lodge. There were really no words. We had shared an experience we would never forget. I had been moved to tears several times and even writing about it now makes me emotional.

 

Having started our time at Casa Corcovado barely able to spot a whale directly beneath our vantage point by the sunset bar, I ended it a veritable Captain Ahab; albeit definitely not with whale hunting in mind!  My eyes became accustomed to scanning far out to sea, filtering out waves crashing against rocks from the spray from a blowhole and picking out whales several miles away. My ‘margarita’ sunsets now had a new purpose – whale spotting! Each time I saw one, even if it was at a vast distance, it was a thrill. And the knowledge that for every one I spotted there were infinitely more out there, was just incredible.

We’d return to Costa Rica – and Casa Corcovado – like a shot. An amazing country with wonderful people and with unforgettable landscapes and wildlife. And who knows, maybe I’ll get my courage together and learn how to dive down while snorkelling. I really, really want to hear that whale song…

 

 

If you’d like your own Osa Peninsula adventure, Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge is included in our 15-day Costa Rica Wildlife Holiday. Or we can tailor-make a holiday in Costa Rica just for you…

All images © Karen Coe

4 good reasons to visit Chile

4 good reasons to visit Chile

4 good reasons
to visit Chile

“The length of Chile equates to the distance between Moscow and Lisbon,” a guide told me, as we stood on Santa Lucia hill looking down at the capital, Santiago, ringed by mountains.

This was my first time in Chile and, though I had some notion of what I was coming for – stunning scenery, good food and wine – the reality was twenty times better than I expected.

I will write more detailed blogs about the country, but this is my initial overview offering my views as to why you should definitely make the journey to this wonderful, skinny country.

01 – Truly awe-inspiring scenery

In a country as long as Chile, you’d expect there to be some diverse and fabulous scenery. I expected some good desert scenery in the Atacama in the north, but this was far more varied than I ever thought possible, with weird and wonderful rock formations, sand dunes, salt lakes, oases, geyser fields … and with the volcanic Andean mountains giving the most perfect backdrop.
In the south, Patagonia is a raw place ranging from miles of windswept, often waterlogged lowlands where sheep are king, to the stunning icefields, glaciers and rock monoliths of Torres del Paine National Park. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
I spent less time in the central area, but here you have winelands and lakes, traditional islands and, of course, off the mainland there is also Easter Island. These are more gentle landscapes than those at the country’s extremities, but nonetheless wonderful.

Have a look for yourself.

02 – Diverse activities

In my 11 days in Chile I have hiked up a mountain to watch condors at eye level, and visited remote rocky outcrops to see ancient petroglyphs. I have been horse riding around a glacial lake, and watched in awe as hot water and steam shot out of innumerable geysers surrounded by snow-capped Andean mountains. I have watched the night sky lit up with more stars than I’ve ever seen before, and watched lenticular clouds encircle perfect volcanoes. I’ve met llamas, guanacos, vicunas, vizcachas (which look like rabbits), condors, flamingos, rheas (like small ostriches), caracaras (a raptor), black-necked swans and caiquen (upland geese always seen in couples) – sadly we just missed seeing a puma. I’ve toured a city where street art has become the main reason for visiting, and I’ve eaten great meals and tasted special wines.

03 – Excellent food and wine

Chile is obviously known for its wines and, after an evening’s wine tasting, I now know that I like quite a few of them! What I didn’t know, though, was that the food would be so good. I had some memorable meals here, with, perhaps surprisingly, my standout meal being a beetroot salad starter courtesy of Remote Patagonia hotel in Puerto Natales. It tasted as good as it looked, which was gorgeous.

04 – Great people

Shaking hands with the guide who had just taken us for a magical day in Torres del Paine, he said to me with a serious face, “Just think how brilliant it would have been with a good guide!” Then winked and walked away.
This is just one example of the reason I like Chileans; they have a great sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously. They are easy to spend time with, have an infectious love of their country, and they love wilderness (at least many of the people I met).

See anything you like? I hope so. We’d love to make your holiday extra special – you only have to ask!

Magic in the moonlight

Magic in the moonlight

Magic in the moonlight

Green sea turtle eggs, Tamarindo, Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – chrisontour84

Green turtle,Tortuguero in Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – rvb3ns

Lit by the full moon the beach had an eerie beauty, the waves glinting in the moonlight, the sand with a silvery tone.  “She’s coming,” someone whispered, and all heads turned to the shoreline. A dark figure emerged from the white foam and began making its way slowly up the gentle slope towards the flatter land at the base of the fringe of palm trees silhouetted behind us.

Sea water streaming off its back, the moonlight giving it the appearance of mercury, the silent figure continued past us, intent on its purpose. And I felt tears running down my face.

Sea turtle tracks on the beach at Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – JHVEPhoto

As a child I had been fascinated by a television programme that documented sea turtles swimming thousands of miles to return to the beach where they themselves had hatched, to lay their own eggs. The story was followed to its conclusion – the eggs eventually hatched and the beach was filled with thousands of tiny hatchlings all valiantly trying to make their way to the water, programmed by the same genetic ‘software’ that would one day bring those that survived to adulthood back here again. The tragedy that then ensued, as great crowds of seabirds swooped, picking them off one-by-one, reduced me to tears, as did the narration which informed me that even those that made it into the water had barely any chance of surviving the predators that awaited them.

And now I was standing on a beach in Costa Rica, watching the first part of that story unfold before me and I found it immensely moving. The beauty and dignity of the adult female green turtles, their shells well over a metre in length, was stunning. The silence of the night and the watching small crowd was punctuated by the rhythmic crashing of the waves and the moon lit up the trail left by the turtle, looking like tractor-tracks in the wet sand.

Our guide called us in a whisper over to a site about 20m away where sand was flying into the air.  “Don’t get too close or you’ll get hit”, she warned as we gathered to watch another turtle. This one had finished laying her eggs and was now busily disguising the nest, her large flippers scooping sand over the eggs and filling the large crater she had dug and positioned herself in to lay dozens and dozens of eggs.

I’d imagined that this would be a gentle process but it was anything but. That sand was flying with considerable force and you could hear it clattering when it hit driftwood or fallen coconuts.  It was a mesmerising site. This beautiful, endangered creature doing all she could to protect her eggs and give the offspring she would never see a chance of at least hatching out.

 

 

Green sea turtle covering her nest © Shutterstock – David Evison

The next two hours passed as if in a dream, punctuated by excited whispers as more turtles arrived and crawled out of the sea, some half-flung up onto the beach by bigger waves. Occasionally a red light would wave and we would head over to where another guide was indicating that they had found more action, either a turtle disguising its nest or one laying eggs.

Watching the eggs being laid was clearly deemed the hot ticket of the evening but I kept missing the key moment. Most turtles lay dozens of eggs – as many as a hundred in one clutch –  but the first ones we saw had either nearly finished or had only produced a small number of eggs and, in each case, I barely caught a glimpse.

We had left Evergreen Lodge in Tortuguero National Park at 8pm that evening. It was already dark and the short boat journey that took us to the shore of the lagoon was itself magical, the lights of the village we would visit the next day lit up, giving us glimpses of bars and restaurants and people socialising. Then the boat pulled up and we all disembarked onto sandy ground. The boat headed back to the lodge and our small group, the guide at the front, made our way for a few minutes through the dark forest, with small torches helping us avoid obstacles.

Dressing for the occasion

As instructed, we were all dressed in dark or neutral clothes. It’s important not to wear anything that could catch the turtles’ attention. When they are actually laying their eggs they are in a sort of trance, but before that they can be distracted and are likely to abandon their nest and head back out to sea. Our guide pointed out several large craters in the sand which indicated that exactly that had happened at some point.

Phones and cameras are banned on the trip and I was pleased to see that everybody seemed to have adhered to that. It would have been so tempting to whip out a phone and start filming or taking photographs, but that would have produced just the distraction the turtles didn’t need. Also, it was so much more real, so much more intimate, to simply be in the moment with these beautiful animals, rather than focusing on them through a viewfinder or a screen, distracted by thoughts of how many ‘likes’ the pictures would get on social media.

Torches are also forbidden once on the beach itself, so we were fortunate that the moon was full and the sky clear. The guides have torches with red beams. These are less visible and distracting to the turtles but are only shone on the back of the animals, never on their faces.

 

Green sea turtle eggs, Tamarindo, Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – chrisontour84

Time was now passing and the boat would be returning for us shortly. The guide was conscious that some of us hadn’t seen the magical egg-laying moment and she was as pleased as we were when another turtle was found, mid-stream, so to speak.

The eggs came out in quick little spurts, several at a time. We probably saw two or three dozen in a minute or two. They fall about 30cm onto other eggs from the same batch. All are soft-shelled at this point, so are undamaged by the fall.

It was amazing to see and I felt strangely protective of the life that would develop within those shiny, soft white globes, about the size of a golf ball. I wondered if any of the hatchlings would survive to make it into the water and, if they did, if any would return to this same beach in decades to come and lay their own eggs.

Gentle, vulnerable giants

The moonlight allowed us to really appreciate the size and beauty of the adult females. Green turtles reach sexual maturity between 20 and 50 years of age, so some of these ladies had been at sea for half a century, travelling thousands of miles from here, before making this journey. They will lay several batches of eggs this season.

Their heads are large, their flippers chunky and powerful. Yet you are also painfully aware of how vulnerable they are. They can’t pull their heads in and, in the days when they were hunted for meat, they were a horrendously easy target.

Turtle hunting stopped decades ago in Costa Rica and the turtles and their nesting sites are now protected – there are over 40 of them in the country. The Costa Ricans are immensely keen on protecting the environment and, as our guide put it bluntly, once it became evident that the turtles were worth more alive than dead, even those who once made their living from catching and killing these gentle giants accepted that it was a thing that belonged in the past.

Marine turtles are still vulnerable of course, whether it’s from being accidentally caught in fishing nets or from pollution such as plastic. And, once outside the protection of Costa Rica, these turtles are vulnerable to hunting. The turtles who nest on Tortuguero will head out to various feeding areas in the Caribbean, with many making their way to the waters off the coast of Nicaragua. Turtle hunting is now illegal in Nicaragua but illegal hunting takes place and more than 10,000 are killed each year.

“It cost $40 per person for this tour and it was worth every cent,” I heard an American guest murmur – a sentiment I concur with. The money goes towards turtle protection and conservation.

 

Green turtle, Tortuguero, Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – rvb3ns

The whole experience was a ‘bucket list’ item for many of us and it was every bit as fantastic as I had hoped.

Watching the eggs being laid was indeed great but, for me, the most beautiful and moving moment came when we watched one female, her eggs laid, her nest successfully disguised, make her way back to the water. As she trod her solitary path, her shell now dull in the moonlight thanks to its coating of sand, I thought of her journey back to this, the Costa Rican beach of her birth, brought here by that mysterious inbuilt ‘sat nav’, and of the journey that now lay ahead of her.  When she got to the edge of the water she stopped, letting the waves break over her. She must have stayed there for a couple of minutes and then a much bigger wave arrived, tossing her up into the water as if she weighed nothing. For a second it looked as if she was going to be washed back onto shore but then the water receded, taking her with it.

Our last glimpse was of a dark head before she slipped beneath the moonlit waves and began her long, lonely journey as her eggs lay sheltered beneath the sand.

 

Olive turtle at sunset, Ostional beach, Costa Rica © Shutterstock – Xenia_Photography

Responsible sea turtle viewing

To learn more about this fantastic experience, and how you can do so in a way that minimises the impact on the turtles, read Brad Nahill’s feature on our website.

Track the turtlees!

Since 2000 the Sea Turtle Conservancy has been satellite tagging some of the turtles who nest at Tortuguero, and you can follow their epic journeys on the Conservancy’s website.

Where else to see them

Costa Rica is a fantastic place to see the sea turtles.  Tortuguero is renowned as the place to go – it is the most important nesting site for green sea turtles in the Western hemisphere –  but there are plenty of other options such as the Papagayo GulfNicoya Peninsula and the gorgeous Osa Peninsula, which has lodges such as Casa Corcovado, ideally situated for turtle spotting. Many of our Costa Rica holidays include beach stays that could involve turtle tours – and we can always tailor-make one to your precise specifications to give you the best chance of seeing these wonderful creatures.

Brazil’s Praia del Forte, close to Salvador, is known for its turtle project, with the Tivoli Eco Resort an ideal base.

The Galapagos Islands are a great place to see turtles. You won’t see them nesting, as they do this at night when visitors aren’t allowed onto the islands, but you are likely to see them when snorkelling.

Moving away from Latin America, lodges on Pemba Island in Tanzania can provide access to turtle nesting on Misali Island. The bare-foot paradise of Fundu Lagoon is a fabulous base for this, while the luxurious Manta Resort even has an underwater bedroom. Imagine watching shoals of fish and other marine life – including sea turtles – swimming past your bedroom window!

Turtles tours are also offered in South Africa. The St Lucia Wetland Park on the KwaZulu Natal coast is a world Heritage Site and a wonderful spot for seeing leatherback and loggerhead turtles nesting. You can take turtle tours from lodges such as Thonga Beach and Kosi Forest Lodge.