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Under the Surface: Costa Rica Can Still Surprise

“Paddle!” shouted my friend from across the water. “Paddle the hell out of there!”

photos_articles_16.jpgWe’d both seen the looming shadow, just below the canal’s surface and coming right at me. Whatever it was, it looked to be about the size of a 1974 Lincoln Continental. I paddled, all right, but my craft was hard to maneuver. I seemed to be propelling myself even closer to the thing.

We were navigating the canals of Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park, on the country’s less visited Caribbean coast. We’d come for the wildlife — sea turtles trundling up the beach to lay their eggs, herons and egrets lurking at the water’s edge, iguanas sunning themselves on vine-draped logs, and monkeys cavorting in the trees. We didn’t expect to see a manatee, few of which had survived being hunted for their flesh since long before Columbus landed on this rich coast (“costa rica”) in 1502, and we had mixed feelings about running into a caiman or toothy crocodile.

Our riverside lodge had loaned us each a paddleboat, with a singe rickety seat perched above twin pontoons. It was embarrassing to be exploring this wildlife-rich ecotourism hotspot on a vehicle better suited to an amusement park lake. But our craft had more serious drawbacks. For one, it had less maneuverability than a beanbag chair.

Locals had already laughed at our question about swimming in the canals, regaling us with the story of a boy who’d been dragged away by a croc. He’d surfaced, calling out to his brother, “Adios, Pablito,” before being dragged under a second and final time.

Or wait. It could be worse. I’d read about how the bull shark, common on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, is known for its unpredictable and aggressive behavior, and its tolerance of fresh water. We weren’t far from where the canal met the sea.

I looked towards the shore. Maybe some local would know what to do?

But besides my gesticulating friend across the water, there was no one around. The remoteness of Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast had appealed to me back in the safety of my own living room. The area has few roads-you arrive by boat or light plane. The nearby hamlet of Tortuguero didn’t get private phone lines until 1988, and serious medical care is a long boat ride away. Canadian transplant Daryl Loth, who’s been here a decade and works as a nature guide, points out that Tortuguero has its own time zone. “When it’s 9 am in New York City,” he says, “in Tortuguero it’s 1973.”

Remote sounds good until you find yourself wondering: How far is the nearest hospital?

“What are you doing?” my friend called out. “Paddle!”

But it was too late. The shadow was right in front of me. And the beast was surfacing. I watched in horror as water rolled off an impossibly broad, gray-brown back. Which had, I saw to my relief, no scales, and no fin.

If this lumbering giant was what I thought it was, it wasn’t supposed to be dangerous. Still, it was the biggest thing I’d ever seen in any body of water. In the moment before our collision I saw a face so ugly it was almost cute. Small round eyes, nostrils embedded in a huge, blob-like snout fringed with long stiff whiskers.

Before I knew it, that big head rammed one of the pontoons, then a fleshy, mermaid-like tail swatted the other. My boat tilted wildly, then rocked back in the other direction so violently that my legs dipped one and then the other into the canal.

And then the beast was gone, chugging away upriver. My heart was in my throat. I’d just survived a collision with one of the area’s few surviving manatees.

Back at the lodge I started to calm down. The word had spread and other guests joined me at the bar. Did I know, they asked, that manatees were as smart as dolphins? That they were non-aggressive, and curious? That to see a manatee here was a rare privilege?

I nodded, sipping slowly. Tomorrow, no doubt, I’d feel privileged. Right now I couldn’t get my heart to stop racing.


Erin Van Rheenen is the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica, a guide to longer stays in that country, and creator of www.livingabroadincostarica.com. She divides her time between Costa Rica and Northern California.

Getting there

For more information on Costa Rica, visit www.livingabroadincostarica.com.

Fly to Costa Rica’s capital city, San José, then make your way to the Tortuguero area, on the country’s east (Caribbean) coast. Many major airlines fly from Halifax to San José; the most direct flights seem to be Continental’s, which stop in Newark, New Jersey.

From San José you can fly by light plane to Tortuguero; round-trip tickets cost about US$75 and the flight lasts just under an hour. Check out Sansa (in Costa Rica tel. 506-221-9414, fax 506-255-2176, www.flysansa.com, info@flysansa.com) or Nature Air (Toll free from USA/Canada: 800-235-9272, in Costa Rica tel. 506-220-3054, fax 506-296-2316, www.natureair.com)

Or book a tour with an outfit like Costa Rica Expeditions, who own their own riverside Tortuguero Lodge.

Independent travelers might enjoy a stay in the town of Tortuguero itself; check out Casa Marbella (casamarbella.tripod.com; safari@racsa.co.cr) , run by nature guide and Canadian transplant Daryl Loth.

If you want to arrive by boat, check out the various options at www.geocities.com/tortugueroinfo/main.html

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