Costa Rica: Conserving Turtles and Our Sanity


Travelling is not always for the faint hearted. I found this out the hard way during my four month trip around the world last year with my friend Rachel. What follows is the first of my honest, not-found-in-Lonely-Planet accounts of travelling, detailing all we experienced on a single day as we journeyed through Costa Rica, from a hostel in the capital, to a sea turtle-conservation project deep in the Caribbean jungle…

After an early start one morning, Rach and I found ourselves hanging out in the hostel kitchen, packing up a highly nutritious breakfast/brunch/lunch/general daily food-ration of Pringles and Mediterranean herb crackers, in order to fuel us as we cracked on with our day of intense travelling.

The first part of our journey was a coach to Sixaola, a small village on the East Coast of Costa Rica which would take six delightful hours. For the most part this drive was fairly pleasant, interspersed only with a small and gratuitously angry man demanding to see our tickets literally about once every 10 minutes, as if we could somehow have leapt off the bus and swapped places with a ticketless hooligan in between times.

As the journey wore on, we began to pass through some highly questionable living arrangements, otherwise referred to as ‘towns’. This sowed a seed of panic in my mind, as we had been told to get a taxi from Sixaola to the beach itself – a mode of transportation which appeared very much absent from the ramshackle, rustic scenery that whizzed by. When we eventually arrived in Sixaola, my fears were proved vaild. We alighted next to a highly suspicious looking Panama border, standing in a dusty dirt track surrounded by bags, and a cellophane-encased pillow that Rachel had for some reason insisted on buying. Seeing nothing vaguely resembling a taxi in the surrounding area, we decided the best thing to do in the circumstances would be to stand still and argue. Presently, a kindly man cruised over and asked if we were looking for a taxi. Despite every morsel of information I had ever read about taxi caution and safety, we gladly confirmed that a taxi was indeed  exactly what we desperately wanted. He seemed to acknowledge this, but then just wandered off, leaving us alone and confused by the roadside.

What felt like an eternity later, he returned with some highly jovial individual driving a pick-up truck. As much as this seemed like a well-seasoned recipe for mugging/general advantage taking, we slung our bags in the back, and clambered into the sweltering cabin. A few minutes of stunted Spanish conversation followed, which consisted mainly of the driver continually yelping ‘vamos Gandoca!’

Happily trundling along the track over hearty potholes and string bridges, the heat from the sun slowly melting the plastic covering on Rachel’s pillow onto my leg, we spied a large family waiting outside a dilapidated house by the roadside, waving the truck over. After an indiscernible conversation between them and the driver, they proceeded to clamber into the back of the truck with our bags and settle themselves down. The rest of the journey to Gandoca was spent in a concerned manner, constantly checking out the old rear-view mirror for any signs of bag-rummaging or valuable-stealing. Once they were dropped off we only had to stop for a large Iguana sunning itself in the middle of the path, which had to be forcibly shooed away by the driver with an angry yell.

After about a thousand hours, we arrived at what looked like a beach, but could see literally nowhere that vaguely resembled a conservation centre. Tired, hungry and overheated, we aggressively asked the man why he had not taken us to the address provided. He insisted that he had. This argument went on for several fractious minutes, interrupted only by me threatening to ring the language school who had organised the trip, and then realising there was no signal available whatsoever, until he sighed, flopped his considerable bulk back into the cab, and drove us about five minutes further down the road to some kind of deserted bar. Presently, a portly man in a G-Unit t-shirt bowled out, and informed us that the station was but 50 metres from where we had just pulled up. We then found ourselves jolted suddenly backwards by our jovial driver reversing at high speed back down the path.

Once we had eventually located the station and been met by Christine, one of the staff members, we were given some more amazing news by her – ‘Er, we didn’t actually know you guys were coming… you can share a room with Abby?’ And lo and behold, we were shoved unceremoniously into what can only be described as two bunk-shelves in the corner of someone else’s shed. After being left alone, we settled down on our bags, and wondered what on earth would become of us next.

After an angry and panicked conversation, Rach and I decided to make the best of a bad situation and headed cautiously over to dinner in the vain hope that we would not have to sit, surrounded by a fog of anxiety, on a lonely table. Dinner was rice and beans, something that would become pretty much the main feature of our lives as the days of turtle conservation passed by. Luckily, a sprightly young Dutch boy by the name of Elias decided to take pity on us at the dinner table and so our time was spent generally chatting to him and comparing English and Dutch culture.

Soon after this, Rach and I received our turtle-saving training and were then sent on our merry way to our first night patrol. Night patrol, a hellish ordeal disguised as a worthwhile, animal conservation exercise, comes in 4 hour shifts at either 8pm or 12 midnight. It consists of a group of volunteers/staff/locals ploughing up and down the beach in the wet, fly-infested sand mounds, until that hallowed moment when a turtle is spotted, flippering its cumbersome way up the beach to lay some eggs. I was put on patrol with our unwitting roommate Abby, and Jairo, one of the locals. After about a million silent years of trudging through silty textured sand dunes, Jairo spotted a tortuga. He instantly handed me a pair of latex gloves and a plastic bag and shoved me towards the nest with an encouraging grunt of ‘venga!’ At first, the task of bag-holder, watching as the turtle deposited her future offspring into my plastic sack, seemed like the most magical experience possible. However, as time wore by and the eggs kept coming thick and fast and my arms became less and less alive by the second, the awe was very much bleeding, slowly but surely, into intense pain. Only Jairo’s spindly weight leaning across me to grab the full bag caused me to snap back to reality from a pain-induced stupor, and soon we were back on the beach again.

By the time I returned, blistered, exhausted, aching and covered in sand at 4am, a nice clean bed was the only thing that could heal the pain. I then remembered that I had no such thing, and instead was forced to clamber in the dark under my shoddily erected mosquito net, on to a damp mattress that had become all the more uncomfortable due to the fact that the middle slat of the bed had fallen out, causing a dip in the mattress line for a delightful pile of sand to collect in. What tomorrow would bring, lord only knew.

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I am studying English and Philosophy in my 2nd year, I live in a house with 4 weirdos, a trampoline and two fish called Jermaine and Vince. I love the write, I have two blogs, and also write for Summit magazine :)

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