Costa Rican Mafia and polyamory in the swamp
Cute aren’t they? The White-Faced Capuchin monkey, as gorgeous to look at as a decorated cup of the brew it’s named after, as well as the hooded friars, is also known as the Costa Rican Mafia. It didn’t take us long to go from ‘oo, wouldn’t it be amazing to see a Capuchin to ‘oh my god, it’s trying to steal the sugar.’ Sadly, where they are around easy pickings (i.e. tourists) they’ve developed a sugar addiction, making them relatively easy to snap, but a nightmare for restaurant staff. They are also extremely clever. We were told about two beach capuchins putting on a bit of a show dancing for a charmed tourist, while their accomplice unzipped his backpack and necked a bottle of coke.
We arrived in Tortuguero well in time for lunch and, such was our lack of checking, had the unexpected delight of finding two tours were included as well as the canoe trip at dawn the next day. As we waited to go into the dining hall capuchins did their best to cement their reputation. Someone thought they saw a toucan, we missed it, only catching the post-seeing-a-toucan excitement.
Oliver gathered us together at the dock to take us by boat down the canal for a jungle hike. Some guides, you can tell immediately, get it – have a passion for the environment, oodles of experience and are full of knowledge. As soon as I heard him imitate the call of the rare Trogon, I knew we were in the hands of an expert. I used to help my ex (a warden with the RSPB) with bird surveys and that’s how you do it, especially in the UK where most of them are LBJs (little brown jobs). It worked. Soon a pair of Trogons answered his call and came to check out the competition. For those that are curious they were either Orange Bellied (4, below) or Elegant (No.7 below) close relatives of the iconic, extravagantly tailed Quetzal. I have a particular interest in seeing a Quetzal because for years their truly crazy call startled my friends when I used it as a ringtone on my mobile. The trogon however has a soft 5 or 6 descending note call.
Our little group walked quietly along the concrete path through the jungle – concrete because a law was passed a couple of years ago in Costa Rica to make everywhere accessible to wheelchairs. Whilst it might take something from the experience of adventuring in the jungle, it actually protects tourists from it in many ways and the rainforest from them. “Don’t touch anything, or lean on a tree without checking first” said Oliver “there are snakes, insects, and some plants have savage spikes, same are poisonous. Be careful.” A row of leaf cutter ants flagged up a warning on the handrail.
One woman complained it was too dark to take photographs. rain drenched us, but as Oliver pointed out “it’s a RAIN forest”. Swathed in capes and waterproof jackets, binoculars and cameras (the lucky few with long lenses) at the ready, we hoped to see a jaguar slinking by or a tapir sloshing about. How can anyone live in a jungle let alone find time to build fantastic temples?
The soggy forest floor was lit in places by a tiny fungus like glowing cups of fire; sap from the ‘blood tree’ bled a massacre onto the concrete path. A spiny nut had provided a good bite for a monkey or a possum.
I heard the young woman travelling with a woman around 80 years old, call her ‘Nanny’. I was curious. As we boarded the boat to go back to Evergreen Lodge I asked if she was travelling with her grandmother. She was doing exactly that, she said, and what’s more, they were having a great time. I was inspired. I resolved to offer to take each of my four grandchildren on a special trip, somewhere they really wanted to go, when they reached 18. How cool would that be? The plan risks it being a bit naff for the youngest of the four, who is only 10, if I’m a bit decrepit by then, but hey, what better incentive to keep fit?
The next trip to Tortuguero village was an exercise in how to keep jolly in the rain. Easy for a couple of Brits, neither of us moaners. ‘No such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes’, we reminded ourselves. We looked at the ice-cream stalls along the ‘high street’ (mostly a row of tourist shops) but it was hard to work up an enthusiasm for one under our umbrellas. No wonder Tessa and I are good travel companions. She and I share a passion for hardware shops. I’ve visited hardware shops all over the world, and usually find something different to bring home, though I never did have the nerve to fit the squirty loo hose I brought back from Thailand. (What was I thinking? A hose attached to the loo in a wooden floored upstairs bathroom with four grandchildren?) Sadly Tortuguero hardware shop had little to intrigue, though I regret not getting a picture of the leather machete sheaths hanging in a row.
We headed for the beach instead, behind the row of shops, famed for the turtles who, in a spectacular event each November, heave themselves ashore in their many thousands to lay their eggs. “Don’t swim” Oliver had warned “there are crocodiles and sharks in the sea.” A sea, despite being Caribbean, that churned and crashed angrily on the shore. Funnily enough I wasn’t in the least bit tempted.
As night closed in I went for a soggy walk alone along the path from our cabin. Always a good mimic I repeated the Trogon call. Birds stirred nearby, but they weren’t coming over to play. The night shift was starting, and I stopped to listen to the ringtone frog, the alarm clock frog, the faulty smoke alarm frog and the dripping tap frog. It was another world, and I loved it.
“Listen” I said to Tessa when I woke next morning “hear that?”
“That’s it. Nothing. Nada. It’s stopped raining.”
The light was different, it was warmer, and in the far distance we could hear Howler monkeys call.
It couldn’t have been a better omen, for this was the day I’d anticipated for over a year when I saw a picture of my friend Amanda canoeing up a tropical river. It had been the stuff of my dreams for so long I can’t actually remember when it began but it was undoubtedly inspired by a plethora of wildlife documentaries and reading about female explorers.
We assembled at the jetty at 5.45 a.m. and were introduced to our guide Ray Brown. We wobbled onto the small rowing boat with a German and Swiss couple, Ray standing at the back doing the paddling. A black vulture circled overhead. Someone thought they saw a shark fin.
“Possible, said Ray ” there are sharks and crocodiles in the canal here, manatees sometimes.” Ray explained he grew up in Tortuguero village.
“Did you swim in the canal?” I asked him.
“Of course” he said paddling across to the other side, “ask me any questions you like” he said “what do you want to see?”
“I’d love to see a tapir” I said.
“Ah, difficult” said Ray “but I’ll try my best. They like to graze in the shallows. They eat Water Hyacinths. Look Howler Monkey” and he paddled us over to look. “Iguana” he said poking the boat into the canal side. Iguanas, explained Ray, change colour from green to orange, depending on what they eat. It reminded me of an acupuncture patient I had once who’d turned herself bright orange with her serious carrot habit. The iguana we saw was half way there. Ray knew where things hung out, poking the boat into the side canals and lagoons. The cayman’s lair was empty that morning.
“What are those ?” The trees on the banks looked from a distance as if someone had thrown tissues up them. He paddled in close. They were exotic flowers, as big as a head with red stamens and phallic pistle (if I remember my biology right).
“I used to be a Rastafarian,” said Ray “can you believe that? But I had to cut my dreads off to get work.” He picked a flower to show us close up. “This is what we used it for. Not allowed now, national park.” Tearing up and mushing all the parts of the flower into canal water he mixed it to a pink slime.
“There,” he said pouring it onto his head “makes your hair grow very nicely. Anyone want to try?”
“I will” said Tessa, to my astonishment “come on Mary, you too.” The others in the boat declined while Tessa and I rubbed it into our hair. I can report my hair has grown very fast this last month, though I’m afraid it’d take me till I’m 80 to grow dreads.
As he paddled Ray told us how there were no doctors or clinics in the village. His father had helped in all the births of his brothers and sisters . Such was his natural skill, he was midwife to all the children in the village. I wonder if he learned something from the amazing Feminista bird?
Bobbing on a boat doesn’t necessarily make for great photos, so I share this with you from a bird guide. The Jacana, with its improbable feet for walking on floating vegetation, has a habit I can’t resist sharing. Ray said it was known as the ‘Feminista’ bird explaining she took no part in the upbringing of her eggs…but he left out half the story. She is actually polyandrous, defending a territory of 2 – 4 males at a time. She puts in a bit of effort at the beginning, helping her first male to build a skimpy nest on the floating vegetation. Then she lays him 4 buff coloured eggs, scribbled over with blackish crisscrossing lines (like a very young child might decorate an easter egg). He incubates them, (without any help from her, carefully tucking his wings under the eggs to insulate them from the damp of the floating nest) while she buggers off to make eggs with her other paramours. He has even been observed rolling the eggs to safety over the vegetation if a flood threatens the nest. They hatch after 22-24 days, when he carries them to safety tucked under one wing, like recalcitrant toddlers, legs dangling. ‘The mother may help to guard them’ says the bird guide.
Ray Brown steered us into the side canals, where crocodiles lurk and vegetation brushes the arms of the unwary. Honestly, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
On our last morning in Tortuguero Tessa and I went for a bit of an explore on our own. Walking to the far end of the lodge “do not eat in the wrong restaurant, stick to the one I direct you to” was clarified. Our pool was a rather sorry affair, even despite the weather it didn’t look at all attractive. The other half however had a luxury pool with bar and loungers. No doubt the food was an upgrade too. But we were content without the luxury, we agreed we didn’t need clipped lawns and stylish ‘tropical’ planting. Our only regret was we hadn’t had time to take a couple of kayaks into the back canals on our own…but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.