Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thanksgiving in Guanacaste

We had a fantastic holiday here in Costa Rica—it was another turkey-free Thanksgiving! We pulled the kids out of school a day early so we could drive to the Pacific coast on Wednesday and spend our entire holiday having fun. And wow, did we have a blast! (You can watch a slideshow with photos of our trip here: Thanksgiving pictures.)

We made the five-hour drive to Playa Grande in Guanacaste, an area known throughout the country for its surfing and fantastic beaches. Thursday morning after a big breakfast and some leisurely hanging around in hammocks at our beachfront hotel (along with a lizard and a funny squirrel for company) we went horseback riding. The weather was awesome—a real treat coming from the rainy, cloudy valley. Much of our two hours riding was spent on the beaches of Brasilito and Playa Conchal, though we also ventured off onto some trails near the beach shaded by a plethora of tall trees. (And yep, once again we saw monkeys on Thanksgiving—this time howlers that, as usual, made quite a ruckus.)

Our horses were White Socks, Raccoon, Zorro (Lauren’s horse), and Arroz con Frijoles (Rice with Beans—that was Erin’s horse). Soon after we mounted, our guide, Luis, let me know that Arroz con Frijoles likes to go fast, and a bunch of times on our ride he got going and the other horses all followed. We got to galloping at one point on Brasilito but didn’t go for long since the girls’ hats both blew off.

We all had a great time and I must admit, Erin in particular was a real natural on the horse. It was good fortune that she loved to fly down the sand on his back, because Arroz con Frijoles was definitely the most spirited horse of the bunch. White Socks and Raccoon were not nearly so eager to run, though Dan and I suspect that may be because they were carrying us instead of an 11-year-old kid.

After our horseback trip we cooled off in the Toyota’s AC and headed south into Tamarindo, the largest town in this part of the country. There we picked up some snacks and water for later and had lunch at Pizza Hut. I don’t know why it is, but we think Pizza Hut here is better than it is at home, and we were so hungry we didn’t leave a slice behind. We even had ice cream at Pops following lunch—one of the best ice cream spots in Costa Rica that happened to be in the most gorgeous shopping center I’ve ever seen, complete with a sprawling, free-form pond (host to turtles and fish), waterfalls, and beautiful trees and flowers.

That afternoon we went for a swim in the turtle-shaped pool at our hotel and then had an early dinner because we all went to bed at 6:30—yes, you read that right. Let me note that it’s not hard to go to bed early here because it’s already dark—not dusk, but nighttime dark—by this hour and because we normally wake up so much earlier here than in the States. Plus we were tired from the horseback riding and swimming! But this night it was especially important to get some rest because we had set the alarm to wake us at 11pm. We had something very special planned: we were going to Las Baulas National Marine Park with hopes of seeing a giant leatherback turtle nesting.

Lauren wasn’t too thrilled when we roused her out of bed at 11:00, but eventually we all got ready, put on the bug spray, and took our flashlights down the road about 50 yards from our hotel to the park’s ranger station. Las Tortugas Hotel is the center for the Tamarindo National Wildlife Sanctuary and Las Baulas National Marine Park. There isn’t much light on this short walk to the station because the turtles won’t nest unless it’s dark. The owner of the hotel where we stayed has been active for years in eco-tourism and sustainable development; this includes shielding the turtles from all ambient light both here and from neighboring beaches.

Las Baulas is a protected area vital to the endangered leatherback turtle; actually, it is the world’s largest nesting site for these turtles and one of the few remaining sites of significant nesting. Female leatherbacks come ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand. They then cover the eggs and return to the ocean. The beach is restricted at night from October to mid-February, and people can only visit as part of a guided tour—so off we went, hopes high!

We were part of a small group of people and stood, single file, in the dark on the beach as we waited for a park ranger to spot a nesting turtle. While we waited, Dan and I noticed how amazing the sky appeared—there was extremely little moonlight, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many stars before. It was truly awesome.

We didn’t wait long until we trekked through the sand with only natural light and the guide’s red-filtered flashlight to help us. Soon we could see a giant swath of a path on the beach and right up from it was the turtle, digging deep in the sand. She was absolutely massive—the giant leatherbacks are the world’s largest marine turtles. She was at least five feet long and she certainly weighed more than our entire family! I wish I could have taken photos to share, but the turtles only nest in the dark and so we watched her by the guide’s red light which was aimed at her backside only.

It was incredible to see how this giant creature stretched her flippers (about the size of tennis rackets!) to make this deep hole. When she was nearly done digging, our group stepped away to allow another group to see the dig. We sat down in the sand and just enjoyed the cool ocean air as we waited for our turn to see the turtle again. And when we went back—wow! She was laying her eggs, sometimes three at a time. There were scientists there measuring her and counting her eggs. Erin heard one say at the end that she had deposited 56 eggs into her nest.

We didn’t get to stay and see the turtle go back to the sea—the rangers want to minimize humans’ contact with the turtles, and this was her moment. She had done her job and was leaving her eggs to fend for themselves.

Our family was in awe of this experience. We realized that with the giant leatherback in danger of being extinct, we were surely witnessing a precious and miraculous event. Both our family and the turtle had come a very long way to share in her nesting on this quiet beach.

A couple of months from now, some of those eggs we saw will be little hatchlings, and a few will survive the short yet perilous trip down the beach to the Pacific Ocean. Maybe my girls will return to Playa Grande one day with their families to see an offspring of the leatherback burying eggs of her own.

We are thankful for this turtle, for the horses we rode, for the beautiful beach, and for each other. Though life in Costa Rica is never smooth sailing, it has been a life-changing experience that we will always treasure. What a Thanksgiving!


Shelli said...

The Beaudrys are officially ruined and will never be satisfied with a normal life ever again. :)

aimee said...

Christine, you and Dan are providing the girls with such awesome experiences! I think trips like these would totally make up for all the rain and no water in the house at times :)

Dazzlemama said...

Yep, your thanksgiving was SO much better than mine!

Justine said...

Holy cow, what I wouldn't give to see something like this! It must have been incredible and breathtaking. I'm so glad they're doing everything they can to preserve the leatherbacks!

Justine :o )