TORTUGUERO, Limón – Cutting though dense jungle, past marshy palms and skittish monkeys, the canals of Tortuguero remain the only way for tourists to reach this north Caribbean town. On a recent sunny Monday, a boatload of tourists from Holland gaped wide-eyed as their ferry passed a crocodile on their way to their jungle lodge, a fitting first impression of Costa Rica for a group fresh off the plane.
The concept of bypassing the canals and building a road through the surrounding marshes to Tortuguero comes and goes over the years (TT, Jan 26 and Feb. 9, 1996), and continues to elicit strong opinions in this otherwise sleepy coastal town 40 kilometers south of the border with Nicaragua. On one hand, proponents cite potential economic and environmental benefits from pulling Tortuguero out of its isolation. Many locals, however, say the isolation is central to Tortuguero’s identity, and what makes it such a unique, appealing destination in the first place.
“It’s a bad idea,” said Noli Taylor, who runs Miss Junie’s restaurant and hotel in town. Building a road, she says, would bring undesirable elements to Tortuguero like crime and trash. “It is fine like this.”
Despite a recent ruling from Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), which temporarily blocked the latest attempt to construct a highway when it ruled the Pococí Municipality had failed to conduct the required impact studies, the idea of building a road lives on.
Alan Soto hopes that after further analysis, the court will change its mind and allow construction. Soto, president of the Tortuguero Community Development Association, admits that his is a lonely stance but insists opposition to the road is largely based on misunderstanding.
Soto proposes expanding a currently existing road that would end two km away from Tortuguero itself, leading to boats that would drive down a single canal to the village. This, says Soto, would allow for greater regulation and control of water-borne traffic.
“There is not a single tree that would be cut down,” Soto said. “There would be much less environmental impact.”
Boat traffic through the canals is not regulated, Soto says, and oil leaks damage the water and wildlife. He suggests building a guard station along the single canal that could collect tolls to raise funds for the village.
“You could bring in the same amount of tourists on much smaller boats,” Soto said. Despite the ostensible financial windfall from bringing more travelers into town, some in the tourism industry worry that more tourism traffic would hurt Tortuguero’s charm.
“I hope they never build it,” said Anselmo Harriett, who works as a freelance tour guide in the region. “The beauty of seeing Tortuguero by car is not the same as seeing it by boat. It would be destroyed. It would be the same as Monteverde.”
Soto, for his part, brushes aside concerns that Tortuguero could not handle more tourists.
“We have the potential” to handle more tourists, he said. “We can receive them.” The small marina of Caño Blanco currently serves as the go-between for tourists, who bus up to this point from San José and board boats for the hour-plus ride through the canals to Tortuguero. Here, the idea of a road to Tortuguero is an unpopular one.
Marcos González, a tour boat operator, thinks a better road should be built between Caño Blanco and Siquirres. But to build a road any further towards Tortuguero, he says, would “not be a good idea.”
“If you have tourists arrive directly at hotels (by car) it’s a different experience,” González said during a lunch break between boat trips one morning. “Nature is the most important, and (building a highway) would destroy a lot of nature.”
For the tourists themselves, the extra time on the boat is an inconvenience eagerly accepted.
“It think it would be a shame if they put a road up there,” said Anja Enders, of Holland, while puffing a cigarette as she waits for her transfer to the Arenal region on the other side of the country. “This experience is much better. If you put a road there, then it’s not like this anymore.”