How to Survive a Jaguar Encounter in Tortuguero

Pura Vida in Costa Rica with Heather, and Pants aka J Rock aka Jackie aka JjjaaaCQueLINUH (said in a very French, high pitched, haughty, pearl clutching kind of way).

What do I do if I encounter a Jaguar? What is that demonic screaming snarling sound?  No but like actually…what makes that sound?  What do I do if I come face to face with such a creature?  Why am I walking unaccompanied in this forest?  What do I do if there’s a BIRD?????????? Heart racing, hyperventilating, vision blurring, blood pumping in my ears; the terror inducing thoughts of unidentified BIRDS becomes all encompassing…breathe through it like a LaMaze class in the movies, hehehooooooo…keep walking everything will even out soon.

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In Tortuguero the jaguar population exceeds the number of police, in July 2017, it was 13 jaguars to 7 police; this is both a comfort and concern.  A comfort because Tortuguero is such a safe little hamlet that at once reminds me of my hometown, Harrington Harbour (very tame) and also a pirate port town straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean…but with souvenir shops and less public urination.  A concern because how do so few police protect a town surrounded nay besieged by ferocious wildlife?

Tortuguero is only reachable by boat, an approximately 1-hour ride down a winding river mostly bordered by thick jungle; you immediately get the feeling that you are going some place special and even after 10 hours of bus travel, it was still really exhilarating.  The only thing I knew about Tortuguero before going was that it was the turtle place…very scientific I know… basically the beach that borders one side of the town is a nesting place for different types of sea turtles and that one of the most prominent sea turtle conservation projects is located on the island.  You can go on night walks to see the turtles nesting on the beach, I don’t remember why we didn’t go although I do remember attempting to go on our own nightwalk.

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After spending a little too much time at the local Tavern…aptly named La Taberna, we crept out on to the pitch black beach and started walking down, but then one of us started asking questions such as, what if we’re not allowed here at night, what if we see a turtle….do they snap…what if I step on an egg and hurt a baby turtle…what if we see a Jaguar…What if there’s a BIRD!!!!!   (In case you’re wondering-I’m petrified of birds) I’m the farthest thing from a Steve Irwin wildlife enthusiast-animals belong in the wild but I probably don’t. Birds belong in a museum, with the dinosaurs…I like dogs…that’s it.  I’ve been on safari, but other than a strange desire to have a face to face, telepathic moment with a Lioness, I was happy to be inside the jeep.  What then, was I doing wandering around a National Park on foot without a ranger or guide of any kind listening to the screams from the 7th level of Inferno ringing out through the dense bush, potential Jaguar encounters around every bend and certain standoffs with BIRDS?!?!?!?!?!  I really don’t know, I was just following Jackie and Heather, they didn’t know what to do in case of Jaguar encounters either but I figured as native Floridians they’d certainly have instinctual survivalist skills at their disposal.

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We walked slowly, examining the tiny creatures skittering about, and hoping to spot a sloth.  Suddenly there was a tremendous sound of crashing leaves and branches as an anteater took a dramatic tumble out of a tree.  The startled little animal came rushing out onto the path cutting us off from one another, we all scrambled to the right and left trying to get out of it’s way while at the same time taking pictures.  Turns out Jackie and Heather had the same amount of instinct as me, none; the 3 of us hopped from one foot to the next going “Ah OMG!”.  Jackie tried to take a video of the little guy but he wasn’t into it and in his frenzied panic to get the EFF outta there, he reared up on his hind legs and took a swipe towards ol’Pants with his exceptionally long claws;  Jackie squealed and ran off, I ran a little one way turned and snapped a picture of the anteater chasing Heather in the opposite direction and then took off running and didn’t stop until I was sure I was not being followed.

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I waited for my companions to catch up and then we continued exploring, peering into the depths of the forest curious about what we couldn’t see but could probably see us.  The air was thick but the canopy brought sufficient shade for the temperature to be pleasant and the flora was fascinating enough to keep me focused on my surroundings and not the sweat rolling down my back.  Costa Rica is one big Botanical Garden but without the handy placards that tell you what the plants are.  Not having any interest in botany- I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever had, I killed a cactus; I have no idea what any of the plants were. Heather pointed out the delicate spider lilies, and I thought the rubbery, spiky red plants were really cool so I spent some time trying to photography them just right.

Movement in my periphery, faint rustle of leaves, I turn my head slowly for I am not really sure I want to see what’s there. Suddenly my spine seizes sending jolting electric shocks through my cranium, my eyes burning hyper focused, ears ringing, completely paralyzed with panic; I see a dark mass through the foliage.  As my eyes adjust I notice the curved neck, silky plumage, soulless eyes, pointy beak and the unmistakable strut of a BIRD!!! Oh Gawd, there’s 2, no 3 of them… a veritable nest of the demon species.  They appear to be flightless birds but I can’t be sure, usually that means they can run faster than Usain Bolt.  They don’t appear to have noticed me yet, I quicken my pace but soften my footsteps willing myself to blend in, trying not to let the breeze send my scent towards them, can birds smell?  Swiftly I move down the path, gliding smoothly on a steady stream of fear until I feel I have put enough distance between myself and those things.  Violently shaking and stomping off the intense NO! feeling that birds always give me, I took my first breathe in minutes and pushed onward.

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Still get that NO! feeling

The rest of the walk was uneventful, really quite serene actually after all the panic.  The screaming had stopped, I forgot about anteaters, Jaguars, and BIRDS and just tried to absorb nature.  I used to be quite the little explorer as a child, I would follow my big brother into the woods on our bikes, stomp around the rocks and cliffs and scramble around like a little Billy goat to my heart’s content, never scared or uncomfortable being far from the sights and sounds of civilization.  Somehow through my own personal evolution, I developed into the kind of person who feels uncomfortable in the wilderness. Was it a result of the increasing list of paranoias adults develop from watching the news, from fear of the unknown, or had I become too citified?.  Every time I immerse myself  in nature, be it the jungle, on a mountain, floating in the ocean; I vow to not wait so long to return next time but inevitably I go back to the hustle and bustle and I forget all about the cleansing comforts of the natural world.  I had a particularly joyous hour or two in Nepal when I thought I might just stay in those mountains forever, or the time I wanted to remain blissed out in the serene turquoise waters of Zanzibar, and this time in Tortuguero National Park I at last found solace in the lush greenery.

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Eventually I had to pee and since Jackie and Heather were taking too long, I hustled back to the park’s starting point alone…not once did I get scared though … post anteater episode, my wildlife anxieties receded; I mean if I could take on an anteater and live to tell the tale than certainly a bird or a Jaguar would be no match for me.  Upon returning to the entrance/exit of the National Park I saw the infographic that details how you survive a Jaguar encounter…turns out you raise your arms above your head and back away very slowly…NEVER turn your back on a Jaguar!. I thoroughly wished I had read this before entering the park as I realized the only wildlife survival method I knew was for polar bears (pretend you’re a rock); I definitely would have been eaten.  I forgot to mention the crocodiles in the river, that was another danger; fortunately I know you have to run in a zigzag and possibly climb a tree or is that for alligators or same same…

High in the trees above the entrance to the park, a gang of monkeys were swinging around with out a care, making adorable silhouettes against the blue sky.  Jackie and Heather took forever getting back but I didn’t mind because there were monkeys to keep me entertained.

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Tortuguero is a world all its own in Costa Rica; after arriving by river boat, you must walk to whatever accommodation you’ve rented-it won’t be a far walk; I think it would take approximately 20-30 minutes to circle the entire town on foot. There are no cars in town, there are no roads, only foot and bicycle paths. Where you get off the river boat there is an open area like a plaza, bordered by shops and restaurants and you can go either right or left to find more shops, restaurants, and accommodations.

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The action is on the riverside where you arrive, a 5-minute walk straight from the river will take you to the beach where it is mostly housing and hotels.  You can’t swim in the ocean here due to strong currents and sharks (people have died) and you cannot swim in the river either because of crocodiles (people have also died).

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We ate breakfast at a cute little restaurant right on the main strip near the plaza, I don’t remember the name of it but at the time (July 2017) they were holding yoga classes as well and it was very close to the center of town. We also ate at Soda Dona Maria which is attached to someone’s house.  I recommend both-food critic I am not but I loved the simplicity of the food in Costa Rica. Beans, salad, rice, plantains, and fish-all lightly seasoned.IMG-5634

We stayed at Cabinas Balcon Del Mar Tortuguero, which is on the ocean side of Tortuguero, very calm and clean, the owners were friendly and helpful and there were plenty of hammocks to go around.  Nothing says vacation like an end of the day beer in a hammock while reading or journaling; breathing sea salt air and listening to the surf crash onto the sand. The ultimate luxury in life is drifting off to the sounds and smells of the ocean, whether I’m in a shack or a 5-star resort.

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Our nights were spent dancing at La Taberna-rather Heather and Jackie danced and I pretended to enjoy the music but was really just happy to be there.  La Taberna both blends and stands out of its surroundings.  The architecture is quintessential river bayou-the back wall opening out into a terrace reaching out over the river. The décor can only be described as a divey disco/strip club on acid, complete with the neon silhouette of a nude women with a red thong wrapped around her ankles painted onto a black wall. Turns out I am really not into Salsa dancing, I loved absolutely everything about Costa Rica except the dancing.  I was hoping, seeing as how we were on the Caribbean side, that there would be a little more Reggae/Dancehall but I think everyone likes salsa because it’s a good excuse to socialize…so then only the weirdos wanted to talk to me because I didn’t want to dance with anyone!  I did have fun looking out over the river playing spot the croc in the moonlight.

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As small as Tortuguero is, I definitely could have spent a solid week hanging out, reading, writing, exploring, and avoiding wildlife.

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In case by this point you think I am a crazy, paranoid loser, well you’d be partially right but I’ll leave you with this anecdote from a tour guide in San Jose.

“My Uncle went to Tortuguero and one night he came back to his hotel and there were police outside his room. He asked what was happening and if he could go inside and the police said, well sure you can go in but there is a Jaguar on your bed!”

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