Volunteering in Drake Bay, Costa Rica

As we prepared to say goodbye to Beth and Travis, Jordan and I also prepared to make our first solo trip of our backpacking adventure. We were about to volunteer with the Corcovado Foundation for about 10 days. We left Cabo by taxi and caught a school bus turned public bus to La Palma. From there, we caught a collectivo (basically a mini bus or big taxi) to El Progresso, a town in Drakes Bay, Costa Rica. We noticed people on the bus buying clear plastic bags of what looked like cream which they were drinking during the ride. We hesitated buying one thinking that sucking down a bag of cream would not make us feel good on such a hot day. We later discovered that the bags contain a delicious Tico style ice cream and we were kicking ourselves for not buying it at every chance. While sweltering on the black leather seats of the last car, we enjoyed the view of the lush landscapes and wondered what our next adventure would be like.

We finally arrived at a small structure, typical of many in Costa Rica, concrete/wood walls with a tin roof. The director of the turtle program met us out front. Rob is a friendly British expat who started off as a volunteer in the program several years back and now lives in Costa Rica full time directing the conservation project. In addition to Rob, the ‘turtle camp’ housed the other research assistants and some volunteers, though most of the volunteers live with home-stay families in the neighborhood. The camp was where everyone hung out in the evenings or during down time. For the first 5 nights we stayed in the ‘VIP suite’ which was a private shed consisting of 4 wooden walls and a bunk bed. While in our VIP shed, we could hear the rustling of chickens and a rooster as they scavenged for grubs and bugs to eat. We now know that it is a myth that roosters will crow at the sunrise. Interesting fact, roosters actually crow all the time, particularly at 3AM and curiously, their crows can resemble the sound of Eeyore crying like an old lady. Other than the dorm area, the turtle camp was pretty much an open air structure with a bunch of hammocks available.

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In addition to the smattering of scarlet macaws, toucans, monkeys and the assemblage of poultry, the camp was also the hangout spot of many of the local dogs. The dogs were not strays, but no one fences in their pups so they would all congregate on the concrete floor of the camp. Many of them were cute, all of them could have used a bath and probably some frontline plus. There was one particularly mangy mutt named Kaiser. Kaiser was so ugly and pathetic looking that you couldn’t help but loving him instantly. His musk warned you of his presence long before his actual arrival. He was born with a serious underbite which meant that his lower fangs were always sticking up, like an extreme bulldog grin. As a puppy, he suffered from a machete accident and thus now walks with a mangled frankenstein limp. All he wanted was a little love and a few stolen bites from the compost bin. Despite his injured leg he was able to run around with the other dogs and even followed us all the way to the beach one day!

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The staff and the other volunteers we met were wonderful people. Two people we met had actually been living in Boston! Others were from Spain, Germany, Canada, France and other parts of the US. We had worried that arriving for the last 10 days of the project might make it hard to get involved and connect with everyone, but that was not the case at all. We arrived right before the annual turtle festival, sort of a grand finale of the program. With such a large undertaking to prepare for, there was plenty of work to do. Jordan and I helped build a bathroom, hung signs and at one point even harvested coconuts for the water when the coolers were empty. One big project involved jerry rigging 6 hoses together so that fresh water could trickle out at the beach. A family who lived closest agreed to provide the water from their spigot. The hose line snaked through the forest and even over a drawstring bridge. Not to mention that everything used for the festival had to be hauled over said drawstring bridge which dangled a bit too shakily over the crocodile infested river below. It was fun walking over that bridge at night while holding a box so that you only had one hand to hold onto the ropes, yeah that was the best! We learned that almost anything is possible at the beach when you have a machete and some bamboo. Need a table? Want to build a stage on an isolated beach? need a tool to knock coconuts off a coconut tree? with a machete, bamboo and a ‘pura vida,’ no problem. There were a million and one jobs to do, but everything came together for a wonderful festival. The festival enabled local people to sell food and other goods to tourists and community members, it allowed the kids from the education program to present their skits on sustainability, and the timing worked out that the eggs in the last protected nest hatched and could be released to the sea in front of all the festival goers. It was amazing enjoying the two day festival and watching the sunset on the beach each night. We felt lucky to be part of something special in such a beautiful and remote place.

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During the afternoon of the first day of the festival we went over to the hatchery with one of the research assistants to perform a nest exhumation. Throughout the turtle breeding season, the staff and volunteers walk the beaches at night to find new turtle nests. Then the team moves the nest into the protected hatchery. People in the Drakes Bay Area have traditionally eaten turtle eggs for generations and we’ve heard that they are quite delicious! Lately, the efficiency at which the community can find and harvest the turtle eggs has outpaced the rate that the turtles are nesting, hence the need for conservation efforts to help the turtle population in the area bounce back. The protected hatchery is simply a fenced in section of beach which the volunteers and locals take turns guarding from poachers. When the eggs of a nest hatch, the team will bring them out of the protected area to the top of the beach, release them and watch them waddle into the sea. After the turtles are released they perform an exhumation to determine if there were any eggs that didn’t hatch and if so, why. During our first and only exhumation we actually discovered one more little turtle that was still alive, just buried a little too deep to get out. We hung out with that little turtle for a while until the sun started to go down and then escorted him on his trek into the ocean. I felt a little like Rafiki from The Lion King, introducing the little turtle to the world as the sun set in the distance. Pretty magical stuff! We tried not to think too much about the fact that baby turtles have a 1 in 1,000 chance of making it to adulthood… Here is a short film of the story of one little guy, the 1 in 1,000, at the beginning.
http://vimeo.com/83191272
The beauty of Bahia Drake, the great people we met and the turtles we helped into the sea made our time at the turtle camp truly unforgettable. We hope to go back one day!

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Has anyone ever been to El Progresso or one of the other towns in Drake’s Bay? What did you do there and how was your experience? Also, anyone else keep chickens and roosters at home? How do you sleep through the night? Share your secrets!

****Thank you to Meryl Ayres, videographer, for creating the breathtaking film shown in this post!****

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