May 16, 2018

The Quest of the ROVER


Written & Photographed by: Juancho Otalvaro


“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” – Chief Seattle

A few years ago, I decided to embark on a road trip along the Nicoya Peninsula in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Guanacaste has much to offer, and Costa Ricans are fortunate to celebrate the annexation of this vast land of natural wonders, which was formerly part of Nicaragua before 1824.

Beyond the hundreds of beautiful spots along the Guanacaste coast, I was focused on exploring some of the islands, but I was not aware of the existence of the “Bat Islands” when I began the journey. This quest truly began north of the peninsula after a week of driving, visiting towns, beaches, and navigating small boats to different islands.

Costa Rica doesn’t really have weather seasons; we have wet and dry seasons. During the dry season, Guanacaste becomes a very harsh country, but during this time of year, the natural display of colors in its landscapes is incredible. This is a story of wild nature juxtaposed against its magnificent beauty.

Driving north, for about half an hour, you go through a dry tropical forest that resembles a haunted desert filled with impenetrable thickets and trees that resemble creatures climbing from a knight’s tale. How is nature able to create this raw, living landscape? Hostile and fearless, it protects the many other species of plants and animals that live around the sweeping protected area that comprises Santa Rosa National Park.

Just driving along this road, I wanted to stop in a small town to eat, but suddenly an unexpected sandstorm hit me from one side. I didn’t want to brake because I wasn’t sure if a car might hit me from behind, so I slowly drove through this gust of dust as it became thicker and heavier, until I made it out well through the other side, which was kind of exhilarating!

I was driving to a small fishing village and stumbled upon a small place by an estuary; decent food, great ceviche! I was finishing my meal while looking at one of the paintings hanging on the wall in front of me. I saw a map, intrigued by it; the map didn’t seem to be of Costa Rica, so I went closer to have a good look and, to my surprise, it was a close-up of Santa Rosa National Park and its coastline. I noticed some islands, an archipelago called “Islas Murciélago” (Bat Islands). Intrigued by their name, I asked the friendly waitress if she knew how to get there.

“Of course! My uncle is sailing there tomorrow to deliver some supplies for the park rangers,” I kindly replied, “I’ll get in touch with him and ask if I could come along.”

As the waiter brought my bill, I paid for lunch and eagerly awaited to hear what his uncle had said.

“He’ll pick you up here at 7 am. I’ll have some breakfast ready for you and fried fish to take along.”

Fishermen in the Gulf of Santa Elena

I woke up early to try to find a place to buy some fruits, maybe a sandwich, drinks, and water to take on the boat trip, even though I relied on the fried fish to take for lunch on the island. After encountering some cattle in the middle of the road for a few long minutes, I was able to buy some of the things I had planned and hastily managed to reach the meeting point with the waiter’s uncle.

On the left, some nice decoration at the restaurant (meeting point). On the right, my ride!

“The magic of the water draws all men…” – Fire Dailor

The captain and I loaded the boat with the supplies intended for the park rangers. I brought along my camelback and a couple of small coolers filled with fruits, drinks, and the fried fish. Once out of the bay, time seemed to pass very slowly as the motorboat only had enough horsepower to navigate through the strong waves. Nevertheless, we managed well; it just took a bit longer than estimated, although it was already a long way to the Islands.

The sunlight painted the sea with a deep blue color, and the calmer areas reflected a radiant royal blue. As we got closer to the Bat Archipelago, it felt like stepping into Jurassic Park, a different world, almost as if it were an unexplored land of beauty.

We anchored the boat across a sign that read “Isla San José,” the main island among five or six others that make up the Bat Archipelago.

Soft white sand stretched along the shore where we docked, and a range of grass and low bushes shielded the opposite side of this little piece of paradise. The shallow, chilly water beneath the boat was crystal clear; in fact, the captain told me that water visibility is usually 30 to 100 feet (10 to 30 meters), but on that specific day, the marine wind energy was quite strong.

The captain showed me a spot where I could leave my things and have lunch, then he went to the park ranger’s house to deliver the supplies. I was trying to eat my fried fish, but the view from every point on the island was incredible, so before finishing my meal, I decided to take some photos around where I was eating. Within moments, I found myself surrounded by perhaps more than a dozen iguanas lurking around my fried fish.

The beauty of the surroundings of the island was majestic, and the solitary resonance of the small waves reaching the warm sand gave the atmosphere a sense of serenity that somehow made me feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of everything nature concentrated in a small piece of land. It made me feel small and vulnerable.

I was pondering how the leafless trees around me resembled dried-up rivers with arms outstretched toward the blue sky when suddenly the silence was broken by the captain’s voice.

“I’m afraid we won’t be able to return to the mainland today. The winds are getting stronger and the waves are getting bigger; my boat will break in two if we try. But don’t worry, I have a tent you can use.”

As the sun set, I thought, well, that’s okay, I don’t have to return to the mainland anytime soon. It will be great to explore more of the islands tomorrow.

I set up the small tent, which had a couple of broken poles, and the roof wasn’t high enough to keep the tent stable, but once it was set up, it didn’t really matter much.

The night crept through the branches of the dry trees, ushering in very strong winds. It was pitch black, and I could only hear the winds attempting to tear the tent away from the ground. With only a few hours of sleep, a few hours past midnight, I felt a light approaching my campsite. I went out to try to find the source, and it was the captain with incredible news.

“There are some sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs! Let’s go see them!”

It was a sleepless night, but a very splendid one. We managed to see 3 huge sea turtles slowly crawling onto the dark beach. With a red-filtered flashlight, we were able to witness the spectacle all the way until each turtle found its spot to lay its eggs. The captain explained to me that this archipelago is a hotspot for millions of sea turtles, and part of the ranger’s job is to protect them and mark the nesting points.

“Tomorrow you’ll be able to see some of the last eggs being laid.”

I returned to my makeshift cabin and tried to get some sleep.

Early the next morning, I had some leftover fruit for breakfast and met the captain on the beach, ready to go searching for sea turtle eggs.

There were plenty of marked spots, each with thermometers and labels with dates, so we began to dig through those that must be ready to hatch. Deep enough, a pile of eggshells and tiny little turtles began to emerge, and carefully, the captain and one of the rangers helped the turtles out of the hole to aid them in their journey.

As swiftly as life emerges into the light, Death begins to circle in the darkness.

Some of the tiny creatures are born still, and some eggs haven’t fully completed their cycle. This is common, and nature knows no waste. Immediately, hundreds of hermit crabs surface from the golden sand where the dead lie, beginning a feast. Iguanas lurk behind fallen trees, waiting for the right moment to prey on the tiny turtles clumsily crawling toward the freshwater streams. Birds startle some of them from above.

Isn’t nature miraculous? Everything is interconnected.

Few of the little turtles make it, as have other predators in the sea. But the most incredible part is that those who do reach adulthood, return hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles back to where they were born and repeat the cycle. It’s an incredible event to witness. It’s hard to imagine that these tiny beings will grow to become the huge, strong reptiles we saw at night.

Once we “released” the rest of the marked points, we returned to the ranger’s shelter to check the currents and winds. Unfortunately, we were still stranded on the island. Strong winds and currents were expected against our course, and we had no food left, with my water ration running low. But there was no need to worry; we decided to wait and see if the situation improved.

I then decided to walk around the hills surrounding the horseshoe-shaped island.

The views are breathtaking. I’ve never seen landscapes like these in Costa Rica.

I stayed there as long as I could. I didn’t want to leave, and perhaps it was a good thing that we couldn’t leave the island yet.

The captain had to leave, as they had nothing else to eat. So he talked to me and said we should try to make it back under the bad weather conditions. He had done it before; it wasn’t a fun trip, but I trusted him.

The fascination with a mountain to the sea, built to kill and conquer all with the teeth of beasts. – Brent Hinds

“We committed to it, and it was a long, terrifying journey. Uninhabited rocky relief forms that shift shape like beasts. Skerries with minimal vegetation, large enough to be sea monsters threatening us by lashing the water in a sea of waves. The beauty of the landscape we had traversed before turned into a wild danger, a threat of nature.”

It took us almost twice as long to return, attacked by what seemed like huge waves beneath us. I was holding onto my life, trying not to fall off the boat, while the boat swayed trying to navigate the tidal waves. At some point, I thought it would never end, my arms were tiring from holding onto the straps that kept me inside the boat, but I held on as long as I could. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we entered the estuary from where we had set sail.

I was covered in a thick, white dust; sea salt, dried by the blazing heat of the sun. I had a couple of beers at the restaurant to relax my tense muscles. I thanked the captain for everything and he set off to finish the journey back. Later that night, I would feel a heatstroke and a heavy sunburn that left the imprint of the life jacket on my body for over a month!

Absolutely, experiences like these are unforgettable reminders of the raw power and beauty of nature. It’s awe-inspiring how something so captivating can also be wild and formidable.