History of Tortuguero
History of  Tortuguero
Pre-Columbian Period The first inhabitants of Tortuguero were very similar to the Mayan  people who lived in what is now Mexico.  The lived by hunting small animals and wild birds, fishing in the rivers, and catching the turtles that came to lay their eggs.  They also cultivated roots such as yucca and harvested the pejubaye fruit that was abundant.  Their homes were conical, and spacious with a roof of palm leaves or grass and were frequently filled by two or three families living in the same house at the same time. In Costa Rica, the north Atlantic coast was part of the Mayan trade route that extended from Mexico throughout Central America.  The Mayan emperor sent explorers to Nicaragua and Costa Rica in search of gold.  The majority of the gold stopped in Mexico, although the indigenous people here used some to make small figurines and jewellery.   Colonial Period           The first Spanish settlement in the region was San Juan de la Cruz, located at the mouth of the river San Juan about 40 kilometres north of Tortuguero.  It was founded in 1541 to facilitate commerce between Panama and Nicaragua.  The settlement’s 25 inhabitants only stayed there 2 years and moved on to more populated areas.     There was a series of short-duration Spanish settlements up until the mid 19th century.  Cacao plantations were established close to Matina, about 56 kilometers south of Tortuguero.  The indigenous people and the Afro-Caribbean culture (brought to Costa Rica by the Spaniards) worked as slaves cultivating cacao.  Tribes of Zambo-Miskitos, sailing along the coast between Honduras and Nicaragua, repeatedly stole the harvest.  In this era, this powerful and armed tribe composed of Miskitos, indigenous people, and escaped slaves controlled nearly the entire Caribbean coast.  They disrupted the cacao operations to such an extent that in 1848 the last plantation was abandoned.           In the 19th century, sailors and merchants knew about Tortuguero because of the thousands of sea turtles that nested there.  The Europeans sought out turtle meat, oil and shell with the very same Zambo-Miskitos who had disrupted the cacao plantations, because they were skilled turtle fishermen.   The Railroad In 1890, a railroad was completed from Limón  to San José.  Before this, transportation along the Atlantic coast and to the central valley had been very difficult.  In 1871, hundreds of Afro-Caribbeans who spoke English, mostly from Jamaica, immigrated to work on the railroad.  They brought their own culture based on their adopted language and their African roots. It was during this period that the export of the green turtle from the began on a large scale.  They would put the turtles in cages or corrals in the river until they could be loaded and transported to trains and boats to make their way to the United States and Europe.   The Wood Era           Some of the inhabitants in Tortuguero still remember when the first wood mill opened in the 1940’s.  It transformed the village—quadrupling the population, improving transportation, establishing a school, and making possible doctor’s visits.  During this time, the wood companies paid fixed salaries to local people who before had little to no income.  However, none of the wood businesses in Tortuguero became very successful, and as each failed in turn, it left the village overpopulated in a very difficult economic situation.           The “Atlantic Trading Company” was the first of the wood businesses to construct its own mill.  It employed 250 workers cutting down the beautiful local forests. The “Deslo Lumber Company” followed and suffered many complications and changes in ownership.           The wood mills were located where the principal dock is today.  When they were functioning, the cut trunks were floated from the forest to this point, and from there they cut them into boards, which they later transported via ocean to Limón to market them to other places in Costa Rica and in the world.           Today, near the center of town, you can still see the old rusted machinery left over from the vanished wood companies.  Their other legacy in the area are the canals that they dug to transport the wood, which are now part of the Tortuguero National Park.  Thousands of people visit every year to tour the canals and see the abundant natural beauty of the area.   To the Present           With the cessation of work in wood around 1972 the majority of the workers disappeared, and the population returned to the old local families, although many more families have arrived and stayed as well.  The village returned to the old way of life—farming, hunting, and fishing.           One change that facilitated progress toward the Tortuguero that exists today, was the construction of canals to connect the natural waterways between Limón (south), Tortuguero, and Barra Colorado (north). The former method of travel (by ocean) was risky due to the inconsistent climate of the region and the dangers of disembarking by Tortuguero.  The river route followed a system of lagoons and other waterways and avoided the dangers of the sea. In 1972, the first public telephone was installed and in 1979 the government established boat transportation to Tortuguero two times per week.  The first electrical generator began to function in 1982. Currently tourism is the principal industry of the village.  Tourism has grown due to the construction of various hotels in and around the area, improved access to the region, and the creation of the Tortuguero National Park in 1972.  In the village itself, many of the families rent cabinas and serve typical food in local restaurants.  There are more than 100 local guides to attend to the visitors that come to the area.   The Future Tortuguero has a future full of promise.  In past eras, its inhabitants weathered economic cycles.    Tortuguero National Park offers an alternative to past practices of turtle hunting and deforestation. The incredible natural resources of this area, if well preserved, will attract more and more visitors.  The last decade there has been a strong effort by the villagers and other organizations to organize and educate to protect the natural resources.  The Sea Turtle Conservancy (formerly the Caribbean Conservation Corporation) has been an important group in undertaking this public awareness campaign in the village itself and with the surrounding hotels.  The educational system here in the village has been strengthened in the past few years.  For the first time ever, Tortuguero High School handed out its first diplomas in December 2006.  In addition, Tortuguero has also developed educational institutions from preschool up through adult night classes.  A local clinic was also built in the last few years.  There is a fairly constant supply of electricity, and there is also a reliable supply of clean, healthy water.  High speed internet came to the village a couple of years ago.  Despite the advancements of technology, the villagers have been able to maintain their unique culture and customs.  Many people who visit here are amazed at the relaxed way of life, and serenity that being away from it all can bring.  Tortuguero has a very bright future, because Tortuguero is Pure Life Paradise.  *SOURCE: Information kiosk near the playground in Tortuguero (now torn down), and personal interviews.  Pictures taken from the information booth at the National Park (now torn down).
Tortuguero Pictures from information kiosk in Tortuguero National Park How to Get Here Things to Do Where to Eat Places to Stay Tour Guides Community
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