History of Tortuguero
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.
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
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
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
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.
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).
© Tortuguerovillage.com 2015