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Originally published May 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 11, 2005 at 4:58 PM

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Sights, sounds linger from tiny 'Turtle Town'

Everything was fine until the vampire bat in the bathtub. Then I kind of lost it. To that point, the surprises we encountered in traveling to a remote Costa Rican village on a...

Seattle Times Northwest Weekend editor

PARISMINA, Costa Rica — Everything was fine until the vampire bat in the bathtub.

Then I kind of lost it.

To that point, the surprises we encountered in traveling to a remote Costa Rican village on a roadless island were a welcome spice contrasting with long winter months of school and work in Seattle. Cilantro in the stew.

For most of a week, my 12-year-old daughter and I volunteered with a sea-turtle conservation project in tiny Parismina. Through the turtle project, we stayed in the home of a young couple, Karina Taylor-Cruz and Macario López Rojas — he goes by "Mako" — and their 3-year-old son.

We took in stride what was unusual for us. The lizard behind the fridge became a friend. The cockroaches? Bigger in Baja. We slept under nets to avoid malarial mosquitoes, and wore DEET like a favorite cologne. Deadly snakes and hungry crocs? Bring 'em on.

Then early one morning, after a late night of walking turtle patrols on the beach, I was first to awaken in the small house, which had no ceiling to muffle noise between rooms, just open rafters and dangling wiring beneath a metal roof.

Stepping quietly into the bathroom, I spied one of the 3-year-old's many toys. Young Axel — like Axl Rose of the rock group Guns n' Roses, his 28-year-old mother told us — possessed a huge bin of toys. Many were action figures like Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.

This one was a bat, at the foot of the bathtub. Tiny "hands" and feet clenched at each corner of its spread wings.

I smiled and reached to move it. It clicked its tiny teeth at me.

"Jeeeeez!" I jumped across the bathroom.

The bat — quite real — was stunned, or sick. Maybe rabies?

After a moment, I returned to our room and perched on the edge of my daughter's bed. She looked at me with worried eyes as I shook with muffled giggles. A rabid bat in the bathtub somehow touched my funny bone.


I heard our host rising. I composed myself and told him about the bat.

"You don't like it?" Mako asked with a trace of bewilderment.

Following me to the bathroom, he clumped tissue in his hand and lifted the bat. Playfully, he thrust it toward my face. The bat opened its mouth wide, teeth gleaming, and gave an ultra-high-pitched bat scream, just barely audible to human ears:


Who says small-town life is dull?

Turtles and the village economy

Parismina is a 15-minute boat ride from the end of a long, rough road to nowhere.

On a 58-square-mile island at the edge of the Caribbean between the mouths of two rivers with no bridges, it seems an unlikely place for a settlement.

Until now, Parismina got barely a footnote in travel guides, as a place where serious fishermen came to a handful of pricey fishing lodges in pursuit of giant tarpon and snook. But when the fishing boom fizzled, the village of 450 needed new income.

Now, the endangered sea turtle may be Parismina's savior, just as the village helps to save the sea turtle. Eco-tourism dollars are starting to replace fishing income.

Villagers united three years ago in a program to patrol the beaches and established a hatchery for protection of turtle eggs. Matching that is an effort to woo visitors, who stay in one of a few small lodges or in village homes.

Odilio Bega Bega guides his ox cart on an outing to a lagoon near Parismina, Costa Rica. The village is on an island bordered by the Caribbean Sea and two rivers.

Ironically, "Parismina used to be where you went to get turtle meat," said Ralph Carlson, the American founder of Seattle-based EcoTeach, a program that now brings students and families from the United States to several locations, including Parismina and nearby Estación Las Tortugas.

Two years ago Costa Rica outlawed the hunting or possession of meat, eggs or shells of endangered sea turtles, whereas the nation previously had allowed some "cultural tradition" harvesting similar to how the Makah tribe has hunted whales in the Pacific Northwest. Turtle hunters founded many of the towns on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast in days when nobody thought they would ever run out of turtles.

But poachers continue to kill some turtles for meat (the most endangered, the leatherback, doesn't taste good) and to take their eggs.

Visits by EcoTeach as well as by independent travelers who come to Parismina to help protect turtles now provide precious revenue that the locally governed turtle program uses to pay locals to patrol the beaches. Some of those paid patrollers are former poachers.

Though it's a slow process, subject to successes and setbacks, the turtle project is gradually reprogramming the local economy so that sea turtles are worth more alive than dead, worth more when protected than when poached.

Cultural premium

For visitors interested in sea turtles, a home-stay in Parismina is a cultural bonus.

For four nights, my daughter and I tramped Parismina's beaches by moonlight, patrolling for nesting turtles. We accompanied villagers such as Estella Mackenzie, our turtle program "mentor," a proud and smiling woman who walked like she owned the village. Some nights, we patrolled with EcoTeach groups. Some nights, we joined other American visitors who had found Parismina through the Internet.

"We'd heard of other turtle projects or places to go," said Andrew Kopperud of Los Angeles, an executive with DreamWorks studio, who brought his wife and two young sons. "But the others seemed more like tours. This was the only one where it seemed like you were actually doing something."

Days, we did as we pleased. One sunny day, we hired an ox cart to take us to a lagoon for fishing and swimming. Odilio Bega Bega, a dignified man of obvious standing in the village — he has the ox cart — piloted two huge oxen with endless calls, whistles and prods of a pointed stick.

Tidy homes and beach finds

We took a walking tour of the village with Vicky Taylor, a former Peace Corps nurse who came from the United States 25 years ago. She married a villager and now has three sons, all active with the turtle project.

On one side of the village was river, on another side sea, and another had jungle and woods with howler monkeys high in the trees.

The village was mostly homes, with families of Spanish, Indian, Jamaican, African, Nicaraguan, North American and European backgrounds. There were a few modest "sodas" (the Costa Rican name for a small cafe), a couple bars and a handful of tiny shops attached to homes. There was nothing you'd call a market. No bank or post office. There was a health center, and a nutrition building where school kids were fed. The schools were run-down buildings sorely in need of supplies and new desks.

Some homes were tidy and brightly colored, in turquoise or coral. Some could be called shacks.

A couple homes, distinctly larger and fancier, were generally known to be the result of some families' sudden wealth from "packages found on the beach" — cocaine lost off the boats of drug runners.

Passing the village's sprawling playfield Vicky noted a quality that makes Parismina a nice place to raise a family.

"Every afternoon, around 4 o'clock, the whole village comes out here and plays soccer, or volleyball, or the women play bingo. They hardly miss a day."

'Gringo Loco'

At Iguana Verde ("Green Iguana") Cantina, we met Vicky's American brother, Rick Knowles, Parismina's wild-eyed counterpart to TV's "Crocodile Hunter."

"They call me 'Gringo Loco' — I've been down here a little bit too long," confided Knowles, who came from Florida in 1989, bought a farm for $5,000 and married a villager. He immediately launched into stories of his adventures with local wildlife, some of which resembled "Pecos Bill"-style tall tales.

He told about a 10-foot boa constrictor that he found on his farm. He recalled showing the boa to some tourists at his cantina when it grabbed him by the hand and flipped him to the ground, so that he had to call for help from other villagers to pry the snake's jaws open and get his hand unhooked from its teeth.

Some days later, other visitors had scoffed at the truth of the story. "So I showed them my hand and kind of poked at one of the wounds that was still red, and a tooth popped out!" Knowles said.

He rushed into his cafe and brought out a box of rhinoceros beetles to show off — the size of small rats — along with his big blue macaw, Cocoa.

When we expressed interest in seeing poison-dart frogs, he jumped on a three-wheeled ATV, told my daughter to perch on the seat behind him, instructed me how to start his gas-powered mini-bike, and we all roared off like Shriner clowns in tiny cars along the village's sandy paths to his farm.

He led us into the trees and quickly hunted up some of the miniature red frogs that are an icon of the Costa Rican jungle. Another day he took us on his boat to see a sloth he had rescued from the river.

To see wildlife of any kind in Parismina, "Gringo Loco" is the go-to man.

'Important to the world'

Our host, Mako, was a soft-spoken 24-year-old with nut-brown eyes and Bob Marley dreadlocks. The son of a Jamaican father, he came to Parismina from Costa Rica's capital city of San José at 16.

Unlike some villagers, he has a day job, doing fiberglass boat construction in a two-man shop. When he draws the occasional midnight-to-4 a.m. turtle patrol, he must turn around and go to work at 7 a.m. He explained why he's made such a commitment to the turtles.

"They are a wonderful animal, and they are important in the world — to the whole world. They are important in the food chain. The leatherbacks eat jellyfish. And if there are no turtles, maybe there will be too many jellyfish, and jellyfish are poisonous to humans.

"We used to eat turtle eggs. Then (the Coast Guard) came and told us the turtles are in danger of extinction and that there were no more little turtles because people ate the eggs. So we saw that was bad. So instead we try to save the eggs. Before, we were destroying the turtles. Now we are saving them."

Why did he choose village life over the big city?

"I like everything about it. I like the river, I like the animals. I love it. I love my family."

That wasn't hard to see. On a lazy Saturday morning after Karina served a big breakfast of scrambled eggs, doughy pastry with guayaba jelly, sliced watermelon and banana, he sat with his son and played video games on their old TV. A soft breeze rattled palm fronds outside his home's open wooden doors, decorated with carved jaguars. Closed only at night — village children wandered in and out all day — the doors were the one extravagance of the modest house. Daylight showed through gaps in walls. But everywhere were small touches of grace: lace hiding a rough counter, ribbons holding back a curtain.

Outside, roosters crowed, tropical birds twittered and hip-hop music played loudly from a neighbor's house. Karina carried a heaping pot of table scraps across the sandy path to another neighbor. "For my friend's pig," she smiled.

Axel and Mako went out to kick a soccer ball around the front path, where kids on balloon-tired bicycles cruised by, detouring to jump a pile of sand. With happy cries, some joined the impromptu soccer game. Another neighbor's stereo turned on, playing techno-reggae, even louder than the first, creating a sort of neighborly battle of the bands.

It was the sound of Turtle Town. The beat of the village.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or

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