Saturday, June 26, 2010

Machismo!....Tales of a Female Turtle Guide in Costa Rica!

The Latin culture has always been known for its “machismo”, and Costa Rica is certainly no exception. Though admittedly society is slowly changing this male chauvinistic attitude, upon my arrival to Costa Rica, machismo and I had many head-on collisions. Here are some tales of my adventures as one of the first Female Sea Turtle Guides in Costa Rica…

Perhaps it would help if I set the background a bit. My husband and I fortuitously landed on the Caribbean shores of Costa Rica in the early 90’s. Fresh off the turnip truck, we were “newbies” in the worse sense of the word, speaking little Spanish and lacking any understanding of the cultural differences. We lived on a small island across the river from a sleepy little 200 person fishing village known as Barra de Parismina. Located on the Caribbean coast halfway between the Port City of Limon, and the next village to the North called Tortuguero, access to most of this coastline is by boat only via natural rivers and artificial canals (read the fine print people… roads!).

My Mission:
Looking to start a new life adventure, I had been told the fastest way to learn Spanish was to get a job. I immersed myself in Spanish books and applied to become a certified Nature and Turtle Guide. Trained to promote and protect the natural resources of Costa Rica, with focus on the endangered sea turtles that arrive on this Caribbean coastline, the guides would serve as “ambassadors” of not only the turtles, but the entire concept of Costa Rica as an emerging Eco-Tourism destination.

My progress was swift on the language, but sadly……sorely lacking in cultural understanding. Oblivious to the whole “machismo” concept, I would buzz around alone in our small motorboat, not realizing that it was “scandalous” behavior for a woman to be driving a boat and driving it alone no less! The village men would confront my husband in the local Cantina, asking him “How can you let your wife drive a boat? You need to stop her! Women don’t drive boats around here!” At which point my hen-picked husband would respond, “YOU’LL have to tell her, cause I’m not gunna tell her!”, neither of us truly understanding what the big deal was.

Cultural Differences Continue:
The cultural differences escalated as confrontations with local poachers who had previously hunted our large 60 acre jungle “farm” freely now found themselves in the cross hairs of an irate gringa determined to protect God’s creatures. Word quickly spread that the “crazy gringa” across the river had a gun and was rather passionate about protecting the animals on her property. This unique phenomenon caused an almost collective gasp from the female population and a form of sympathy from the male population toward my husband who obviously couldn’t control the fruitcake “gringa” he was married to. On a happy note, in a short time the illegal hunting was reduced considerably in the immediate area.

Turtle Season Arrives:
With my Spanish studies going at full speed and my coveted Nature Guide Certification almost in hand, I was excited as turtle season arrived. Taking my guide certification test in record time, I didn’t realize that I would then have to sit there waiting 40 long uncomfortable minutes, while the rest of the MEN finished the test. Does it seem naïve now to realize that I was the only woman in the group? I honestly didn’t take much notice at the time, but looking back I can recognize how strange this must have seemed to them. Mid-February arrived, and with it, the enormous Leatherback Turtles. Weighing up to 1500 pounds, with flipper spans of up to 7 feet, the Leatherbacks were more commonly found to the North on the Tortuguero beaches and only arrived sporadically thru May to our beaches. As Green Turtle season arrived in July, nightly guided tours to see these majestic creatures lay their eggs began, lasting thru the end of October. Guides would be responsible to carry small groups of no more than 10 tourists by boat through the dark canals to isolated beach locations where lengthy walks began to find and witness this incredible egg laying process.

Passion turns to Danger:
It never occurred to me that walking the isolated beaches late at night with a red-dimmed flashlight and 10 hapless tourists stumbling over driftwood was dangerous. I really didn’t put any thought into the several large cat species that regularly hunted the turtles, or the handful of ruthless turtle poachers (both egg and meat) that also awaited the yearly arrival of turtle season. I was from Los Angeles after all, and frankly Costa Rica with its passive culture hardly seemed threatening to me. That was until the dreaded “machismo” reared its ugly head again. My clueless husband was once again confronted at the local Cantina with, “How can you let your wife walk the beaches alone at night? You need to stop her! She’s taking our jobs away!” At which time my dear husband again responded, “YOU tell her, I’m not gunna tell her!” The frustration and sympathy for the guy with the “crazy gringa” wife grew larger amongst the locals. Unfortunately, this male sympathy quickly dissipated when I made my largest faux pas to date.

Cultures Clash:
Riding my horses along the beach one morning, I found several turtles on their backs awaiting slaughter. Without thinking, I used a large plank to overturn them and help direct the turtles back to sea, all the while feeling pretty happy with myself. A short time later a major village scandal erupted as it was soon discovered that the turtles had been freed by that “crazy gringa”! (The horse tracks gave me away, I was the only one with horses on our island.) No one had ever dared to interrupt the yearly slaughter of turtles by a handful of organized poachers who profited from the sales of turtle meat and eggs. Once again, my poor husband took the brunt of the punishment, as the the villagers would never directly confront “the crazy woman”. Thank goodness for the passive Tico culture, as machetes and sticks were wielded, but in the end a round of beers quickly settled the angry mob. (It’s a sure fire solution to almost anything in Costa Rica!)

Beer Summit Solution:
It was soon accepted that the “crazy gringa” across the river was not going to give up her fight to protect the turtles and other wildlife and if it meant regular free rounds of beers at the Cantina, then maybe that wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Soon, an unspoken turtle moratorium was established along our beach… more overturned turtles appeared and beer poured freely at the Cantina. Thankfully with time wiser heads realized that the promotion of these beautiful creatures would bring in more tourists, benefiting the entire village and not just a handful of illegal poachers. Attitudes slowly began to change towards the turtles, and now, almost 20 years later the area has many turtle protection projects in place attracting volunteers and tourists in record numbers. The fight to save the Sea Turtles around the World remains constant and with the continued distress on their habitat, the future of this wonderful creature regrettably remains uncertain. PLEASE HELP SAVE OUR SEA TURTLES!!

How you can help:
The following are all recognized organizations with many programs to help conserve the World’s endangered Sea Turtles. If you would like to help, please click thru to these excellent sites to see how you can be a part of saving these beautiful creatures!

Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.



  1. love the crazy gringa stories, I can completely see you doing those things and if I were there would've been right there with ya.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences and even more for helps us protect the environment...and Julie is right: love the crazy gringa stories

  3. Thanks for your great comments and feedback. Gotta love our Costa Rica!! Pura vida, Kimberly

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