Meet Mauricio the turtle guy, in Tortuguero, Costa Rica.
Normally when strangers approach me to buy something I politely say "no gracias" and keep moving. However, I had seen this man earlier, carving turtles in the street, and I couldn't help but give him a few minutes of my time to educate me on what on earth he was doing. So I sat down next to him to hear his tale of the art of turtle carving.
The residents in Tortuguero thought Mauricio was crazy when he started selling his carved sculptures, and he admitted that perhaps his is a bit on the crazy side, but nevertheless he continues carving in the street with nothing but a blade, seeds, and a block of wood to present his products.
I've outgrown souvenirs honestly. I used to LOVE buying things to display in my rome. T-shirts, figurines, post cards, water bottles: you name it, I bought it (there has been a hammock in my closet for 10 years that I bought the last times I was in CR). I wasn't planning on buying any little turtle carvings while here.
The seed he uses to carve the turtles is called Almendro de la montaña.
After he carves them he coats them with a special wax and lights them on fire to produce a unique color.
After watching him create these unique little figurines I thought about other things that I have bought while on vacation that were probably massively produced in some factory probably in China. This in front of me was a rare form of artisanal craft produced from a one-man-show sitting outside of a commercialized souvenir store selling stuffed animal sloths.
Animals eat the seeds inside, and what's left is a shell. They animals drop the shells to the ground where Mauricio collects them for his projects. He explained to me about how he collects the almedros after it rains, because that's when they are smooth and clean. He presented a hummingbird carving that wasn't for sell, and a sloth as well.
I decided to buy some almendro turtles, because now they weren't just turtles, but artwork by Mauricio.
I can't tell you how many people I've ignored on the street thinking they were bums or con artists (and many times they are), but you never know. You have to be careful, but you can't turn your nose up at everyone who is selling something.
Because Tortuguero is a village, I greeted him several times that day and later he showed me a tree with leaves that act as a natural repellent against mosquitos.
If you are in Tortuguero, don't be afraid of the guy sitting on the curb carving away, he has some unique items to share for a fair price.
In fact, I consider this a "thing to do" in Tortuguero.
While you're there, tell him "Caroline the Gringa" sent you.