Nicaragua Day 12: San Juan Del Sur (Turtle Tour!)

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Day 12 was nearing the end of our time in San Juan Del Sur, and although we enjoyed more time at the beach and another plate of tostones con queso, it was also time to buckle down on the bucket-list opportunities we did not want to miss! If we ever get back to San Juan Del Sur I definitely want to try zip-lining, and it would be cool to try surfing, but I am so, so happy that this time around we did a turtle tour. 

Sea turtles nest at only a handful of beaches in the world, and one of those is located a short drive outside of San Juan, called La Flor. This beach is a protected nature reserve, and large tours can range in cost from $25-40 USD which includes the cost of admission to the reserve ($8 each for foreigners). This price is extremely reasonable compared to the cost of turtle tours in neighboring Costa Rica where you can easily spend over $100 per person to see turtles. We lucked out with a smaller tour organized by a French ex-pat and his Nicaraguan wife for $15 each, admission not included, and the whole experience was phenomenal. Matt talked to Sam and Jamie, and they brought two other guys they’d met (a huge perk of backpacking vs staying in hotels is how easily you connect with people!), and we all loaded into a pickup truck about an hour before the sun went down.

The drive was about 45 minutes, and I’d say it was my best glimpse of Nica life and real neighbourhoods. Torre and I got to ride in the cab of the truck with Bastien, his wife, and their 15 month old son, while the guys bounced around in the back (no chance for either of us to take any pictures). We drove through beautiful scenery with green fields and mountains, some beautiful homes painted and fenced in interspersed with unfinished homes with laundry hanging in the yard and chickens or dogs wandering through. I saw a pig grazing in a ditch, horses and cows in fields or just grazing by the road, and just outside of town we picked up a local guy who was going in the same direction as us (he rode in the back, and apparently tried to sell his bags of corn to the tourists, talking a mile a minute).

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Those mountains in the background are Costa Rica!

 

When we arrived at La Flor, we paid the visitors’ fee and saw huge bags of sand that held harvested turtle eggs (being kept safe from predators until the eggs hatch and the turtles are released to the ocean), as well as a table laid out on a big whiteboard to track how many turtles were seen at the beach month by month, year over year.IMG_20141129_171923IMG_20141129_171943 It was a short walk to the beach from the forested area around the visitor center, and it was so beautiful. It is a perfect sandy cove, sheltered by tall cliffs, and it looks similar to the main beach of San Juan Del Sur except that there is no development whatsoever. The sand was very soft to walk in, and littered with dried up turtle egg shells – they look like crushed ping pong balls. There was a small local group that was setting up near the tree line to camp overnight, but apart from them the beach was ours! We snacked on goodies we’d brought from the bakery in town, and we watched the sun set, laying on our bellies in the sand until the sun just dipped below the horizon, then jumping to our feet to watch the very top of the sun sink a second time into the ocean. (This is a very cool effect of the earth being round.)

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As the daylight continued to fade and the sunset gradually dimmed, stars came out and dusk fell lightly. The half moon was so bright we could still see fairly easily, and everything was just so beautiful and calm we chattered about how even if the turtles didn’t come we had all experienced more than enough beauty to justify the cost of coming.

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Finally it happened though, and we saw some flashlight signals up the beach. Far up from the water, a turtle was digging her nest. It was a pretty long process, maybe 45 minutes, for this turtle to dig the nest, lay about 100 eggs, close the nest and return to the ocean. I liked the end the best, watching the dexterity of her flippers as the turtle covered her eggs with sand, packed it down by slamming her body into the ground over and over, scooped more sand and swept away the impressions of her flippers and shell. A turtle nest must be strong enough to bear the weight of people and animals walking over it, and it must be camouflaged from predators who would find those eggs a delicious snack. Humans are included on the list of turtle egg predators, and this beach has not only guides to help tourists observe the turtles respectfully, but also armed guards who patrol for poachers.

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A guide dug a hole behind the turtle so we could see her eggs being laid in the nest.

It was humbling to watch the exertion required by this mama sea turtle to lay a nest of eggs that may or may not even have one survivor. From start to finish, the whole process was so laborious, but slowly and steadily she worked until her job was done. Finally she stood up from the sealed nest and ambled back to the water. Matt and I got to reach out and touch the back of her shell – fairly smooth under a layer of sand – and then she slipped into the ocean and was gone. It was amazing.

We saw a few more turtles – it was really cool to see them come up from the ocean, like spies out of the darkness, and make their way up the beach. Some went far, right to the edge of the forest, and some only crawled a meter or two up from the surf. Matt actually almost grabbed a turtle by accident as we got ready to leave. We had all left our bags and backpacks in a pile, and everyone else had grabbed theirs for pillows for stargazing while I was entranced by the turtles. When Matt went over to pick up our backpack, he saw a shape in the dark that was closer than he’d thought our bags were, and he reached out for it but realized just in time – holy crap, it’s a turtle. Our back pack was in fact a few meters further down the beach.

On our way out of the park we passed a huge group of tourists that was just arriving – maybe 40 people crowded around one of the big signs that shows different kinds of turtles that nest at La Flor (we saw Olive Ridley turtles). We were so happy to have come with our little group of new friends, to have watched the sun set, and to be heading home at 8pm, not just arriving. It was a different kind of turtle tour than many people get, but for us it was the best of all worlds, and I feel so privileged to have been able to witness sea turtles nesting.

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