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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkTravel & Outdoors | December 2005 

Resort Helps Keep Watch Over Endangered Turtles
email this pageprint this pageemail usTom Uhlenbrock - St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A worker at a government-run turtle camp removes eggs that have just been laid by a Ridley sea turtle. He'll take them to a safe place to incubate them, out of reach of poachers. (Tom Uhlenbrock)
Playa Las Tortugas, Jalisco A pair of ospreys patroled the cloudless sky above as I strolled the beach my first morning in Mexico. At the surf's edge, a gray lump about the size of a charcoal briquette with a ridged back and tiny flippers caught my eye. A baby sea turtle.

The little guy seemed to be struggling to reach the safety of the water, so I cupped it in my hand and floated it a foot or two out into the Pacific. The gentle waves washed it back. The second time I took it thigh-deep, and the turtle disappeared below the foamy surface.

But when I retraced my footprints minutes later, there was the turtle, marooned in the sand, looking exhausted.

Finding a sea turtle on this 11-mile stretch of nearly deserted beach was not a surprise. It's called Costa Tortuga Turtle Coast because three species of endangered marine turtles use it as a nesting ground. The government has a turtle camp on the beach manned by workers and volunteers who patrol nightly for female turtles coming ashore to nest.

The eggs are collected and incubated until they hatch. The babies are released at night in the relative safety of darkness. Digging up the eggs protects them from their main predator humans. Poachers also comb the beach and steal the eggs to sell them for their alleged powers as an aphrodisiac.

Use the code word "peaches" at a swanky hotel in nearby Guadalajara, and the bellman or bartender may direct you to a black-market merchant selling turtle eggs for as much as $6 each. At an average of 105 eggs per nest, that's a lot of pesos and explains why Mexican soldiers with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders sometimes join in the beach patrols to ward off machete-wielding poachers.

With the popular tourist haven of Puerto Vallarta just two hours or so to the south, and construction edging closer, development was inevitable on this gorgeous strip of beach. Fortunately, the six American investors building the residential resort area called Playa Las Tortugas the Turtles Beach are doing so with the turtles, and the rest of the environment, in mind.

The newly constructed villas are situated well back from the palm trees lining the sand to give the nesting activities plenty of room. Night lights are held to a minimum to avoid distracting the mothers and offspring. The resort helps pay the bills for the turtle camp, and guests are invited to join in the nightly patrols and releases.

Set in a working coconut plantation, the luxury homes in the complex are privately owned, but many are available for rent to vacationers when the owners are away. Rents start at around $149 a night per couple and go up to about $265 per night, depending on the number of people and season. An extra $48 per day per couple pays for cooks who provide two meals a day, and yoga classes and massages are available daily.

The villa I was in had two bedrooms with baths on the first level and a spiral stairway leading upstairs to a kitchen, dining area and living room with balcony. The third level was open, with a thatched hut on a terrace that provided a perfect place for nightly study of the Milky Way. The only sounds were the crashing of the waves, the rustling of the palms and the occasional thud of a coconut.

The development is near a saltwater estuary that is home to a bounty of birds stalking the mudflats when the tides are out. Kayaking the watery lanes through the mangrove thickets turned up 37 species of birds in a little more than two hours.

But the real treat was the turtles, and I wanted to rescue the first one I found.

A worker was doing chores at the turtle camp that morning, and spoke only Spanish. He was perplexed at my story but suddenly said, "Ah, chiquito tortuga." He motioned me inside a small, dark building with walls lined by Styrofoam coolers incubators. Disappearing in the back, he soon returned cradling a purple plastic tub.

Inside was a squirming mass of hundreds of briquette-sized sea turtles, awaiting their release that night. The strong would make it out to sea, the females among them returning to the beach in seven to nine years to lay their own eggs. The weak would be at the mercy of the seabirds.

Rob Hancock was a home builder in Breckenridge, Colo., where he grew tired of working in the cold. He recruited five other American investors and in 1997 began searching the Pacific Coast north of Puerto Vallarta. Below the cliffside town of Platanitos, Hancock found his tropical paradise, 45 acres of beachfront property planted with coconut palms, their trunks painted white to repel ants and other climbing insects.

The project initially will build 31 homes on 22 acres. Nearly 45 percent of the property is devoted to common areas with a pool on the groomed grounds, which are decorated with lush gardens designed by Hancock's partner, Karen Nelson.

"The gardens create habitat we have more insects, more birds, more iguanas," Nelson said. "We grow vegetables organically, and have a nursery to grow ornamental plants. We use no chemicals, no fertilizers."

Hancock led a tour of one of the homes nearing completion. The Mediterranean-style home was palatial, with marble floors, onyx light fixtures, granite counters in a designer kitchen and glass doors in the living room and master bedroom that open to the beach, 125 feet away. Because this home is the most luxurious so far, nightly rentals range from $275 to $325.

We walked out onto the sand and looked down the empty beach.

"That's what I want it to look like 20 years from now the only building you'll see is the turtle camp," Hancock said. "When you walk down the beach, you'll see palm trees and sand. You won't see hotels right down to the last wave."

Armando Santiago Navarrete is a native of San Blas who takes tourists fishing, whale-watching, sightseeing and bird-watching. His perfect English is the result of a brief stay in California. "I learned by watching TV a lot," he said. "Mostly cartoons and 'The Three Stooges.'"

As we paddled our boat to a mudflat in the estuary, Navarrete pointed out the plant and animal life. "You can see some 320 species of birds in a week 50 species each time out," he said. "That's a spotted sandpiper. See how it wiggles its tail while feeding."

Having a guide like Navarrete was invaluable. I ventured back into the estuary alone the next morning, and backed my kayak into a mangrove tangle to hide while watching the birds. After an hour or so, I tried to leave but the tide had gone out, and I was mired in mud. Pulling the kayak out to water in knee-deep, and at times elbow-deep, muck was an enlightening experience.

Eating is an art in Mexico, where everything stops in early afternoon for the main meal of the day.

We paddled across the estuary to the small town of Platanitos and ate fresh oysters, shrimp and red snapper grilled over a log fire at Restaurant Ruiz, one of a string of open-air restaurants along a beach full of local families celebrating Sunday.

Another day, Navarrete took us on his boat to his hometown of San Blas, where we roamed the stalls in the square and then feasted on octopus on slivers of caramelized apple, chicken enchiladas and the world's best ceviche, a marinated raw-fish appetizer, at the stylish Hotel Garza Canela.

But the grandest display of gluttony came at the tiny village of Otates, where Hancock arranged for 10 of the local cooks to make us their specialties. The streets were dusty and had more chickens and dogs than cars, but the Cenaduria Los 3 Potrillos Diner of the Three Young Wild Horses was spotless.

The ladies waiting inside spoke no English, but treated us like royalty as they served:

Three kinds of tamales: sweet with pineapple and raisins, chicken with chiles and cheese with chiles.

Frijoles puercos: refried beans with cheese, chiles and chorizo.

Beef taquitos.

Posole: hominy soup.

Chile rellenos: dry and with tomato sauce.

Birria: beef stew with chiles.

Albondigas: beef and pork meatballs.

Nopales: cactus salad.

Sopa de arroz: white rice with chiles, carrots, corn and butter.

The turtle camp at Playa Las Tortugas has three staffers working in a modest collection of buildings. Veterinarian Miguel Angel Flores Peregrina is in charge. He said the camp found 286 nests when it opened 12 years ago. This year, workers tallied 1,016 nests, mostly olive Ridley turtles, and collected nearly 97,000 eggs, 94 percent of which hatched with the babies released into the sea.

"The major change is the increase in protection from poachers," Peregrina said. "One night I found three poachers with a turtle that was digging a nest. They had machetes. I said they shouldn't be taking the eggs. They got mad and flipped the turtle over on her back and left. The adult will not lay its eggs after that. It will go back in the ocean."

During the nesting season, from about mid-June through November, members of the camp use an ATV to patrol the beach. The season was winding down during my visit. Five turtles were found the night before I arrived, but none the next night.

I wasn't optimistic when invited to ride "the moto" on a turtle patrol, because a previous turtle-hunting experience had been a bust. Carlos, a young worker at the camp, was at the throttle and brought a friend, Sarah, who shared the back of the ATV with me. We watched as a school group of teenagers released 1,200 baby turtles, then sped off into the darkness.

The routine is to wait an hour at the river, allowing time for other turtles to come ashore. I lay on the sand watching the stars, then walked farther down the beach as Carlos and Sarah chatted in Spanish. Within minutes, my headlamp shone on a large creature coming in with the surf a sea turtle!

I turned to get the others, but raced back to make sure it really was a turtle. At the ATV, I tried to be cool. Carlos and Sarah continued to talk as I grabbed my camera backpack and headed down the beach. "Tortuga," I said without squealing.

The turtle was digging with its hind legs when we arrived back. We watched in the darkness until the eggs began to drop, and Carlos said we could turn on our lights without disturbing the mother. Huge tears rolled down her face legend says the turtles cry because they will never see their babies.

Carlos gathered all the eggs, each the size of a pingpong ball, into a plastic bag and measured the length of the turtle as it carefully buried the empty nest. Laboriously, the turtle turned and trudged to the sea, disappearing into the blackness. Carlos scooped up another bag of sand from the nest to be placed in the Styrofoam incubator and filled out a data sheet on the tides, stars and phase of the moon. He counted the eggs 122.

I felt like a proud papa.

If you go . . .

After flying into Puerto Vallarta, you'll need to either rent a car or arrange with Playa Las Tortugas for a ride to the development. The charge for the ride is $135 one way, with a one-hour stop at either Sam's Club or Wal-Mart to pick up supplies. The ride is 78 miles and takes nearly two hours, although much of it is scenic. The final six miles is on a bumpy gravel road.

Volunteering at the turtle camp: Most work is at night, when nesting turtles arrive and hatchlings are released. Guests staying at Playa Las Tortugas are invited to take part in egg collecting and hatchling releases. Volunteers at the camp pay their own expenses, including meals, and share a sleeping area in a thatched hut. Utilities are basic. The reward is working with the turtles, as well as spending time on a pristine beach perfect for surfing and boogie-boarding. To arrange a visit to the camp, or to make a donation, email

Information: (800)320-7769, email, or write to Playa Las Tortugas, Las Palmeras No. 13, Colonia Las Fuentes, Otates, Nayarit, C.P. 63710 Mexico.

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