Guatemala is known for many things, but rescuing baby sea turtles hasn’t been one of them. Still, the Pacific Coast of this small central American country is the nesting site for three species of endangered sea turtles. Join Gringa TravleingMom Marina Villatoro, an expat living in Guatemala, and her boys to learn about the sea turtles of Guatemala and the efforts by many organizations to save these endangered gems.
Rescuing Baby Sea Turtles in Guatemala
Guatemala doesn’t have a large sea turtle population, but the country is making a large effort to protect those that are here. One of these attempts is offering turtle release tours.
Guatemala is a small country in Central America with tons of Mayan archaeological sites, a colorful colonial city (La Antigua) and a vast array of natural beauty to enjoy. It is also home to many different ethnic groups, each with a slightly different culture.
Those are all great reasons to visit the country, and many travelers do. But there is a region that is less frequented by travelers. The Pacific Coast doesn’t have the white sanded beaches, large resorts and tranquil waters that usually draw tourists in. The few that visit here are locals looking for a good party or travelers who seek to surf the huge Pacific Coast waves.
The Pacific Coast of Guatemala is also the nesting site for three species of endangered sea turtles. It is, in fact, one of the few places in the world that is home to so many species. These turtles are extremely important to preserving the marine habitats.
That’s why a bunch of locals and visitors started getting together to protect the nests from people who take the eggs to sell them. A few rescue centers now in the region are working hard to increase the number of turtles that come back every year to lay their eggs.
But before I jump in and start talking about the different organizations doing this work and offering turtle release tours, let me introduce you to the turtles that inhabit the area during the nesting season.
Sea Turtle Species That Nest In Guatemala
Olive Ridley Turtles
Olive Ridley Sea Turtles might be the species of sea turtle with the healthiest population out there. However, even they are endangered. They love to swim the open ocean, so they won’t be found near reefs. In Guatemala they can be seen nesting in Monterrico. Here are four facts about them:
1. Olive Ridley sea turtles have an average weight of just over 100 pounds each when they reach adulthood.
2. They make an amazing trip across the ocean from the Atlantic Ocean to return to nest on the same beach they are born.
3. They get their names after the olive-green color of its heart-shaped shell.
4. The Olive Ridley sea turtle nesting season happens in Guatemala’s rainy season, peaking in September, but low nesting (2-4 turtles per night) occurs throughout the year.
Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Contrary to the Olive Ridley, these guys spend most of their time in shallow water and coral reefs. This makes them especially vulnerable to human contact and depredation and are now critically endangered. Check out these facts about them:
1. Hawksbill shells are unique, after a lot of research scientists discovered a slight change of colors, depending on water temperature.
2. Due to its consumption of venomous cnidarians, hawksbill sea turtle flesh can become toxic. Yet another reason not to bother them!
3. The hawksbill gets its name for the look of its long and pointy nose. It is used to be able to break the hard coral reef that they feed on.
4. Because of their tough carapaces, adults’ only predators are sharks, estuarine crocodiles, octopuses, and some species of pelagic fish.
Leatherback Sea Turtle
This is the largest of all sea turtle species out there. Another thing that makes it special and easy to distinguish from other species is the fact that it doesn’t have a bony shell. Instead, if you touch it you will notice that it is covered in a dark oily type of skin. Here are 4 other facts about them:
1. Leatherbacks have been viewed as unique among extant reptiles for their ability to maintain high body temperatures using metabolically generated heat, or endothermy.
2. As I said before these are the largest sea turtles out there, the can reach up to 2 meters long.
3. Leatherback turtles are one of the deepest-diving marine animals. Individuals have been recorded diving to depths as great as 1,280m. Typical dive durations are between 3 and 8 minutes, but dives of 30–70 minutes have been recorded often.
4. Leatherback turtles can be found primarily in the open ocean and their diet consists mainly of jelly fish.
Where to Stay When Rescuing Baby Sea Turtles in Guatemala
Most of the turtle releasing centers are in and around Monterrico. This is the main town of the area, where most of the hotels and restaurants are.
Whenever we’ve stayed in the area we usually stayed at one of the hotels. Most of the hotels here are budget style hotels.There are only two that are more on the comfort and luxury side. Around here, comfort and luxury means air conditioning and screened off rooms.
Not that I’m one of those air-condition-only people, but on the Guatemalan coast it is a necessity. And the mosquitoes can be relentless, so when you have an air-conditioned room, it pretty much guarantees that the room will be almost mosquito free.
Vacation rentals in Guatemala
Traveling with kids I have truly fallen in love with having a home away from home, as in, staying in vacation rentals. Funny enough having a full beach house with a pool is almost the same price as a one room in a hotel with air conditioning.
With a house, you get a living space, kitchen, bedroom(s), several bathrooms and, most importantly, an awesome outside area with a private pool.
We headed to Casa Pelicanos, a vacation rental near the beach. We had stayed there before and now that my kids were begging to rescue the turtles I couldn’t think of a better way to do it.
There are seven vacation rental complexes in the area.The smallest can house 12 people and the biggest can house 24. All have private pools and are just two minutes from a gorgeous, almost private beach. It is not right in the heart of Monterrico, which in my opinion is a good thing. It’s about 20 minutes away by car.
Vacation Rental Perks
Outside of having AC, private pool, and footsteps from the beach, these rentals offer some seriously great perks. The one we took full advantage of was the private chef.
Before heading to the rescue center, she came over and cooked us up a fresh seafood lunch.
For less than $30US, we had homemade fried shrimp, which the lady bought fresh from the fisherman, with rice and a fresh salad.
This fed eight people. Yes, that’s right. For the price of what would normally be for two people, Casa Pelicanos offers this incredible service, and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home.
Sea Turtle Rescue Centers and Organizations in Guatemala
According to the government there are 21 organizations doing a great job but I only know of five on different spots of the Pacific Coast:
1. Tortugario El Banco – You will find this one in a small town called El Banco, in the Santa Rosa Department. They work with the community with a donation kind of style. Locals allow them to have 20 eggs from each nest that is found (sea turtle eggs are normally commercialized so locals don’t allow them to take them all). The eggs are then taken to protected areas where the little turtles can be born safely. They have been doing this for 16 years.
2. Tortugario El Gariton – It is the result of an educational project from Instituto Austricaco and Colegio Viena, two large schools of the country. It has been working for 25 years with a double purpose: a) educating new generations about the importance of sea turtles and b) fighting the extinction of these animals by looking after eggs and making sure as many baby turtles as possible reach the sea. Visitors can spend the night in it for $5.
3. Tortugario El Rosario – Also known as ARCAS. It was born in 2001 and is located in Monterrico. In 2015 they were able to rescue 14114 Olive Ridley Sea Turtle eggs. Aside from 2 sea turtle rescue centers they also have one for other endangered animals up north in Peten.
4. Tortugario Hawaii – This is the second location of ARCAS dedicated to protecting sea turtles. 41256 were rescued by them last year. They also dedicate their efforts into caring for injured crocodiles and iguanas.
5. Tortugario La Candelaria – This project started in 1982 and has had a lot of trouble to take off. Mainly because of the lack of financial support of the government. However they managed to find a group of local volunteers that have been working hard, but money is still tight.