This protected biotope (www.visitmonterrico.com) encompasses the beaches and mangrove swamps of Monterrico and those of adjacent Parque Hawaii, which are the prime nesting sites for sea turtles on Guatemala’s Pacific seaboard, including the giant leatherback and smaller olive ridley turtles.
If you’re traveling to the Monterrico-Hawaii area between June and December, you might have the opportunity to witness a sea turtle coming ashore to lay its eggs or watch baby sea turtles making their maiden voyage out to sea. Turtle nesting peaks during August and September, when you might be able to catch a large leatherback (baule) or the smaller olive ridley (parlama) coming ashore to lay eggs.
Locals are also on the lookout for egg-laying sea turtles to snatch up the eggs and sell them, but under an agreement with the CECON (San Carlos University Center for Conservation Studies, www.usac.edu.gt/cecon) monitoring station at Monterrico and ARCAS (Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association, www.arcasguatemala.com) in Hawaii, they donate part of their stash toward conservation efforts. Your best bet for seeing a nesting turtle is to go with one of the CECON-trained guides or volunteer with ARCAS.
In the heart of town and run by CECON, the Tortugario Monterrico (on the sandy street just behind Johnny’s Place, 8 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. daily, $1) encompasses a turtle hatchery right on the beach, where collected eggs are reburied and allowed to hatch under protected conditions. There’s also a visitors center. In addition to baby sea turtles, the hatchery has enclosures housing green iguanas, crocodiles, and freshwater turtles bred on-site for release into the wild.
Volunteers are welcome at both the CECON and ARCAS stations. Among the duties are the collection of turtle eggs after the mothers have come ashore and moving them to a protected nesting site, where they are reburied and allowed to hatch. Typical incubation period for olive ridley eggs is 50 days, 72 for leatherbacks. After a few days in a holding pen, the young turtles are released, either at sunrise or sunset.
The CECON station (www.visitmonterrico.com) at Monterrico releases about 5,000 sea turtle hatchlings per year. If you’re there on a Saturday night between September and February, don’t miss the sunset sea turtle race sponsored by the CECON turtle hatchery. For just a $2 donation, you can pick a winner from a batch of recently hatched baby sea turtles. Set it at the starting line and wait for the ”go” signal before watching it make its dash across the sand and into the sea.
If your turtle is the first to make it across a string near the waterline, you’ll win free dinner for two at one of the local hotels. Whether or not your turtle wins, you can’t beat the feeling of holding one of these remarkable creatures in your hand and pondering its fate against the elements and overwhelming odds.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com