searching for turtles

I had heard about the “turtle runs” in my travel book, from other travelers and from our hotel owner.  It seemed that this month the turtle eggs were hatching and if you arrived at just the right time you could watch them crawl up out of the sand, across the sandbeach and into the ocean where they would begin their lives and someday come back again and lay their own eggs.  I really wanted to see baby turtles in the wild.

As I had my own truck, getting around was a breeze.  My intended destination was the Marine preserve at the La Flor Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes south of San Juan del Sur.  I invited Jeff and some Canadian girls from our hotel but no one wanted to get out of bed so I went (truck) trekking on my own.  After driving inland from the beach I headed south on the isthmus.  Towards the east I could see Lake Nicaragua and Ometepe Island with its volcano making some steam high up in the sky (top photo).

As I neared La Flor I came to a bridge that spanned a lagoon that led in from the ocean towards Lake Nicaragua.  Everywhere I looked I saw hundreds and hundreds of beautiful white birds.  I pulled off the road and enjoyed the nature and scenery and captured some photos (below).  I am quite impressed with the untouched wilderness and unspoiled natural setting of this area.  There is no way that it will stay like this.  I can foresee, in 20 or 30 years, this entire area packed full of high-rise hotels and condominiums.

As I turned off of the main highway and back into the hills separating the ocean from the isthmus I came across these two young lads who were selling their “fresh catch” to passing motorists.  I had never tried Iguana and was quite curious to know what it tastes like.  Later, as I talked to some of the locals I found that there are quite a few recipes for it (as well as for turtle eggs).

I found the parking lot and set the blazer.  Immediately after I exited the truck I noticed several magpies and vultures sitting around just “waiting.”  They seemed to know that the turtles were hatching and they were just ready to pounce on any that surfaced.  As I neared the sea I could see that the high tide had exposed some eggs and the birds were digging and feasting on the helpless turtles who had not yet hatched.  My guide book says that only 1% to 3% of the turtles will survive to mate and make more turtles.  I guess this is why so many eggs are laid.  It is sad to think that humans contribute to lowering the turtles odds.  I’m sure that the 3% batches are in remote areas and the 1% are in areas where men can find them.

Looking up the beach towards the northwest I couldn’t see a living thing aside from the sea birds.  There were no people, no signs of civilization, no buildings, nothing but clean sand and unspoiled nature.  I was wishing that some friends had come along and that we had brought a picnic lunch and maybe a few beers.  It would have been nice to spend the say on this beach and have it all to ourselves.  Well, I was alone so I just enjoyed the peace and solitude and wandered around soaking in the view.

Along the hills there was thick jungle and in the sand I could find large shells – something new to me having grown up in Los Angeles where the beaches are picked clean by millions of tourists.  There were no life guards here, no beach patrol and certainly no trash collector to haul away the drift wood.  It was nice to see a “natural” beach after so many years.

I walked around for a few hours looking to see if I could spot a place where the turtles might emerge in the moonlight that was coming this evening.  I wanted to scout out a good spot so that I could come back, flashlight in hand and watch these little creatures experience their first fresh air and dash to the beach.

As I walked down the beach I came to a large lagoon that fed inland.  Inside I could see hundreds of baby fish as they darted about in the shallow water.  I took my shoes off and waded in and found the water to be surprisingly warm.  The sea wind blew through the jungle trees adding another unfamiliar sound as my ears were familiar with the sounds of the crashing waves and chirps of the seagulls but not at the same time as leaves and branches swaying in the wind.  It was an amazing view and one that I will always cherish.

Later that evening we came back to this lagoon and watched as the bats skimmed the water catching the baby fish as they broke the water surface to eat bugs and mosquitos.

After spending a wonderful (albeit lonely) day at this pristine beach, I eventually headed back to the truck and drove back to San Juan del Sur.  When I got to the hotel I found that Jeff was a bit under the weather and wasn’t in the mood to go out that evening.  I asked around the hotel to see if anyone else was interested in coming out to see the turtles run and two Canadian girls agreed to come along.  As we drove back out to the reserve, this time in the darkness, they told me a bit about themselves.  They were both park rangers at a National Park in British Columbia, Canada.  They were on their winter leave and thought that a warm locale would be a nice break from frosty Canada.

As we drove towards La Flor I was glad that I’d gone on my “scouting trip” earlier in the day as it was dark dark dark!  It was so black outside that if my headlights broke we would have to pull over until morning.  Eventually we found the beach parking lot and headed out to the beach.

One of the first things that we noticed was a pair of men who were poaching turtle eggs.  They had a long thin metal rod and were probing the ground.  The man would lower the probe into the sand, pull it out and then run his hand along its length.  If he felt the moisture of the yolk sack on his rod, he and his friend would greedily dip up the eggs and then take them to local restaurants for sale in the morning.  And all this in a wildlife “preserve.”  We were quite incensed, but what could we do?  We were guests in this country.  It was quite aggravating to watch them and to be able to do nothing about it.

We tried to keep the flashlight turned off to save our night vision but in no time we were stepping on little crunchy things and when I turned the light on I saw there were thousands of crabs running around on the wet sand searching for food.  There were little hermit crabs in spiral shells and these odd looking crabs with purple claws and orange shoulders.

We continued walking along the beach.  The moon was not due to come out for a few hours and it was sooooo dark here that we could see the great expanse of the Milky Way and all of the stars and the planets.  I took out my little pocket size tripod and aimed the camera at the sky and set a long shutter exposure.  After a few tries I found that an 8 second exposure would allow me to see the stars without too much white noise.  In the photo below you can clearly see Orion’s Belt and the Orion Nebula on his sword (lower left side).

We walked around until the moon came up and then we searched and searched for turtles but never saw any.  It seemed that we would not have any turtle luck on this trip and I mentally noted that seeing the baby turtles run is something that I’d like to see in my life time.  I’d sure love to come back to San Juan del Sur again and try on several different nights to see them; I think that it would be a unique life experience.


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nighttime visitor

One evening I was awoken by a “scratching sound.”  I listened and listened and it sounded like a mouse was behind my suitcase.  I grabbed my flashlight and looked and saw that a little bat had “flown” down and somehow fallen behind my suitcase.  He was holding on ok but couldn’t take flight as he was wedged against the wall.

Poor little guy looked completely helpless.  I let him stay put for a bit and grabbed my camera.  After a few shots, I picked up the whole suitcase and walked out onto the balcony.  As soon as he felt the cold air on his back he took immediate flight and was back out hunting in the darkness.


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San Juan del Sur

As we traveled further and further south into Central America we kept hearing good things about San Juan del Sur.  Everyone said how peaceful and tranquil it was, its miles of unspoiled beaches and beautiful jungles and we knew that we had to get there.

Once we arrived and I had a chance to meet some of the locals and some of the expats that were living there I found out that its climate is quite unique in the Americas; it is far enough south that it is warm all year but because of its location by the ocean and next to Lake Nicaragua, it stays relatively mild all year-long.  It is located on a narrow strip of land between these two bodies of water that act like weather ballast; they keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  The weather was quite pleasant and I could see why so many American, Canadian, British and German retirees were buying houses down here.

The town itself is situated on a small cove much like  or Avalon on the island of Catalina off the coast of Los Angeles.  The cove was like a semi-closed horseshoe that blocked out the harsh Pacific waves and allowed for the small boats and yachts to anchor.  In the photo above you can see the “right” or northern shoreline of the cove.  On the north  cove a small hill rose and developers were just starting to build new houses – beautiful houses with wonderful views that reminded me of Avalon.

I learned that the town has an active sport fishing industry and beautiful swordfish and yellow tail can be caught just outside of the cove.  Hiring a boat was not too expensive and while there wasn’t a lot of “advertising” of sport fishing, just asking around on the beach you could find more than a few willing captains and crews.

Looking up the beach (photo below) you can see “restaurant row.”  There were 6 or 7 restaurants along the beach with wonderful sea food.  I found the food here to be quite unique from what I’d previously experienced in Central America.  The fish was heavy with garlic and served with some potatoes and a salad.  During the day, Spanish tutors teach lessons on the ocean-front patios and lucky students sip on fresh fruit juice with the cool breeze and a majestic view that should (and probably will) a lot more than it does.  Meals could be had for $5 to $8 and we paid $8 per night for a hotel room.  Our hotel was in an old Victorian hotel building left over from the 1800′s.  It was in need of repair but the owner had turned it into an ad hoc hostel.  We had a balcony facing the ocean just across the street.  If I had more time I would have been happy to stay here for 3 months.

This place had a lot to do.  Swimming, fishing, sunbathing, drinking beer and tequila, eating, jungle hiking, stretches of beach to the north and south for walking, watching the turtles hatch and crawl to the sea and all sorts of other fun activities.  In the photo below, looking south along the “left” edge of the cove, you can see the thick jungle and its “undeveloped” state – many western real estate developers were buying land and subdividing it and selling it to retired people from North America and Europe.

I met one of the top real estate developers in town.  He was a retired American man who had moved down here a few years earlier.  He told me that the prices are climbing each month as more and more westerners come to buy land.  Apparently, the government had just settled most of the claims for the land that was confiscated during the Communist Revolution.  By taxing new real estate development, the new government raised revenue that was used to pay off those who lost land.  In sort of a “reverse Catch-22,” no one would invest in land in Nicaragua because of the “unsettled” claims of the past.  Now, by developing land and taxing the process, the government can settle the claims thereby encouraging more development.  The real estate developer told me that it started off slow but as more people were becoming acquainted with Nicaragua the money was beginning to pour in.  He advised me to quit my job, sell everything I had and come down here, buy some land, sub-divide it, sell it off and begin anew.  He told me that fortunes were being made and as a “young man,” I should take advantage of the situation.

His words have always stayed in my head.  I surely loved San Juan del Sur and I would love to have a house by the sea.  It seemed like a perfect place to have a vacation home.

At the end of our first day, spent mostly in the ocean and on the beach, Jeff and I grabbed dinner and a cold beer.  We watched as the sun set over the deep blue Pacific and I really thought that it can’t get any better than this.  This place is really paradise and I would love to come here every year.  The people were friendly, the food was wonderful and the scenery was spectacular.

Now, the local vendors and restauranteurs of San Juan del Sur certainly had a bit more business savvy than our hotel proprietor in , but they were still a few decades behind the business savvy “Ricardo” and his jammin bar and restaurant at the “top” (read: north end) of restaurant row.  The local restaurants had a certain ambiance with the local cooking and certainly the flavor couldn’t be beat, but when it came to after hours time, Ricardo topped them all.

Now, Ricardo was no Nicaraguan  Heck, he wasn’t even from Central America.  Ricardo is a “gringo” (read: American) who immigrated to this beautiful seaside port some years ago.  In fact, his name is Rick but who would go to a bar called “Rick’s” in San Juan del Sur?  You get it, he is now “Ricardo.”  He is a fair hair-blue eyed Anglo with a beautiful American wife and a kid or two who look like they come from Holland.  But, he sure knows how to run a bar and this place was “the place” to be after sunset.  Every expat, traveler and Nicaraguan with a sense of adventure was here every night after sundown.  Rick had happy hour, nightly drink specials, the most popular music, volley ball games on the beach in front of his bar, good service, fast food and free movies every night.  Of course the movies were bootlegged but there are no copyright restrictions down here, yet.  The movies are played on a screen projected from a DVD player hooked to a projector.  The place was fun, it was “happening,” and once you looked around, you realized that San Juan del Sur is a “sleepy” little town and this is the “only” game in town.

I wondered if any of the other restaurants had any inkling of how much $ Rick was making.  If they did, they might have stayed open a little later, played some movies, had drink specials and made more of an effort.  But, the rest of the town shut down at 8 or 9 pm and Rick just cleaned up.  Beers were a buck and a half and his cost was only 40 cents.  Hundreds of drinks went down and his cost for rent is probably nil.  I’m sure he was raking in the cash.

… view from the patio at “Ricardo’s”…

In the few days we spent in San Juan del Sur, we came back to Ricardo’s each night and in no time we came to know all of the locals – Nicaraguan and expats.  There was a boisterous community of “retired” American, Canadian and German men who “hung out” at Ricardo’s each night.  All of their wives seemed to stay at home, if they had any.  We came to know the rich Nicaraguans who lived in the capital but kept vacation homes here.  Within 48 hours it was like walking onto the set of “Cheers’ except that it was an open air bar, situated on the sand of the beach and everyone was half-dressed and feeling very relaxed – a far cry from snow blown Boston.

We met the local “Peace Corps” girls who were in fact part of the same party of girls that we met in Creel, Mexico some weeks earlier.  The girls we met in Mexico had finished their tours months earlier and were on their way home and the girls here were just finishing and were about to do some travel before heading home.

I remember one night at Ricardo’s, Jeff and I were sitting with the American girls from the Peace Corps, I thought we were doing quite well with them as Jeff charmed them with one witty story after another.  Meanwhile, the local prostitute, actually there were two of them, but in this case, the one was copulating with a German or Canadian man in the bathroom stall and it was quite obvious as everyone was commenting on it.  A few of his chums were standing outside the door of the stall (no actual bathroom – the stalls face right to the bar and the doors only go up to two meters, if you are tall or have a chair, you can look down into the toilet from the bar).  His chums were gawking and laughing in a drunken stupor and all of the Peace Corps girls were quite disgusted as were many of us.

We all talked about the “ugly American”; the tourist who makes a bad name for us all.  And some of the Canadians and Germans commented that it’s not just the Americans, there is always some “bad wheel” who makes the rest of his country men look bad.  So, we commented on this bad situation.

I commented that “some day,” this episode would be a “chapter” in my “book.”  One of the lovely young American Peace Corps girls said, really, and what will you call this chapter?  I thought for a moment and responded, “San Juan del Sur; 38 drunken expats, 7 Peace Corps volunteers and a prostitute.”  The whole table erupted in laughter.  It probably wasn’t a good name for a chapter but it certainly got a laugh from everyone there.

Also during my time in San Juan I met a Nicaraguan real estate developer.  He built some beautiful houses on the hilltop on the “north” edge of the crescent that makes up the San Juan bay.  He invited Jeff and I and some local girls that we had met to come and visit the show home.  In the photo below, it is the white house on the left side of the hill directly above the person in the surf on the far left.

When we drove up and around the hill I was quite impressed by this house.  It was built into the side of the hill and was completely furnished and fitted with the latest; big screen tv, stereo, fireplace, gazebo on the hill facing the ocean, the pool and Jaccuzi both faced the ocean.  The house was 4 rooms displacing 4,000 square feet, vaulted ceilings, a 3 car garage, huge kitchen, tile floors…  I could go on and on.  It was a multi-million dollar home with a spectacular ocean view.  I was quite shocked to find that the price tag was only $350,000.  I wanted to buy it right then and there.

Often, I think back to San Juan del Sur; I hope that I’ll have enough money to come back and buy a home before the prices skyrocket.  I’ve seen Vietnam, Thailand and Croatia get developed.  There are few places in the world with “affordable” beach property.  I’d sure love to buy one of these and pass it to the grandkids…


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