The setting of MONTERRICO is one of the finest on the Pacific coast, with the scenery reduced to its basic elements: a strip of dead-straight sand, a line of powerful surf, a huge empty ocean and an enormous curving horizon. The village is a bit scruffy but steadily being smartened up. It’s a friendly and relaxed place fringed by the waters of the Canal de Chiquimulilla, which weaves through a fantastic network of mangrove swamps. The atmosphere changes a little on weekends when party-geared visitors from the capital fill up the hotels.
Monterrico sits at the heart of the Biotopo Monterrico–Hawaii, a nature reserve that embraces a 20km-long beach-blessed slice of the Pacific coast and includes a vital turtle-nesting ground, abundant wetlands and the small villages of Monterrico and Hawaii. Sadly, however, the reserve’s officially protected status does not prevent the widespread poaching of turtle eggs.
Watching a turtle lay her eggs at Monterrico should be a memorable experience, but the presence of the local hueveros (egg collectors) may ensure that it’s not. In season, Baule beach is patrolled by sentries scanning the waves for turtles. After a turtle comes ashore and lays its eggs, these poachers delve straight into the nest. Most foreign witnesses are content to take a photo before the turtle claws its way back to the ocean (note that you shouldn’t use flash photography as it can upset and disorient the turtles). Braver souls who have challenged the hueveros have been threatened with machetes.
Officially the taking of eggs is outlawed, but an informal deal has been struck so that out of every clutch of eggs collected, a dozen are donated to the reserve’s turtle hatchery, from where thousands of baby turtles are released each year. This agreement is designed to ease relations between the local community, who sell the eggs for US$2.50 a dozen, and the conservationists. The ethics may be debatable, but some visitors buy entire clutches from hueveros (most of whom are extremely poor) and donate these eggs to the CECON hatchery.
The huge, sparsely populated expanses of beach around Monterrico are prime nesting sites for three types of sea turtle, including the largest of them all, the giant leatherback. The reserve was originally established to protect the turtles from the soup pot and curb the collection of their eggs, which are considered an aphrodisiac in Guatemala. Further dangers to the turtles include being hunted for their shells, drowned inside fishing nets and poisoned by pollution, especially plastic bags that resemble jellyfish, a favourite food. Turtles almost always nest in the dark, and on a moonless night during egg-laying season, you have a good chance of seeing one in Monterrico.
The gargantuan leatherback is by far the largest of the world’s turtles, growing up to 3m in length and weighing up to 900kg. Called baule in Spanish, the leatherback gives the beach at Monterrico its name. They feed almost exclusively on jellyfish, diving as deep as 1200m below the surface in search of its prey. It’s the only turtle not to have a hard exterior shell; instead it has a layer of black, soft, rubbery skin. The leatherback frequents tropical and temperate waters from Malaysia to Scotland and makes one of the longest migrations of any creature on earth – one turtle was tracked journeying 20,000km from Indonesia to the US. The species, which has been around for one hundred million years, is in severe danger of extinction as a result of long-line fishing and gill netting. It nests at Monterrico between mid-October and late December. Nestings have plummeted in the Monterrico region in recent years, with only a handful recorded now each season.
Spread throughout the tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, the Olive Ridley is the most numerous of the world’s eight species of marine turtle and also one of the smallest, typically around 80cm long and weighing around 35kg. Olive Ridleys gather in huge numbers off favoured beaches to mate, after which the females return en masse to nest. They are omnivores, feeding on fish and shrimp as well as sea grass and algae. They are common visitors at Monterrico (where they are known as parlamas) during their nesting season between July and December.
Green turtles reach more than a metre in length, typically weigh 200kg and have a characteristic dark heart-shaped shell. They are found throughout the tropics and are mainly herbivores, eating sea grasses. Historically, green turtles have been killed for their fat in many parts of the world. It’s this fat, which is green in colour – their shells are usually muddy brown or grey – that gives the turtle its name. The green turtle nesting season in Monterrico is also from July to December.
All the species of turtle use similar nesting techniques, hauling themselves up the beach, laboriously digging a hole about 50cm deep with their flippers, and then with great effort depositing a clutch of a hundred or so soft, golfball-sized eggs. The turtles then bury the eggs and head back into the ocean. The eggs of the two smaller turtles take about fifty days to hatch, those of the leatherback require 72. When their time comes, the tiny turtles, no larger than the palm of your hand, use their flippers to dig their way out and make a mad dash for the water, desperately trying to avoid the waiting seabirds. Once they are in the water, their existence is still very hazardous for the first few years of life; only one in a hundred makes it to maturity.