Twelve minutes down a rutted dirt road, snaking through jungle, past trees with hanging bird nests, looking like balls in a Christmas stocking, I felt like I was light years away from civilization, but was, in fact, less than an hour from the busy port of Mazatlán. The cunning yellow cacique bird had learned how to protect its nest from predators, I observed, but a species like the endangered sea turtle needed some help from humans and that's where I was headed.
The road stopped at the rustic entrance to El Verde Camacho Sea Turtle Sanctuary, a stone's throw from a calm stretch of the Pacific ocean, where all this began. Declared a wildlife preserve by the Mexican government, this is where researchers have been quietly protecting nesting sea turtles for over two decades. More than 150,000 baby turtles were released last year alone, but, staggering as the numbers may seem, only an estimated 1 percent survive into adulthood, so it's easy to see why their work matters.
Our small group was met by the smiling head of the sanctuary, marine biologist Daniel Rios, and a case of bottled water to slake the thirst of the hot day. Herding us into a schoolroom-sized space with exhibits, the 40-year veteran of El Verde prepped us for the rest of the stay with photos, charts and a variety of empty shell coverings from the deep sea swimmers, explaining that the Olive Ridley, among the many species in existence, nest on this beach.
Visiting in November, this was within the time frame of July-November when the female returns to lay her eggs. "She chooses a beach because the sand warms the eggs so they can hatch," Rios said. As she trundles off to the ocean again, exhausted after expelling over 100 eggs, predators like birds, wild animals and even humans are on the lookout for the nests, he added, and that's where El Verde intervenes, keeping a watch 24/7 for telltale turtle tracks in the sand.
Rios suddenly broke off and announced that it was time to see nests and we were hustled off in groups of six, suited up with life jackets and boarded motor boats with a guide. Heading about two miles into jungle swamp, we glided to mangrove forests so thick they formed a tunnel as we motored through. Eventually coming out into the Quelite River, the boat brushed by sunning iguanas, timid baby crocs, herons looking for fish, and a few local shrimp fishermen casting nets from what looked like rickety canoes. Conversation in the boat stopped as we soaked up the stillness and breathtaking beauty of the landscape while waiting to see what nature would unfold next. The moment was interrupted when I caught sight of the river slowly fanning out to the ocean and the boat alighted on a sandbar.
I hopped on an ATV and bounced along the beach as Rios pointed to turtle tracks leading to freshly-dug nests where staff planted stakes in the hours before dawn as a signal to secure the eggs. Placed in tagged incubators, which Rios called "coolers," some will end up in a storeroom for 45 days. Others were enclosed within a huge fenced-in swath of beach in nests dug earlier in the season. Following the rest of the leisurely ride while watching some dolphins playing around in the ocean, it was time for lunch. It was also an opportunity to see how the neighboring community got involved.
Although the camp has only a few modest adobe buildings with dormitories to sleep a half-dozen or so staff, one of the biggest rooms is a full kitchen. Manned by village women who turned up to prepare our meal, they're members of SERVITUR (Tourist Services) put together by Rios seven years ago. The women come from the tiny town of El Recreo down the highway and are in charge of food preparation while the men in the group hire on as river guides and caretakers. Grocery supplies are purchased in El Recreo and the labor to build the camp is recruited from there, giving its economy a much-needed boost. At the same time, it's a deterrent to poaching, Rios said, a practice once widely-spread throughout Mexico owing to the folk myth that the raw eggs acted as an aphrodisiac. Once upon a time, turtle meat was also a staple in coastal communities like this one. "We try to educate the people to show them that it's to their benefit to help us protect the eggs," he added.
Sated by a home-cooked plate of fish, rice, quesadillas and salad, it was time to walk the beach and bid adieu to some of the babies. Once caretakers hear crackling noises from a cooler, they know turtles have begun breaking through their egg shells. So it was that I was handed three energetic hatchlings in a plastic cup, gave them names, and released them, watching as they raced to the ocean as if drawn by some inner compass.
To even up the odds a bit more, local shrimp fishermen receive from the sanctuary specially-designed nets with holes large enough for the newborns to slip through while holding larger crustaceans in place once they are swept up from the ocean.
As I headed back to the city, again marveling at the exotic hanging nests, I made a wish that my hatchlings would be the 1 percent that survived the perils of life in the sea.
How to Get There
This half-day tour is geared for families and people of all ages. Visitors to the camp do so via an organized excursion with Pronatours, which has tour desks at all El Cid hotels in Mazatlán. Call 1-888-888-8330 from the US or 669-919-7720 in Mazatlán.
Foodies take note: According to Julio Birritua, head of the Mazatlán Tourism Board, Mazatlán is poised to become Mexico's newest gastronomic destination with the recent launching of a Gastronomy Festival. It is little wonder since the shrimp port put it on the food map decades ago even before the term "foodie" found its way into reality cooking shows. Since then, Mazatlán chefs have conjured up everything from gourmet-worthy local dishes to fusion haute cuisine. The state of Sinaloa is also Mexico's largest producer of tomatoes among other veggies, which translates into farm-to-fork freshness in dining out.
And this just adds to the banner year the resort is enjoying in tourism numbers,
Carlos Berdeque, owner of the El Cid hotel chain, said. "Throughout this year, there's been a substantial upswing of 38 percent more in hotel bookings compared to last year," he added. Cruise ship arrivals also increased to 93 from 35 during the same period. Air flights from the U.S. and Canada for the winter high tourist season started earlier this year in the fall with the added demand, he said, and will continue into next spring. Another plus for the resort is that Mazatlán is part of Mexico's international marketing campaign with the tag line, the "Colonial City on the Beach," which draws more attention to us, he said. Landing on Forbes list of one of the most powerful investors in Mexico, Berdegue is a relentless supporter of tourism in Mazatlán.
As Mazatlán tourism grows, so does its new resort project 50 miles south called Playa Espiritu being developed along nine square miles of coastal property. Plans call for the first phase to be completed in 2018. According to Jesus Eduardo Bazua, regional head of FONATUR, the tourism development arm of Mexico's Secretary of Tourism, this phase will include more than 1,000 hotel rooms, a master-planned town, jetty and other infrastructure using Costa Rica as a model for sustainable tourism.
"We want to build hotels, a convention center, condos, residential area and attract brands such as Four Seasons and Iberostar," he said, referring to ideal foreign investors. So far, a 53-room business "express" hotel is the first to open. Bazua noted that in 30 to 40 years, the resort is expected to be comparable to Cancun.
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