We took a microbus (minivan) from León to Chinandega. We could see tree-coated volcanoes right from start, flickering like a zoetrope through the trees at the side of road. While I tried to take photos of the view, a lady beside me brushed her hand on my shoulder. I reluctantly turned to see what she wanted but she was just keen to tell me that the view would be better for photos after the next bend in the road. She was just being kind. Somehow we fell into conversation in spite of my knowing only a few words of Spanish. The lady explained how the volcanoes had sent landslides across the plain and over the road, flattening homes and killing many. we talked about earthquakes and tornadoes. She wrote her phone number in our book in case we ever needed help, then negotiated a taxi for us when we reached our stop.
On the other side of Chinandega we climbed onto an old American school bus. One of those classic yellow Bluebird Line buses that have been converted and given a new life all over the Americas. It would be our first of dozens. The aisle quickly filled with hawkers selling unhealthy snacks, fizzy drinks and plastic bas of water, each one yelling over the others. As the bus pulled out of the station they banged on the windows to be let off. Only one remained, this time carrying no food, just some booklets. He broke into a breathless, ten-minute spiel that I couldn’t understand, before walking down the aisle selling the booklets to a few of the passengers. They were cooking recipes based on local ingredients, that claimed to fix everything from Arthritis to Asthma. This happened a lot on buses in the region, selling vitamins and other promises of a healthy future.
We were aiming for Jiquilillo (if you haven’t got your Spanish pronunciation down it’s like hee-kee-leeyo) but somehow overshot it and alighted in the next community north, Los Zorros. This was the last in a string of small communities that lead up to the Padre Ramos nature reserve, near the northwestern corner of the country. The bus bounced along a stony track, skirting a dark grey beach and rolling waves beyond. We took a room at the first place we tried, Rancho Tranquilo. It consisted of about six separate palm-thatched huts, laid in a row leading towards the beach. At either end was a small communal, open-sided shack, one serving as a bar and the other as a dining area. It was nearly empty and overwhelmingly peaceful.
The three other guests in the hotel were all German. We were immediately joined by two of them for a tour of the mangroves with a local guide. The guide spoke little English, and was far from expert on the local flora and fauna, but he was a cool guy. Accompanied by two friendly local teenagers, our little group felt authentic. We paddled into a beautiful mangrove-fringed inlet under searing sunshine. We saw little, just a few birds, a big spider, some small shoals of tiny fish that chattered and splashed at the surface before instantly disappearing in a united dash for cover. Crabs climbed out of the water and through the trees around us, as we drifted deep into the tangle of branches.
We walked to a viewpoint on a hill overlooking the mangrove. From there we could see a dark wall of rain-heavy cloud creeping over the area. I took over from one of the teenagers at the paddle, to work with our guide and get back as fast as we could. It started to rain instantly. Just sporadic drops on the flat water surface around us. It worsened in discrete steps, and soon we were paddling hard against a blinding deluge. Rain filled the air until it became a fog, closing our world around us and turning the glassy water into a carpet of dancing white bubbles. Lightning forked over the dark mangroves. I counted the delay: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand… ten seconds before the boom. What does that make it, three kilometres? Then moments later another, this time at seven seconds. I kept smiling and laughing but in my head I was secretly trying to rationalise what threat there might be to our safety. More flashes and crashes, getting slightly nearer until, just as we were arriving back at the landing, a single bolt struck in front of our bow, leaving a purple line in our vision when we closed our eyes for several seconds afterwards. That time the delay was three seconds. And no sooner were we on land that the rain passed by and took the danger with it.
The storm helped to cast one of the most beautiful sunsets either of us had ever seen. We walked alone on the beach, watching it play out over the water. The sky on the land side was electric blue and cloud-scudded, while over the sea there was the thick, black blanket of the storm, reaching down to a huge sun that set just between where the two skies met. Flashes from the passing storm continued silently, then were later accompanied by low rumbles and a smattering of rain that ran into the night. Out there in the dark, at the end of the world, we were ready for bed at eight.
One guest, a German lady called Simone, came every year for three months to help turtle hatchlings make it into the ocean, and educate the locals on why they shouldn’t poach and eat the eggs. It was estimated that 100 poachers walked that beach every night looking for eggs. Before bed, I stood in the rain and looked out over the beach but could see nothing in the cloud-covered night. Then a flash and the beach was flood-lit like daytime. Someone was walking on the sand nearby, hiding his torchlight from me. Perhaps a poacher. I felt a desperation for those turtles.
On our second day at Los Zorros, the big rain came early, at lunchtime, followed by waves of light rain that lingered into the night. During a dry spell we walked a couple of kilometres north along the dark sand and sat for a while. Fleets of birds scudded just above the sea, including pelicans, gliding in small squadrons so low to the surface they disappeared behind the small waves that barrelled relentlessly in the shallows. Dragonflies and butterflies passed on wavering flightpaths, while crabs and wading birds skittered about in the sand. There was no sunset, just a gradual dimming of the grey air.
The rain had knocked-out the power at the rancho so we ate dinner by candlelight and sat at the table with locals Isabel and Mami, talking about politics, gender, crime, family, everything, all in Spanish, somehow understanding nearly all of it. In the darkness, with no other guests about, we hit our bed at 20:00 and huddled under the mosquito net to watch an episode of Game of Thrones on my laptop, using a headphone splitter so we could get good sound. I’ve never travelled with my laptop before. It makes feel a kind of techno-guilt. But it’s a treat when the air outside is wet and there’s nobody around.
Some time later we awoke from deep sleep to a confusing disturbance. A noise. But did we even hear anything? Maybe not. Then another noise, this time for sure. A door being knocked. Not ours though, the sound was too faint.
“Hello, guys?” It was a German accent, it must have been Simone. But who was she after? Wait, who else was there apart from us? Nobody. And the knocking must have only sounded faint due to the constant background roar of the nearby waves.
“Hello”, I called out.
“I have some turtle eggs if you want to see?”
Suddenly the reality of our environment and situation flooded in. It must have been early morning. I grabbed my mobile to see what god-forsaken time it was. 22:17. We’d been asleep for half an hour.
Simone had constructed a turtle egg hatchery at our rancho, right next to the bar. It was a rectangular plot in the sand, about four metres by one metre, divided into ten units and surrounded with netting. After we had dressed we found her in the hatchery, wearing latex gloves and holding a large yellow shopping bag full of what looked like ping pong balls. She got on her knees and began digging with her hand.
The hatchery was designed to mimic typical turtle nests so there are clear specifications for its construction. Simone dug 45cm down in a narrow vertical tunnel just wider than her arm, then gouged out a spherical chamber the size of football, starting about 15cm below the surface. She dug vigorously, explaining the process as she went. This was obviously a familiar chore. She then poured the eggs out of the bag with one hand wedged into the neck of the hole to soften the impact on the falling eggs. Then the hole was loosely filled-in, smoothed over and padded down – all actions that a turtle mother would instinctively perform at a real nest.
After carefully backing out of the hatchery Simone addressed us. “Okay–“ In a swift, straight-talking manner, she told us that the best location for turtles was from the rancho itself to about 1.5km north along the beach. If we saw a poacher we were to speak to him, tell him he can get paid for the eggs back at the rancho and bring him back with the eggs.
“Okay”, she said again, and walked off to her cabaña, leaving us with a plastic bag and a pair of gloves. “And”, she added before disappearing, “do not use any lights on the beach”.
We walked along the beach in the darkness, wondering what the hell we were doing. It was a full moon but a thin layer of cloud covered the entire sky and dropped one of those rains so fine we never really got wet. There was enough light to discern shells and rocks on the beach, and the vague figures of the poachers walking and cycling up and down. There were dozens of them. We hoped to see a turtle, stopping at every anomalous shadow only to find that it was nothing of interest. When we first came close to a poacher, he was lingering, motionless, straddling a bicycle. We didn’t know what to do so we just waved awkwardly and called “buenas noches” to him. He mumbled something back, lost under the drone of the waves. We had no idea if we were safe there, and tried to fight away the feeling that we might not be.
Expecting that we could spend most of the night on the beach without seeing any turtles, we were surprised to find some tracks in the sand after just a couple of hundred metres. An unbroken line about 20cm wide ran straight from the sea to the weeds above the beach. Either side of the line were alternate track marks, oriented diagonally, like the marks of a tractor tire. Surely this was a turtle track, made by its flippers on either side, dragging its belly across the sand. We squinted into the darkness. There was a scratching sound. Something was there. As we walked closer, a lump moved in front of us and we froze. Then we saw her, huge and steady, moving towards us with the determination of a landslide. She held her vast block of a head high and lumbered steadily towards the waves. As she passed just a couple of metres away we heard her snuffling breath and the grinding of her flippers in the sand. One of the most thrilling aspects of encountering wild animals is not just the very true adage that they’re bigger in real life than on TV, it is also about discovering them with all the other senses. It’s the sounds, the smells, the feel.
A poacher stopped on his bike beside us, walked over to her rear and shone a torch on it, presumably looking for some indication of her having laid. He switched off the torch and rode away. We followed the turtle’s track back to an area of disturbed sand a couple of metres across, piled up on one side and flat on the other. We didn’t know what to do. It seemed likely that she had just laid there but if so we had to wonder why the poacher would have left without his spoils. Maybe he didn’t want to do anything with us there. Maybe this was our chance, only minutes into our first foray as volunteer conservationists, to save a clutch of precious turtle eggs. We dropped to our knees beside the flat patch of sand and dug as fast as we could with our hands. We found nothing. We just walked away, leaving an empty hole on the beach, worrying now that could have spoiled a live nest.
We encountered another poacher a few minutes later. He was standing at the top of a turtle track, holding his torch by his side and acting like nothing was going on. We made our best effort to engage with him in Spanish. Maeve spoke, asking if he knew that there was a lady who would buy eggs from him. He seemed to know but claimed that there were no eggs there. We didn’t understand much but from his gestures he seemed to be explaining how to tell if a turtle had just laid. Maybe he was guarding a fresh clutch. But we’d done all we could. He was quite a big guy, in his early twenties, but his body language was passive. We walked away feeling awkward and increasingly scared.
We covered about 1.5km then turned back, speaking to a few poachers along the way. Individual men didn’t feel like much threat, especially the ones that turned out to be old guys once we were close enough to see. The younger ones made us a little less comfortable. But occasionally we passed groups of two, three, four men, some with three-foot-long machetes beside them. One group in particular put us on edge. They were standing by some turtle tracks, facing out to sea, machete standing in the sand behind them. They seemed to be waiting for us to go. Simone had explained that some of the poachers would do things like cut the live turtles open to extract their eggs if they hadn’t laid, but were unlikely to do so with westerners around. Was this what they were waiting for? Was there a doomed turtle in the bushes behind them, having spent decades in the ocean surviving with the single mission of returning to this beach to lay? Were they just passing time on the beach? We had no idea.
Once we were within a few hundred metres of the rancho I noticed a couple of guys walking in the shallows a short way behind us. They were walking fast. Nobody walks fast in this part of the world, I thought. It’s probably not a threat but how do we know? I took Maeve’s hand and hurried her on, to see if they would increase their pace to catch us. They just kept at the same distance, matched with our speed. A few metres from the rancho we turned inland to approach it. The men turned too, walking fast towards us. We would make it home first but we could see that the night watchman wasn’t about, the place was deserted.
I looked back again, now under the floodlit area in front of the rancho. It wasn’t two men, it was just one. He had a torch and was carrying something heavy. A bag. Eggs. He was bringing eggs in return for money. He called “buenas noches” to us and joined us at the bar. Maeve went to wake up Simone while I donned the gloves and began counting the eggs in front of him. 120 as I recall, a big clutch. Simone was pleased. She paid him a few hundred Cordobas, twice as much as he would have got at the market. He thanked us and disappeared into the darkness. Then we dug the nest, under Simone’s guidance, and buried the eggs, carefully pouring them into their new home. Then, over the next couple of hours, another two or three poachers came with eggs, before Simone was exhausted and told the nightwatchman to stop any further arrivals, so she could sleep. I think we got four new nests that night, not bad.
We tried again the next night but somehow felt more uncomfortable than we had the first time, perhaps because there had been time to mull over the potential danger, even if it actually didn’t exist. We gave up early. But already during that day we had joined Simone and a couple of other resident conservationists, plus a few keen volunteers like us, to help some new turtles hatch. After Simone plucked them from their nests, we released them on the beach. By some wonderful evolutionary influence they scurried instinctively towards the water for a few metres, before we scooped them up again and put them back in their bucket. Then one of the conservation staff, accompanied by our friend Monica, swam through the breaking waves with the tiny turtles, and released them in the deep water. The whole exercise was designed to give them a relatively natural experience in the sand, followed by a good chance of survival by skipping the treacherous waves.
All this made us wonder. Forty five days after we buried the eggs that we had helped rescue, could a few of them emerge and waddle down to the ocean under the supervision of one of the conservationists? Then 15, 20 years later one of the females might drag herself back up that same beach, maybe in a future that wouldn’t involved them being threatened by humans. As I write these words, I cannot know that future, but I can say that we got an email from Simone at the end of the season, telling us that our nest had hatched with an impressive 70 little baby “tortugitas”.
See the Flickr album: Outbound, Managua, León, Padre Ramos