We drive our ATV along the dark beach for hours looking for nesting sea turtles; overhead the Milky Way stretches out like a frozen firework display while powerful waves crash on the shore with a sound like roaring cannons.
This 27-kilometre stretch of beach in Mexico’s Oaxaca state near the seaside town of Puerto Escondido is the nesting ground for four species of sea turtle, and volunteers like Roberto Ibáñez López, who is steering our ATV, have been patrolling it nightly for the past eight years to collect turtle eggs before poachers do.
López is one of 10 people who volunteer for Vive Mar, a non-profit cooperative that scooped up 150,000 turtle eggs from this stretch of beach last year. They relocate the eggs to one of their four beachside nurseries where they protect and care for them before safely releasing tiny turtle hatchlings into the sea.
The biggest danger for the turtles on the beach, says López, is the people who come to steal the eggs. “They can take the eggs, but sometimes they take the turtle, too,” he explains. “Before this started, we survived like that. We came to take turtle eggs for our families for generations. Back then there were a lot of turtles, but not now. Now, we want to pay them back for helping us.”
Vive Mar gets no government assistance, but instead gets most of its funding from the Vivo Foundation, a charitable arm of Vivo Resorts, the Canadian condominium and resort development that shares this pristine Pacific Ocean beach with the turtles and other wildlife. Ever grateful to have found this coastline for his resort, Cary Mullen, a former Canadian Olympic skier and the founder and president of Vivo Resorts, started the Vivo Foundation five years ago in an effort to help local families and the environment by creating job opportunities both at the resort and through eco-tourism.
It must be working, because it’s both eco-tourism and the resort’s comforts that have drawn me to this secluded part of Mexico that feels untouched by the effects of mass tourism.
As López and I drive through the night on the beach with our headlights off, startled seabirds fly out of our way and crabs scuttle into their holes. Eventually, our flashlight catches a dark shape on the sand — an olive ridley sea turtle hauling herself up the shore looking for a suitable nesting spot. Her shell is spotted with barnacles and the light of the stars reflects on its wet surface.
We stand by silently as she struggles up the shore. We wait for her to start digging her nest, but ultimately, she turns around and lumbers back to the sea. It was a false crawl, a not-uncommon occurrence. Either we scared her off or she didn’t think it a suitable nesting area and will return to another spot later tonight.
Vivo is not a traditional resort that you might encounter in other parts of Mexico. It’s a high-end condominium development where owners of the properties come to enjoy the beautiful weather and surroundings for a portion of the year and rent their units out to vacationers when they are not there. Mullen says the choice for the location of the resort was the result of years of research.
“I was trying to find the best place to vacation or live on the beach. As a retired ski racer, I had lived in the winter for 12 months of the year for 15 years straight, so I was tired of winter when I hung up my competitive skis.”
Mullen researched more than 30 countries in his quest to find the perfect spot and made scouting trips to dozens of them, driving up countless kilometres of coastline, meeting with a parade of realtors and poring over pages of research before discovering this stretch of beach in Oaxaca in 2010. And that only happened because people who had seen the coastline of the
Mexican state kept telling him, “you should go to Puerto Escondido!”
“After the third person said that to me,” says Mullen, “I put it on my list.”
Vivo Resorts is mostly surrounded by farmland west of Puerto Escondido, but also wild areas such as nearby Laguna de Manialtepec, a 15-kilometre-long stretch of water within a nature preserve. This mangrove-lined lagoon is about a kilometre wide at its widest point and is a popular place to explore by kayak, stand-up paddleboard or motorboat. It’s also a great place for birdwatching.
During a two-hour boat tour, we spot at least 16 species of birds ranging in size from black hawk-eagles to mangrove swallows. If we were actual birdwatchers, we’d doubtless have tallied even more, considering that Oaxaca is home to more bird species than any other state in Mexico.
The lagoon is nice to visit in the daytime, but by night it offers another more enchanting natural experience: the chance to see bioluminescence in action.
We come on a moonless night. Our boat chugs through the darkness as our captain trades flashlight signals with nearby fishermen to avoid collisions. The only light is from the countless stars in the night sky, and the eye can just make out the faint outline of trees along the shore. The captain eventually cuts his motor and gives the signal that it’s time to jump into the dark water. I look at Orion shining overhead and ask if there are crocodiles here. The captain laughs and assures me it is safe.
I share the boat with a Mexican family. Their two young boys and father jump in.
“It’s like magic, Papa!” the youngest boy cries out to his father. I leap into the lagoon to join them, and as I paddle my arms and legs through the water, a green glow follows my every move. Each stroke stirs countless bioluminescent micro-organisms, causing them to emit a faint light. When I draw my hand out of the water, sparks of light glow in every droplet that falls. I find myself laughing with delight. It truly is like magic.
I experience more magic in the nearby town of Bajos de Chila the next night. The townspeople are celebrating their patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, with a fiesta. I stand in the crowd and watch for hours as dancers in a rainbow of traditional costumes twirl, stomp and clap in time to the rhythms of a live band.
When the dancing is done, all eyes turn to the castillo, a towering framework that looms by the stage. Men clamber to the top to set off a cascade of fireworks that spin and whistle, evoking oohs and ahhs from the crowd below. When the last light on the castillo burns itself out, a barrage of traditional fireworks is detonated overhead, spilling ash on the thrilled audience below. When the pyrotechnics finally end, the band resumes and everyone starts dancing. The party lasts into the wee hours of the morning or, as one local explains, until the cerveza runs out.
A few nights before, Mullen had assured me that, despite Mexico’s reputation as a dangerous place wracked by violent crime, this part of the country is safe. On this evening at this celebration, it seems the safest place in the world.
I look at Orion shining overhead and ask if there are crocodiles here. The captain laughs and assures me it is safe.
Anyone who stays at Vivo Resorts ends up spending a lot of time in Puerto Escondido. It’s a laid-back beach town with a surfer vibe. Most of the hotels are small-scale and you don’t have a sense that it is overrun with tourists. I explore its market, swim its beaches and surf the waves that made this bit of Pacific coast one of the most famous spots in the surfing world, but the real highlight is the morning I spend deep-sea fishing.
Captain Evilio Cruz Morales and his mate Ulises Solis Montes take us out on their boat Marbella. Morales encourages us to touch the tiny mermaid strapped to a strut on the boat for good luck.
As we move offshore, we find the waters are alive with dolphins, orcas and sea turtles. I am pleased by the abundance of turtles sunning themselves on the surface of the water. Perhaps one of them will haul herself onto the beach by Vivo tonight to lay a clutch of eggs.
It turns out touching the mermaid does bring us luck, because within a few hours we’ve caught a massive striped marlin that requires two people to lift it and a hefty mahi-mahi. I won’t even mention the one that got away.
Back at Vivo Resorts that afternoon, I meet López from Vive Mar again on the beach. He has brought a newly hatched nest of sea turtles to give the guests the experience of releasing them into the sea. It’s an educational exercise that he does here twice per week.
The odds are long that any of these turtles will grow up to return to the beach where they were born. As many as 90 per cent of the newborns will end up being eaten by predators. The rest must survive decades until they reach adulthood, and before then many are killed accidentally by fishermen or intentionally by poachers. “Even after all this time, whenever I see the turtles hatching, I get emotional,” says López. “They are like my own children. The turtle plays an important role in the ecosystem.”
For the few that do manage to return, here’s hoping that people like López will still be there to help their offspring make their way to the ocean to continue the cycle of life in Oaxaca.