Las Tortugas – The Turtles of Zihuatanejo

Las Tortugas on Playa de Ropa, Zihuatanejo

My friends asked, “What was the best part of your trip to Mexico?”

They said “Mexico” because no one dares the attempt to pronounce “Zihuatanejo” (zee-watt-a-NEH-ho).

For many vacations, that question would be hard to answer. But not this one. It was easy.

Las tortugas marinas, the sea turtles, were the highlight of my stay in Zihuatanejo.

I’ve always been in love with sea turtles. In Hawaii I have accidentally bumped into one under a waterfall on the Big Island and followed them (at a distance) while snorkeling on Maui and Kaua’i. I’ve also body-surfed alongside them at Brennecke Beach on Kaua’i. Amazing creatures.

Playful. Ancient. Wise creatures.

I was beyond excited at the prospect that we might actually be able to watch sea turtles out of the water in Zihuatanejo. And even though I knew our hotel, the Viceroy on Playa de Ropa, was the place to be, part of me thought it was too good to be true. I was prepared for disappointment.

It turns out that our timing was excellent in early December. While it was technically “late” in the season for the turtle mamas to come ashore for egg laying, we saw just it a happen our very first night in Zihua. We were eating a late dinner on the beach at the Viceroy. We notice a man with a flashlight and a bucket and my husband says something like, “there’s your turtle.” I deserted him at the table while he signed the bill, and then we watched.

We watched as a mama turtle struggled and heaved her heavy body up to soft sand, dug a hole one flipper at a time, became incredibly still, laid 80+ golf-ball sized eggs, filled in that hole, packed in sand with a slap of her belly, scattered sand to erase the evidence she’d been there, and then slowly made her way back to the ocean.

Turtle mama: Olive Ridley nesting on Playa de Ropa, Zihuatanejo, Mexico

It all looked sooo hard. And beautiful. And, yeah, I teared up a little (a lot). It truly was awesome.

Once on the brink of extinction, olive ridley sea turtles (golfinas), are loved and protected in Zihua. You actually need a license from the Mexican government to disturb a turtle nest. The license gives turtle conservationists the state’s blessing do so to save eggs by reburying them in safe spots. When the eggs hatch, turtle keepers feed and care for them about a week, so that the babies can grow and mature before facing the big ocean and all its dangerous inhabitants.

Early December was the tail end of the laying season, but also the beginning of the hatching season!

Not all of the turtle eggs are re-located. So at random times along the beach, a baby would pop up out of the sand. Some were gently coaxed to the sea but powered by their own determination. Some were carefully carried to the water.

Turtle tracks

Once we learned to recognize baby turtle footprints, we were able to track the little darlings. We also watched as an entire nest was discovered in the shade of a beached catamaran. We watched as the hotel “entertainment” director ran for a bucket, scooped up probably 100 little tortugas and put the bucket in shade. They were to be released at night to avoid the complications of heat and predators.

I loved my time in Zihuatanejo….for many, many reasons. But I absolutely have to get back there to show my kids the turtles. For now, the images will have to do. You can see larger views of the turtles and more of my trip to Zihuatanejo in my web gallery.

If you are interested in reading more about las tortugas of Zihuatanejo, here are some articles/sites I’ve enjoyed:

“Labor of Love” article on Viceory Hotel and the turtles (aka Tides)

Ecology of Zihuatanejo



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