It was one of the dumber things I’ve done and Jon gets all the credit for it. It was his idea to drive down from San Cristobal de las Casa to Puerto Arista in search of sand, beer, seafood and –possibly– nesting sea turtles. In then end, we’d successfully find all four but the last one came with a price — two hours of sheer terror.
The drive from the cool, craggy mountains of Chiapas to the hot and muggy coast was spectacular. I’ve explored all of the major (meaning only) routes out of San Cristobal in all four directions and this drive is by far the most scenic. The road wound along steep ridge lines with drops of 1,000 feet or more into lush green valleys. Corn grew in every nook and cranny, covering rocky hillsides that a mountain goat would shake his head at.
Over the course of the next 4-5 hours, we would drop from almost 7,000 feet to sea level.
Arriving in Puerto Arista, we found a sleepy almost-comatose beach town — apparently it packs out on weekends when crowds from the nearby city of Tuxtla arrive but for now it was empty. A tout immediately waved us into a parking space in front of an outdoor seafood cafe, with plastic chairs and tables arranged in the sand under a huge thatched-roof palapa. We were both starving, tired of being in the car and I needed to pee so we agreed, taking the path of least resistance.
We were given the ‘gringo menu’: nearly every plate on the menu started at 200 pesos and went up from there. A meal and beer would run us about $20 each — in a place with no charm and plastic tables. We decided to pass and ordered a couple of beers, splitting a plate of shrimp tostadas for 100 pesos. They were delicious.
Checking into a basic hotel on the beach, we split a huge double room with AC for $30 and I discovered that I seem to have developed a shrimp allergy over the years. Lucky me! While I was yacking in the bathroom, Jon decided he’d go explore the town rather than listen to my gastrointestinal soliloquy.
And it was then that he struck pay dirt: interns at the Environmental and Natural History Agency’s Proteccion y Conversación de la Tortuga Marina en Chiapas (Protection and Conversation of the Sea Turtle in Chiapas) office offered to arrange a trip for us if we returned at 9pm the following night. That trip would turn out to be one of the craziest rides of our lives.
The next morning we set out to explore the area and followed a nicely-paved road (too new to show on maps), that shadowed the coast. We ended up at the small town of Pijijiapan, where you can eat at a handful for restaurants that overlook a lagoon or you can take a 10 peso boat ride across the lagoon to the barrier island where the black sand beach and more restaurants and bars await. We decided to do both.
Sitting down at a family-run restaurant called Las Gueritas, we swiftly flummoxed the poor waitress with our terrible Spanish. The owner, a young man would had worked illegally in the US for years, came out and saved the day. We ended up ordering a good-looking three pound fish that had been caught that morning in the lagoon. It was battered, fried and served whole and proved to be the best fish either of us had had in years. Total cost for two: $16.
The ride to the beach took about three minutes and it was very laid back. Like much around here midweek, it was completely deserted. We shared the one open restaurant with a single family and watched lazy waves roll in. After a couple of beers, we headed home (which required standing on a peer and waving across the lagoon to catch the notice of the boat captain). Surprisingly, he was on the ball and we were soon on the mainland.
After an afternoon of lazing around and enjoying a really good steak and cold beers purchased from a road-side grill, 9pm rolled by and we were ready for our turtle adventure. Lightning was flickering just off shore and seemingly getting closer. “If we were smart, we’d call this off and try again tomorrow,” Jon said.
“Yeah, but we’re not and we both know it.”
The place wasn’t much to look at –a cinderblock bunker surrounded by tall chain link fencing– but the front gate was open and we headed for the back. Just as we cleared the gate Jon said: “Oh, by the way, I told them you work for National Geographic”.
“Ah. Good to know.”
We found about a dozen college students sitting around a table and drinking beer. They get college credit for this? A couple of them chatted us up for a bit while our “transportation” was arranged. Truthfully, they all seemed more interested in Jon’s fancy waterproof camera enclosure than who we were or what we were doing.
After twenty minutes or so, a red 4-wheeler pulled up and we were introduced to Roberto, a state biologist. He was friendly but a bit reserved and I worried that we were intruding. A couple of cushions were added to the rack on the back of the quad and Roberto made a big show of covering them with plastic trash bags in anticipation of the storm which was rapidly drawing closer.
Jon just smiled. He was in worse shape than I — I had at least brought my rain jacket and my camera was buried in a (mostly) waterproof bag. He was wearing a shirt and jeans.
The lightning grew stronger and it began to sprinkle. We hopped on the back of the 4-wheeler, me on the left and Jon on the right. He quickly grabbed the handle in the middle of the luggage rack — with his left hand holding it and his right gripping the rack, he was fairly secure. (The bastard.) I quickly learned that holding on with only my left hand wasn’t as stable as I might like.
Roberto twisted the throttle and we quickly learned that he was not a man to screw around — we lurched into the darkness and were soon howling down the pitch-black beach at full speed. After about five minutes, he pulled over and calmly pulled on a yellow slicker and gave us a nervous smile. The drops were getting fatter, while the space between the flash of light and the crack of thunder was rapidly shrinking. The storm was almost upon us.
As he twisted the throttle to max once more, we road into the heart of the storm and things got crazy quickly. I had my head bowed low to keep the rain from my face and the drops hit the top of my head with a stinging intensity. For a moment, I thought it was hail. I’m bald — I’ll look terrible with a bruised and dented dome.
The lightning intensified, thick bolts stabbing down into the sea like the fat fingers of an angry god. “This is definitely one of the top ten dumbest things I’ve ever done!” I shouted over the din. Jon’s response was “What???!”
Screaming down the beach in the dark at 30-40 miles per hour into the thick of one of the biggest storms I have witnessed in years, Jon and I both howled with laughter celebrating the absurdity of the situation and –let’s be honest– trying to hide our rapidly growing fear.
Then things got sketchy.
Apparently we had reached a part of the beach where turtle activity was likely and to make sure he covered the entire depth of the beach, Roberto began making these sharp, sweeping S-curves. When he swept left, my left hand –securely gripping the luggage rack– took the load fine. But when he swerved the other way, my right hand –gripping the flimsy plastic and foam rubber of my seat– felt like it was… well… gripping flimsy plastic and foam rubber.
I tried as best I could to brace my legs against the side, hoping that I didn’t brace them against the spinning back tire. The lightning now was so intense that you could have read a newspaper by it (provided, of course, that the pounding rain didn’t shred it within seconds). This continued for a good fifteen minutes, with me muttering the entire time “top five… top five…”
At last, even Roberto had reached his limit and we pulled under a local palapa to ride out the rest of the storm. I pulled up a few plastic chairs, so we sat and I finally had a chance to ask Roberto about his job. He’d lived here all his life and had been doing this for the past 14 years. During nesting season, he would make this same run 3-4 times per night, 7 days a week. He smiled proudly — this was a man who loved his job and believed in what he did. I liked him immediately, despite his questionable driving habits.
I pulled out my DSLR to take some shots and found it completely dead. Swapping out the batteries didn’t change a thing — it was bricked. Convinced it had somehow gotten wet, I put it away and tried to swallow my panic, telling Jon he’d be shooting for both of us tonight. (I discovered, the next day, that the SD card door had somehow become halfway open — if it had been open all the way, it would have given me a message. As it was, it just shut the camera down entirely).
After a half-hour of bullshitting in a mix of poor English and Spanish while Jon and I sipped from a small bottle of rum (I’d be damned if I was offering Roberto any), we climbed back onto the quad and moved out into a somewhat diminished rain. Continuing up the beach we soon passed any and all civilization — only the headlights and lightning held back the deepest dark I’ve ever known.
Eventually, Roberto turned around and we headed towards home (still a good hour away). The S-curves returned, Jon and I occasionally clonking heads when we got our timing wrong. Then, with no warning, Roberto cut the lights and slammed on the brakes, nearly pitching me off the bike — I wasn’t braced for that. The adrenaline spike was worth it, for right there before us was a beautiful three foot long Olive Ridley Sea Turtle slowly lumbering from the sea.
After clambering about 20-30 feet out of the water, she began digging a hole with her rear flippers. This went on for a good half hour, while we carefully avoided shining lights in her direction or making any noise. I was surprised to look up after chatting with Roberto and find her gone — she had decided that she didn’t like the look of her nest and had moved further up into the dunes to try again.
The rain had faded to just a light drizzle and the lightning was now comfortably in the distance, so we hunkered down and watched as she dug another nest. This one passed muster and her eyes glazed over as she began to lay her eggs, her breath dropping even deeper and becoming more ragged with each moment.
Roberto turned on his flashlight and slid up behind her, widening the hole in the sand so we could see the eggs drop. They looked exactly like slimy ping pong balls (I couldn’t stop thinking of the Alien movies) and in the end she would lay 98 of them.
He carefully scooped them in to a plastic bag as Jon and I patted her shell and marveled at what we were witnessing. At that moment, she was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen — a creature of the sea, crawling clumsily onto the land of her birth to seed another generation. When she was done, she began filling in the (now empty) hole and we scrambled back onto the 4-wheeler — Roberto had about 3 hours to get the eggs back into the ground before they suffered damage.
Back at the conservatory, I was surprised to learn that the ‘incubator’ was really just a spot where they buried the eggs in the sand. He dug a hole exactly 30 centimeters deep and deposited the eggs in it, marking it with a small piece of plastic with dates and locations written on it in a black marker and then packing the sand down tight.
Several dozen other nests surrounded us — by the end of the season there would be several hundred, he said. In a month or so, when the time was right, the eggs would be moved back to their original spot and the babies looked over until they could make it to the waterline.
We shook hands, slapped shoulders and said our goodbyes, heading home soaked exhausted and giddy.
It was one of the top ten most amazing experiences of my life. Maybe even top five.
Many thanks to Jon Look of Lifepart2 for the use of his photos. I highly recommend that you check out his blog.