From a Deadly Volcano to Sea Turtles All in One Day

When I heard that there was a sea turtle reserve in Monterrico, which is on the  Pacific coast of Guatemala, and that I would probably have a chance to see the newly hatched turtles up close and maybe even hold one, I was already on my way.  I was one of the last people to be picked up just after 8 a.m. that Saturday morning in the already packed-like-sardines van that was headed to the coast, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Antigua. Seat belts weren’t even an option which seems to be true of many vehicles here in Guatemala. I took a deep breath and off we went.

I sat in one of the folding aisle seats (they fill all available space) and immediately noticed that a few different languages were being spoken inside the van. I recognized Spanish (of course!), Italian and something else that sounded European but I couldn’t quite place it. The chatter was lively as we traveled along the bumpy and windy road. The typical stench of car exhaust from nearby vehicles tainted the cool morning air since most of the van’s windows were wide open.

I noticed that we were heading in the direction of the hyperactive Volcán de

Fuego Volanco, Escuintla, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Fuego or Volcano of Fire which was responsible for killing an estimated 4,000 local people last June when it violently erupted. Since Fuego erupts numerous times each day, many people simply thought it was just doing its usual thing and didn’t realize that this time, it was having an extremely dangerous and life-threatening eruption. The authorities didn’t help matters either by failing to warn the residents nearby even though the instruments were apparently picking up lots of warning indicators. I wondered how close we might get. Even on our way to Monterrico,  Fuego was erupting fairly frequently that morning as I watched several impressive and eerie eruptions spew gray billowy smoke high into the almost cloudless blue morning sky.

We continued along the road adjacent to Fuego and eventually went by it. We then came upon an area of road construction and I realized that this was the road that had been closed because much of it had been destroyed or buried by the eruption in June. I realized we were entering Escuintla, one the hardest hit areas. The road was still under construction with lots of heavy equipment parked nearby. However,  it was finally passable even though parts of it were

Damage from Fuego Volcano, Esquintla, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

not yet paved. As we drove along the bumpy road, I began to notice the enormous area of destruction with huge mounds of lava and ash, uprooted and burned trees and lots of debris from destroyed buildings and houses. My body tensed as I saw houses that were partially or completely destroyed or gutted by the huge amount of lava and ash.

As we passed this tragic site, I spotted a partially buried neighborhood with just the upper half of the houses sticking though the heavy gray ash. I realized that behind it were probably those areas that were completely buried as I had

Damage from Fuego Volcano, Esquintla, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

heard and read about. My stomach clenched tightly as a deep sense of sadness came over me. Some people have referred to the area as the “cemetery” since thousands of bodies have not been and may never be recovered. I was also told that the area is still very hot and dangerous some 6 months later, and that no one is allowed to go in the area even as part of the recovery effort. The thing that also struck me was how far the volcano seemed to be from this area of destruction. I read that the lava and ash came down so fast that people were unable to escape it. I had previously imagined that the destruction was only to those villages just beneath the volcano but this was simply not the case. Making things worse, the rain that fell shortly after the huge onslaught of ash made the ash very hard, heavy and almost impenetrable.

I felt some relief as we left the area as we continued on our journey to the ocean. At the halfway point, we stopped at a small strip shopping center with a market where I purchased some water for the trip. The coastal area seemed very tropical and rural as the houses were far apart, very modest, and often had people watering or gardening, or children playing in front of the house, often with dogs and chickens running around.

As we entered Monterrico, the style of the buildings began to change and it looked  like a run down version of a tropical Caribbean village with rustic

Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

thatch-roof houses and buildings. We made our way down a street that seemed more like an alley and suddenly we were told that we had arrived. It was about 11:30 a.m. I got out of the van and was hit hard by the heat and heavy sopping humidity. At that point I wasn’t sure where the ocean was but I quickly realized it was just about a block away.  The driver pointed out the  Hotel el Dolfin, our meeting place for later that afternoon to return to Antigua. The modest small run down hotel had a bohemian feel with dark lacquered woods and done in an early tiki Caribbean Mayan motif.

I found my way to the beach through what was clearly an alley, dirty and sandy. When I got to the beach, the “black sand” (according to the guide books) was

Black Sand Beach, Monterrico Hawaii Biotope, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

actually a speckled charcoal gray (although it was darker when wet), so I felt a tinge of disappointment as I had hoped it would be as black as some of the beaches in Hawaii.  Of course, the black sand was the result of eons of pounding waves eroding the black lava spewed from ancient volcanic eruptions nearby.

The beach itself was adorned by fairly large waves, turbulent and powerful, crashing noisily with tons of white foam and spray onto the blackish shore at criss-crossed angles. This probably explained why the people in the water were not venturing out too far. I seemed to be the only non-Guatemalan around. A colorful Monterrico sign flanked by playful cartoon turtles welcomed visitors to the nearby main street. There

Welcome to Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

were lots of threadbare souvenir shops selling inflatable toys and sea shells made into animals and wind chimes, small dimly lit grocery stores and numerous open air restaurants that were mostly empty while displaying their menu items in faded photos.

As I reached the sand, there happened to be a large lifeguard station nearby with two or three lifeguards in attendance. My first priority was to see the sea turtles so they pointed me in the direction of the reserve, telling me it was not very far. It seemed longer than a 15 minute walk, especially since I couldn’t wait to get off the hot sand and away from the oppressive heat and stifling humidity.
I walked along the beach and passed some old shabby hotels and eventually found El Tortugario, the sea turtle hatchery and animal reserve. I began speaking with one of the rangers there who told me about a self-guided tour of the facility and about boat rides through the nearby canals. The area is known as the Monterrico Hawaii Biotope which is comprised of 10,000 acres of mangrove swamps. This is actually a network of 25 lagoons connected by mangrove canals.

The reserve turned out to be an interesting place. It protects many animals in addition to sea turtles including several other types of turtles such as red ear

Caimans, Monterrico Hawaii Biotope, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

sliders along with caimans and iguanas. The reserve has several large enclosures containing these types of animals so I was able to see them up close. They are kept in a protected space until they are able to be released into the wild. The reserve also has a breeding program for the caimans which are also released when they are ready.

After I explored  the animal preserve, the ranger explained to me about the turtle program. During the months of June through November, and especially in August and September, numerous sea turtles, including the endangered giant leatherbacks and the smaller olive ridleys make her way onto the adjacent

Iguanas, Monterrico Hawaii Biotope, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

beach where they lay their eggs in the sand. Shortly after that, workers from the reserve go out and gather the eggs  and re-bury them in a safe incubation area of the reserve specifically walled off for that purpose. This keeps predators and locals away from the eggs.

After about 50 days, the young baby turtles hatch and find their way up to the surface of the sand where they are carefully captured by the workers, put in a large black plastic box, and placed in a darkened room for the rest of the day. Then, around sunset when these babies are less vulnerable, the baby sea turtles are released onto the sand where they then crawl into the sea. Unfortunately, the best estimates are that only about 10 percent of these young turtles will survive.

The ranger then took me into the darkened room that had two or three large

Baby Sea Turtles, Monterrico Hawaii Biotope, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

plastic containers, their bottoms filled with several hundred very active tiny sea turtles that had just hatched that morning. They would be held there until late in the afternoon when they would be released. They were really adorable and the ranger gave me one to hold. Of course, I wanted to take it home!  It remained very still in my hand, but once we placed it back in the box, it quickly scurried along the plastic bottom with the rest of the turtles. Sadly, I was not there long enough to witness the release of these baby turtles since the van back to Antigua was leaving by

Baby Sea Turtle, Monterrico Hawaii Biotope, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

about 3:30. Nonetheless, it was still great to experience seeing and handling them, especially since I have always had a fondness for sea turtles.

I then decided to go on a boat ride through the mangrove canals. The ranger introduced me to the man who would be guiding the boat. First, we had to find a local ATM since he only accepted cash. I waited in line for a few minutes to use the ATM which was located in a small enclosed room at the local bank. We then walked about 10 minutes to a very secluded area where

Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

there were several long and thin heavily worn wooden rowboats in need of a paint job. One of them nearby was in an especially bad state of disrepair and filled with debris. He lead me to his boat and held it as I stepped in. It was just him and me. He only spoke Spanish but I managed to follow most of what he was saying even though I didn’t understand every word. He clearly tried hard to help make this an enjoyable and educational experience.

The water in the beautiful swamp-like area was fairly shallow so instead of rowing, he used a long stick to push us along. We glided along the glass-smooth water into an overgrown tunnel of mangroves. Many

Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

of the surrounding areas were also overgrown. There were lots of large round lily pads floating in the water along with lovely white, pink and purple flowers poking through the water as well. This area seemed like a Guatemalan version of the Everglades and it was stunningly beautiful. It reminded me a little of the jungle ride at Disneyland. This amazing boat ride, together with the turtle reserve made the trip worth the price of admission.

As we continued to glide along, we saw many types of birds and could hear frogs croaking nearby but we didn’t actually see any. Of course, there were lots of insects, butterflies and an occasional fish rising to the surface of the

Lily Pads in Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

very still water. There were very few other boats around. However, interestingly, on the main canal, there were a couple of small ferry boats carrying one or two vehicles across the canal to the opposite side. We also saw huge brown termite nests. Apparently, these are edible and also, pieces of the nests are broken off and used as bait for fishing.

The guide purposely steered the boat to areas of beautiful flowers and the overgrown trees formed tunnels over the canals as we silently passed through them hearing nothing but the birds and the buzz of lots of busy insects nearby. Is one area, numbeous  small birds

Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

were swooping around bat-like catching flying insects. It was fun watching them tart around like kamikaze pilots almost touching the surface of the water and quickly climbing upward to catch their next morsel. We also went into a heavily wooded area enclosed by thick overgrowth looking for a young bear that the boat guy had seen earlier that morning but it was no longer there.

After the ride, I walked back to the main street, looking in the tired and overly-stocked souvenir shops and enjoyed a cold orange Gatorade. As I walked along, I saw many thatched roof buildings and I visited a small quaint church that had an amazing bamboo

Iglesia (Church) San Rafael De Los Santos Arcangeles, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

ceiling inside. I walked along the water and watched the boat launching area. The restaurants on the main street were mostly empty but I ended up going to one run by a young family who had approached me at the beach and encouraged me to give it a try. I was the only person in the restaurant and I begin to feel a little frustrated when my lunch of chicken and rice took over 35 minutes to get. While I was waiting, I walked to find the Hotel de Dolfin to make sure knew where it was.

After lunch, I sat at the beach for a while and watched the rough surf and the people playing in the water. There wasn’t much more to do so I hung out at the motel-like Hotel de Dolfin desperately trying to find a shady place to sit. I regretted that I hadn’t brought a book to read. The van left at 3:30, again packed with

Souvenir Store, Monterrico Hawaii Biotope, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

people. The ride was a bit nerve wracking as the driver repeatedly passed slower vehicles by going into the opposite lane even though he couldn’t see very far ahead of him. I tried to let it go as this is the way things are done in Guatemala. And so it goes. We arrived after 6 p.m. It was already dark and chilly. It was nice to be back.

I have always had a thing for sea turtles and I think there are lots of metaphors that can be drawn between them and  people. For example,  just like sea turtles, some people metaphorically or in reality hide their head in their shell for protection or for other reasons, isolated and alone. Like sea turtles, some people have a tough exterior but a soft interior. Some people carry the weight of their world on their backs. Also, sea turtles amazingly transform themselves from being slow, clumsy and vulnerable on land, to being able to glide quickly, weightlessly, effortlessly, beautifully and gracefully in the water. I’m sure there are other comparisons but overall, they are simply wonderful creatures and I was glad to visit a place that tries to protect them.
Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Termite Nest in Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Auto Ferry, Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Shells for Sale, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Grocery Store, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Iglesia (Church) San Rafael De Los Santos Arcangeles, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Residence, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mangrove Forest, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Grocery Store, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Turtle Egg Incubation Area, Monterrico Hawaii Biotope, Monterrico, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Damage from Fuego Volcano, Esquintla, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Damage from Fuego Volcano, Esquintla, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Damage from Fuego Volcano, Esquintla, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Damage from Fuego Volcano, Esquintla, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved