San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A visit from the turtles

Last week’s visitors to the Pacific coast’s Ostional Wildlife Refuge don’t realize how spoiled they are.

Usually, tourists are lucky if they get to see one sea turtle, in darkness, from ten feet away. But last week, three days before the full moon, hundreds of thousands of turtles hauled themselves onto Playa Ostional to lay their eggs. Called arribadas, these mass egg-layings take place on just a few beaches in the world, and Ostional is has the highest numbers, with more than a million turtles sometimes arriving in one night. 

“It is an incredible site every time,” said Warren Chacón, a Tamarindo guide who often brings tourists out to see the arribadas. “I’ve seen hundreds but it never gets old.”

Photo gallery 

Playa Ostional sees at least one arribada a month, either in the three days before or after the full moon. In turtle season, which is just coming to a close, the beach sometimes gets two arribadas per month.

The beach at Ostional is the only beach in the country where locals are legally allowed to harvest the turtle eggs for consumption. At each arribada, hundreds of people accompany the thousands of turtles on the beach where they dig up the nests and take the eggs, which are believed by some to be an aphrodisiac.

Olive Ridley turtles, the most common visitor to Ostional beach, are endangered, making the legal harvesting of the eggs a controversial topic. A large chunk of the town’s income comes from guiding turtle tours and selling the harvested eggs.  Biologists justify it by saying that the huge influx of eggs during an arribada contaminates the beach, leaving it unfit for the other nests made later. Only about 1 percent of the total number of eggs is harvested.

Chacón thinks these are just excuses.

“It’s not natural,” he said.  “Nature needs to run its course.

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