Overland miles: 4253 Tacocount: 68 Days without Sodas: 4
During our travels, we’d heard stories of an American living in El Salvador known locally as ‘El Gringo’. Tom Polak runs a turtle rescue centre cum beachside lodgings in Playa Esteron, on El Salvador’s less-visited eastern coast. Promising simple cabanas with relaxed eco-friendly living, we were intrigued to find out more about La Tortuga Verde and in particular, my namesake, the Olive Ridley, a vulnerable breed of sea turtle whose population has declined by 30 per cent in recent years. The pacific coast of Central America is now one of the few places in the world where they nest.
As is always the case with seeking out off the beaten track places, our journey to La Tortuga Verde involved multiple stages, each with decreasing levels of comfort. Starting at San Salvador’s bustling Terminal Oriente, we were swept onto a departing ‘special’ bus (allegedly one that stops less frequently although we still seemed to pick up an endless stream of passengers and food vendors). Relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of our reclining seats, we zoomed east towards San Miguel, where we needed to change for a local bus. Of course, ‘local bus’ in these parts means chicken bus, so we crammed ourselves and our backpacks onto a cramped seat and settled in for stage two, a one and a half hour journey across the mountains to the coast. Eventually, we were deposited at El Cuco, a small seaside resort lined with cheap sea food restaurants. But we still had another 3km to go. With no taxis in sight, we were lucky enough to be given a lift in the back of a local’s pick-up truck, and finally we arrived, dusty, sweaty and sore of bottom after being bumped along a dirt track. The effort was well worth it as we were rewarded with miles of undeveloped, unspoilt coastline.
Luckily, we’d timed our visit well. Tom and his team had some recently born turtles that were due for release, and had collected eggs that were ready to be buried in the sandy on-site turtle sanctuary, and an El Savadorean cable TV network was due to be filming the whole thing. To see some videos of previous turtle releasings, check out their You Tube channel.
Turtle eggs are prized across Central America and parts of Asia for their alleged Viagra-like properties and during nesting season, poachers prowl beaches at the dead of night, waiting to harvest freshly laid eggs. The most impatient of these hunters reportedly cut open their victims to get to the eggs quicker.
In recent years there’s been a concerted campaign by various individuals, like Tom, and NGOs to educate local people about the consequences of the turtle trade. A increasingly common practice is to encourage locals to collect eggs which are then purchased at a fixed rate, thereby helping the local economy and reducing its reliance on tourism. At La Tortuga, we helped ‘plant’ the latest batch of turtle eggs in the sand. With their soft, almost squidgy, shells (completely the opposite to a hen’s egg) we were afraid we’d break them as we put them into a hole in the sand about 30cm deep, but all 40 potential baby turtles were safely deposited in their temporary home.
Our next job was releasing the recently hatched turtles into the sea. A washing up bowl of baby turtles was collected from the small pool where they had been kept until they were big enough to be set free. As the sun set, we walked down to the sea front, and one by one, the turtles were released and left to swim out to sea. Jovian named his ‘Pieman’. Pieman’s female companeras will return again – in about ten years time – to lay their eggs and start the cycle again.
We’ve compiled a little gallery of our experiences. Please excuse our sweaty appearance – we’d just been for an evening run on the beach, hence why Jove is sporting a natty flouro t-shirt!