Turtles have called the Peninsula Papagayo sands home for millions of years. Annually, female turtles emerge from the ocean to deposit their eggs on the sand, where they incubate for weeks. When the babies finally hatch, cracking out of their shells after dark to make their way to the water, it feels like nothing short of a miracle.
By Francesca Poddie | December 5, 2022 | Guanacaste

Although turtle populations are feeling the effects of climate change and pollution, the beaches of Guanacaste are a place where visitors can observe these two remarkable processes without interference.

Most people don’t know how tough turtles are. So tough they survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Turtle populations these days, though, are on the decline due to human causes like climate change and plastic pollution. To ensure the continuance of these majestic, dignified, and occasionally comical beings, their habitats must remain free from human interference.
At Peninsula Papagayo, it’s possible to observe the nesting and hatching of sea turtles in a way that has no negative effect on the animals. And if you’re on the Peninsula during one of these exciting events, you’re in for a treat. Observing this process is like getting a peek into one of nature’s simplest yet most compelling devices, a reminder of how this species has been doing the same thing successfully for longer than humans have existed. It’s an incredible sight.

Turtle nesting—female turtles leaving the sea to lay their eggs on the beach—happens annually. Solitary turtles commonly nest at Peninsula Papagayo between November and March; Prieta and Virador are the most popular beaches. Massive nesting events (when thousands of turtles emerge at the same time) take place at Ostional, two hours south of the Peninsula. Green turtles are the most common in this part of Costa Rica, and each female lays an average of 115 eggs at a time. One of the most fascinating aspects of this ritual is that when it comes time to lay their eggs, many turtles actually seek out the beach on which they were born—even if they hadn’t been there for many years. Their offspring do the same, continuing what becomes a “family tradition.”

After 45 to 60 days (the incubation period depends on the species), it’s time for the second event: the hatching. The eggs are most likely to hatch at night after the sand has cooled off. After breaking out of their shells, guided by the brightness and sounds of the sea, thousands of hatchlings make their endearingly clumsy way to the water to start their lives. Although it can seem beneficial to pick up baby turtles and bring them to the ocean, it’s harmful. By making their own way to the water, the turtles both build strength and learn to identify the beach’s unique characteristics (called “imprinting”), necessary for carrying on the “tradition.” That’s why touching turtles should be avoided at all costs.

Ensuring that the turtles continue to enjoy a safe haven at Peninsula Papagayo is a priority. Since 2020, a biologist-led team has created a protocol around hatching and nesting. Beach staff at Prieta Beach Club, the Four Seasons, and Andaz have been trained to respond when those unpredictable events occur. If guests happen to be on the beach at one of these times, the team is ready to respond, ensuring that guests can watch the process without causing any disruption to the turtles’ progress in or out of the water. After all, they have called these beaches home for an eternity. “Turtle nesting is believed to have occurred at Peninsula Papagayo for millions of years,” says Susana Vicente, director of sustainability. “Committed to preserving nature at its best, we work tirelessly to ensure that this unique connection remains unchanged.”
To that end, a few guidelines will help visitors ensure that they’re not interfering with the experience and causing the turtles distress. Always contact a team member if you are lucky enough to happen upon the nesting or hatching on any given night; they’ll help guide you through the process. If you’re taking photos, turn off the flash on your camera; light and noise can disorient the turtles. Wear dark clothes—the idea is to be inconspicuous! If you’re watching the turtles nest, remain at least 20 meters away. If you’re watching the baby turtles hatch, you can be a bit closer, but stay at least two meters behind the turtles and never get between them and the sea. And never pick up or touch a turtle. If you stick to these rules, you’ll witness this magical process up close—and know that you’re doing your part to keep these extraordinary creatures in good health!