It’s no secret that I love living in Granada, Nicaragua. We are surrounded by beautiful, tropical nature and there are so many fun and easy excursions to do with kids with Granada as your home base. Aiden and I just had an amazing weekend adventure a few hours south at La Flor Beach Wildlife Refuge where kids can get up close and personal with wild turtles in their natural habitat and at nearby Playa El Coco which is a beautiful beach perfect for families. This trip was a breeze and I wholeheartedly recommend that you add these two popular family destinations to your Nicaragua trip planner because your kids are going to rave about the experience.
Laying out the trip
The La Flor Wildlife Refuge (Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor), where you can interact with wild turtles in their natural habitat, is located at Playa La Flor. You could camp at the refuge overnight, but more formal accommodations can be found right on the beach at nearby Playa el Coco which is 2 km away (or Playa Hermosa, Playa Escameca, Playa El Yanke, etc). If you are wondering if you could also stay at mega-popular, party beach town San Juan del Sur, yes, you could, but just know that it is 30 km each way on a partially dirt road (while probably driving in the dark for best turtle hours). If you are travelling with kids like we were, you might prefer the nearness and the totally laid back, family-friendly atmosphere of the local beaches next to the refuge.
Turtles by the thousands vs turtles by the dozens
Your family’s experience at the wildlife refuge will depend on what is occurring that night (or early morning) as it relates to the turtle egg laying season (nesting goes July through November with hatching still occurring into January). There may be thousands of turtles visiting the site on your visit or just a few filtering in depending on their migration patterns.
Just one week before the refuge had hosted an arribada: this is the moment that thousands of turtles enter on to the beach at once and begin to scope out a section of sand to lay their eggs. Seeing a thick layer of turtles cover the beach is an astonishing experience considering that you as an observer have so much visual activity to watch but very little mobility. You are surrounded 360 degrees by turtles who are also competing for space and are intent on laying up to 55 eggs in the ground in about an hour and a half.
This is not the ideal experience for an anxious or sensory child (or for a child that might inadvertently step on eggs and feel intently the loss of life due to their own touristic footprint). However, for the adventurous child, an arribada will likely be a happily intense memory that will be long talked about back home.
Our visit was so perfectly catered to my 12 year old son’s take-it-easy, I-need-a-little-space personality that I felt really lucky to have happened upon the slow night that we did. The night that we went to the refuge was a slow feed of stimulation, interaction and information, which was ideal for Aiden who generally prefers that kind of pace when he is outside of his familiar environment.
Holding and releasing newborn turtles into the ocean
When we arrived around 7:30 pm, staff and volunteers for MARENA (the Nicaraguan ministry of wildlife and forestry) invited us to observe and hold newborn turtles that had hatched that afternoon after 55 days of incubation. Samuel, an enthusiastic volunteer from Spain, offered Aiden the thrill of liberating three of the newborn babies into the sea. We followed him down to the beach where we stopped just 2 meters short of the water line so that Aiden could gingerly take each turtle from the basket and lay it on the beach.
The babies (who have 5 days of umbilical cord nutrition stored inside them for their survival) became very active and began to waddle eagerly towards the light of the moon that shimmered over La Flor Bay. Before we knew it, the tide had slipped across their paths one by one to scoop each new life into their new home in the Pacific Ocean.
All three of Aiden’s released turtles will continue a journey far and abroad from Playa La Flor, Nicaragua as distant north as California, North America and as considerably south as Ecuador, South America. If they survive, they will in future return to La Flor each year no matter where they roam to begin laying eggs in the same beach where they were born beginning at about 20 years of age until the end of their lifespan. This grand annual odyssey is true of 8 species of turtles numbering into the tens of thousands that return to Playa La Flor each year.
Watching an Olive Ridley lay her eggs was thrilling
Because of the slowness of the evening turtle traffic, we also had the opportunity to watch an Olive Ridley turtle lay her eggs into the ground. It was an incredible experience to watch her labor up to three ping pong-sized eggs at a time into a hole that was later covered up by her rear legs in a sort of shoveling, patting down dance that took quite a while to achieve. There was plenty of space and time for everyone to see the process and I was again glad that we were there on a night where we could get into the magical details of all the life cycle activity that occurs on Playa Flor.
Why the Nicaraguan Soldiers with AK-47s? Turtles need a thick layer of human protection.
You may question why the turtles need to be released or liberated at all. You may also wonder why when you arrive at the check point there is also a military outpost on the premises of the beach with Nicaraguan soldiers patrolling the road and the site. Natural enemies of the turtles include coyotes and disturbingly people (most specifically women) who all seek the delicious delicacy and nutrition of the turtle eggs for consumption or retail value.
MARENA staff and volunteers from around the world attempt to transfer eggs from the beach into sacks of sand to be closely guarded until the eggs are hatched while the Nicaraguan military patrols the surrounding area for would be poachers (note that women successfully avoid arrest and punishment for poaching because of strict Nicaraguan laws protecting the physical rights of women that make it impossible for soldiers to arrest female poachers that resist detainment).
By the way, English speaking volunteers are most welcome at the refuge to help guide tourists and explain the work done at the refuge- just show up and pitch in (you’ll need some Spanish, too).
Staying overnight at nearby family friendly Playa el Coco
Playa el Coco is a beautiful beach with clear, warm water and clean, soft sand about 2km from the La Flor Wildlife Refuge Center. I do recommend Playa el Coco as a safe beach for families: there were no rip tides, very few jellyfish, and no incidents of theft. The current was very weak in the water in front of the Puesta del Sol Restaurant (while we were there) and the waves are just high enough for fun boogie boarding with the kids. I also liked that the mixed crowd of national and foreign tourists there consisted mostly of families with young kids. There is no bar / disco scene at Playa el Coco (unlike nearby San Juan del Sur – I remember you back in those Peace Corps years, SJSD!) which I personally prefer now that I am always travelling with kids.
We stayed overnight in a comfortable home rental at Parque Maritimo el Coco at Playa el Coco, which worked out well with breakfast at their restaurant on the beach and included access to their beach showers and pool. There are plenty of other home rental options right on the beach and also nearby from $130 – $225 a night such as: this popular private four bedroom home (sleeps 8, recommended), a stunning beach front condo with pool (3 bedroom, sleeps 6), Casa Piancito Playa el Coco (4 bedrooms, sleeps 8) Casa Tora (3 bedrooms, sleeps 8), and Casa Vista Pacifico (3 bedrooms, sleeps 8).
Getting to Playa el Coco: Piece of cake! From Granada head south past the city of Rivas and then turn right at La Virgen for San Juan del Sur (tall white statue at the roundabout is your turn point of reference). Right at the entrance of San Juan del Sur there is a Maxi Pali supermarket (do stop and pick up lots of snacks for the kids; this is your best place to shop to load your rental fridge or backpack if you have waited until now). Turn left at the signs for Playa Flor and Playa el Coco (amongst other beaches); the signs are right next the store and placed high up, so look up! Travel about 30 km or 20 minutes along the coast and you will arrive to Playa el Coco.
Getting to the Refuge: from Playa Coco head 2 km south along the coast and watch for a sign on the right for MARENA Refugio Vida Silvestre “La Flor”. Turn in and park for free in the open space at the bottom of the steps leading to the Refuge headquarters. There is a fee of 200 cordoba for foreign adults and 100 cordoba for children (the price is half that for nationals and residents). You can also camp on the grounds for 500 cordoba if you are on a camping tour or want to watch the turtle activity at all hours of the night. The refuge is open 24 hours a day and there is no limit to what you might find at any hour of the day though there is more potential for turtle activity at night and during the cooler hours.