The arribada or arrival of the Olive Ridley sea turtles to nest is a unique and amazing experience. If haven’t yet witnessed a 100 lb. sea turtle dancing in the sand and shooting out ping pong ball size eggs like nature’s gumball machine, then you are in for a treat.
Olive Ridley Turtles
Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world that there is are mass nesting sites for the Olive Ridley sea turtle. The largest ever recorded in Costa Rica was 500,000 turtles at once. Other countries that see mass turtle nestings are India, Mexico and Nicaragua.
Olive Ridley sea turtles usually lay 80 to 120 eggs each during the arribadas. Arribadas is the Spanish word for arrivals. At Ostional in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, the largest numbers of turtles come to lay their eggs during the months of September, October and November. The mass nesting of the turtles only lasts for 2 to 4 days, however there will still be some stragglers coming to nest for a few days after the 2 to 4 day window, but it will be in reduced numbers. The eggs they leave will hatch 45 to 50 days later, if the baby turtles survive predators and Mother Nature. Keep in mind there is not just one mass nesting per year, they happen repeatedly, timing is based on a variety of factors, but approximately once a month.
Based on my observations, the process for turtle nesting is this: the turtles hang out off shore in mass numbers, some you can even witness engaging in some hanky panky off the Guanacaste coast if you are surfing or in a boat. At some point (determined by the tides, currents, the lunar cycle, winds, etc.) the female turtles come on shore to lay their eggs. They drag their heavy turtles bodies up high on the beach between the high tide line and the trees, then dig a hole with their back hind legs, then they lay their eggs in the hole, next use their hind legs to bury the eggs, and the grand finale is they do a little dance to pack sand over the eggs, then they lug their turtle bodies back to the sea while audibility sighing and taking many breaks.
Note: Leatherback and Pacific Green Sea turtles are spotted in this area as well. There are 4 species of turtles that frequent Costa Rica – the Olive Ridley, the green sea turtle, the leatherback sea turtle and hawksbill sea turtle. The last 3 are endangered so sightings are more rare, so in Ostional I am mostly referring to the Olive Ridley turtles. If you see a leatherback, they are easy to distinguish from the other ones as they are the size of a small car. Leatherbacks are the largest living turtle species, while the Olive Ridley is one of the smallest.
Best Time to View Turtles
The best date on the calendar to see the turtles is a bit tricky to plan ahead of time. The arrival of the turtles depends on the moon and the tides. If I’m planning a trip there, I usually just call or email one of the hotels listed below to see what days they recommend. Or you can contact the local association of turtle tour guides on Facebook at the Asociacion de Guias Locales de Ostional(AGLO)Costa Rica.
I recommend arriving to the beach about 30 to 45 minutes before sunrise. Since this beach faces west, the light will start sneaking into the sky about 30 to 40 minutes before the sun actually officially rises.
As to the best time of day to see the turtles, when there is daylight, most of the turtles head towards the water, so if you go before dawn, you’ll be there to see them with a dim blue light in the sky. Some people prefer to go in the dark of night, but you aren’t supposed to use flashlights as this disrupts the turtles. So I think the early morning is better rather than bumbling around on the beach in the dark trying to see the turtles. But whenever you want to go see them, definitely go see them.
Where to See Olive Ridley Turtles Nesting
The turtles nest in a stretch of beach along the shore at Ostional or Playa Ostional. It is a little tricky to find the exact location as google maps may send you to a part of the beach that doesn’t actually have guides stationed there.
The Refugio Nacional Ostional (on google maps) is where the turtles will most likely be. But you will need to park either at Arribada de Tortuga Verdes or if that is blocked off, or guides arent’t there, drive to the soccer field in Ostional, and across the street there is a sign for camping. There are guides there.
I have driven to what google maps calls the “main nesting beach” and it is the red dot for Ostional Nacional Wildlife Refuge and there was nothing there but a sign. No turtles, no people. And once here, if the turtles are down the beach to the north, you can’t get to them walking the beach because of the estuary that separates the beach here in rainy season.
Also, you should know that cell service is spotty around here, so you’ll probably want to use your hotel’s wifi to map to here before you leave your hotel.
Some people say that they don’t want to go witness the splendor of turtles nesting because it is disrupting nature. I know it’s easy to think that turtles don’t want humans around because they naturally appear to look mildly annoyed. When you project complex human emotions on reptiles, and watch them give you side eye as they audibly sigh, it’s easy to think “maybe we should just go.” But turtles aren’t moody teenagers, they’re simply animals cursed with resting turtle face, so don’t judge. They would be doing this whether you are there on the beach witnessing it or not. Now if they start making a clicking/hissing sound at you or trying to pull their head inside their body, then maybe they need some space.
From what I’ve seen at the arribadas, nature is disrupting nature. I can’t speak for all turtle nesting sights. But at this one, the tourists seem to keep natural turtle egg predators at bay, at least temporarily. Everything is working against those poor turtle eggs. Everything from the rain water that washes all the buried eggs out to sea, to birds and wild dogs that come and eat the eggs. And locals eat the eggs, too…
Ostional is apparently the only beach in the world where you can legally collect and consume turtle eggs. You can fry them like an omelette or slam them in a shot at a local bar. According to the Tico Times, Vendors must have permits from MINAE and eggs must be collected within the first 36 hours of turtles laying them and must be sold with the ADIO sticker/certification. Although this sounds bad, only 1% of the eggs survive predators anyway. In exchange for being allowed to take around 6% of the eggs laid, the locals are custodians of the rest of the eggs and try to discourage other poachers or animal predators.
Posting photos and talking about turtles (and other wildlife) continues the conversation about protecting wildlife and eco friendly living practices. However, don’t pick up or take selfies with wild animals in Costa Rica. I’m not sure if it’s just socially unacceptable or actually illegal under the new Animal Welfare Law, so just don’t do it. Also, if you pick up seashells on the beaches in Guanacaste, you will get either the stink eye from locals or a stern talking to. The spiral shells aren’t decorations for your home, they are a home for sealife. So leave them be, por favor.
At Ostional, visitors are required to have a guide to go on the beach during nesting season, partially to give information about the Olive Ridley turtles, but mainly to make sure that tourists aren’t doing anything to disrupt the turtles.
Where to Stay
There are only 2 hotels near Ostional and they both have azul in the name, which is unfortunate as people frequently get them confused.
This is a traditional Tico hotel with good hospitality, decent rooms, pool and restaurant. Although nothing fancy, this hotel is a short 5 minute drive to the Ostional Nacional Wildlife Refuge to see the turtles. The beginning of the beach where the turtles come up is even closer, you could walk to it, but the guards there may make you go down to the main entrance across from the soccer field in Ostional.
Azul Ocean Club is a resort about 20 minutes north of Hotel Luna Azul. It is right on beach with 2 restaurants a pool and beach views/beach access. Although the restaurant by the pool is closed during rainy season (off season) and the restaurant that is open has a limited menu, it’s still a solid accommodation option.
I doubt either one of the above hotels will make the Condé Nast Travel gold list, but both are good places to stay, and the best in Ostional.
Other accommodation options are in Nosara/Playa Guiones, which is about 35 minutes south of Ostional. Check out my Nosara blog for more things to do and places to stay there. There is an Airbnb called Villa del Paraiso between Ostional and Nosara that I have stayed in and recommend.
Keep in mind, it is all dirt roads around this area, and if you want to see the Olive Ridley turtles nesting during rainy season, you will want a substantial car. I would recommend an SUV or 4WD, or something that won’t bottom out in the dirt road potholes.
It rains a lot during rainy season. Like, a lot, a lot. If you’ve driven the road during dry season and you think it’s fine, no big deal, you should know that they grate or groom the dirt roads starting in Dec/Jan to get read for tourist season. The roads gradually deteriorate as the months go on. By Fall they are deplorable, and there’s no reason to groom them as they will just go right back the next time there’s a hard rain. I mention this because Ostional is about 45 minutes drive down a dirt road.
Rather than end my blog on the many disturbing things I discovered while researching turtles, like this youtube video where an Olive Ridley turtle is found with a plastic fork stuck in his nose or this National Geographic article about an excruciating video of a team pulling a straw out of a turtle’s nostril.
Instead I’ll end it on this note, if you want to try to help turtles, start using edible straws (they are delicious). You can find my favorite, Sorbos eco straws at many restaurants in Costa Rica. They come in chocolate, strawberry, cinnamon, lemon and Apple. Also, Loliware has developed straws made out of seaweed. And always ask restaurants for non-plastic cutlery, there are now wood spoons options available and even edible spoons on Amazon.
And on your next trip, you can always Pack For a Purpose. This genius organization lets travelers know what is needed in the communities they are visiting, so they can take supplies to leave in the community they are visiting, and have room in the suitcase to go home with souvenirs.
If you feel like I missed something amazing in Ostional that travelers need to know about, please add it the comments below and I will check it out next time I am in Ostional. Thanks so much for reading!
*My opinions are my own. No affiliate links are on this page. Just sharing world travel with the world.