Jaguars & Turtles At Nancite Beach, Costa Rica

By Adriana Cortes, Director of Latin America Programs

Nancite is a truly unique beach, one of the most important turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica. But Nancite is not an easy place to visit. In order to get to Nancite I meet Luis Fonseca, the lead researcher of this project, in the city of Liberia in the Guanacaste Province around 4 pm. He changed his city car for a huge 4x4 jeep and we headed out to the Interamerican Highway.

Adriana, Pablo, & Luis

Overhead view of Nancite Beach, photo Luis Fonseca

It was a sunny afternoon with no rain on sight. After 40 minutes on the road, we turned at the entrance of Santa Rosa National Park. After 10 minutes on a secondary road the pavement ended and that’s where the fun started. Our jeep took on a muddy road for the next hour and a half; some parts, especially at the end, was so muddy to the point I thought we wouldn’t be able to make through.  But of course, Luis’ the experience got us to the end of the road, where Pablo, the station manager was waiting for us to help us with the supplies. We packed up and started on what was the hike. The first part was especially challenging, a very rocky and steep climb, taking me at least 30 minutes to traverse. At the top it took me 10 minutes until my heart and breath were back to normal; I realized that I need more exercise!

Even though it was already dark without any moon to light the way, I could see that the view was magnificent, with El Naranjo beach of one side and part of Nancite in the other side. The ocean was in front and the National Park behind us, only far away in the south could we see lights from the town of El Coco; there I realize how isolated we were at this spot. The descent took another 40 minutes which I found very easy after that tough climb. Once I was settled in at the station, we had dinner headed up to the beach.

Nancite is one of the two arribada beaches in Costa Rica for olive ridleys (Ostional is the other). The arribada is a rare phenomenon where the ridleys nest in mass, with thousands coming ashore over a few days. It was a surprise to me that Nancite could host an arribada, since it is only a 1 km beach (0.62 miles). This beach has 3 to 4 arribadas per season with around 70,000 nests total every season, producing around 3 million hatchlings annually. Our Billion Baby Turtles program has supported this project for the past three years.

Arribada at Nancite, photo Luis Fonseca

Nesting olive ridley, photo Luis Fonseca

Due to the difficult access to this beach and the protection of the park (closed during 2020 to the public due to the covid pandemic), for the past 10 years, the jaguar population has been growing in numbers. On this beach, they have found that jaguars eat the nesting turtles since are completely defenseless and slow, making them a much easier meal than a deer. All these factors make this place a unique opportunity to see a jaguar in their habitat, an opportunity that I was ready to take.

The night was clear, full of stars with some wind and just the perfect temperature for a great night patrol. It was a waxing moon, so it came out late during the night. It was around 10 pm when we went to the beach and the first thig we saw was a dead turtle, with a fatal wound on her head and many jaguar footprints around. The jaguars were out earlier than us; with the blood it seemed that the attack was very recent. Pablo and Luis deduced that it may be a female with her cubs who were there and killed the turtle.

Jaguar footage courtesy of Luis Fonseca

Not far from the first dead turtle, we found another chased turtle, this time from a solitary feline according to the tracks. Luis and Pablo were sure that the jaguars would come back for the chased turtles, so we walked the beach. We saw many tracks but no more turtles or jaguars that night; after midnight we decided to go to bed. The next day we had to wake up at 6 am to have breakfast and then a 3 hour trail in the other side of the north mountain to check their camera traps, which they use to study the jaguars and other wildlife in this area.

After coffee for me (and a good breakfast for the boys), we left the station by a path through the forest. Luis and I started walking when, just a the end of the path where it met the beach and the mountain starts, Luis stopped and said very quietly, “the jaguar.” I turned to my left and saw him, a magnificent, big, spotted yellow cat, only about 10 meters (33 feet) from me. He saw us and I could see his eyes; it was only few seconds, but it was enough for me to appreciate this unbelievable experience. I stopped breathing for a while, but I stepped on a branch and with this noise the jaguar turned around and ran gracefully to the beach to hide in the mangroves. It took me few minutes to realize what just happened; we tried to follow him, but he was, of course, faster and we didn’t see him again.

After this we continued our walk to the other side of a rocky mountain to check other camera trap. The view at the top was great and the whole experience unforgettable. We rested during the afternoon and that night we patrolled the beach a few more hours though we didn’t see any more turtles or jaguars. Luis and Pablo seem disappointed not to find a cat since they are usually around, but I was delighted with my experience of that morning. Next morning, we started our way back before to the road. It was a very short visit, but I already felt a certain nostalgia for leaving this incredible paradise. I’m sure I’m coming back one day.

Learn more: