It’s not quite dawn when my tour group is allowed to step onto the beach at Playa Ostional to see a huge arribada, an arrival of olive ridley sea turtles. We almost make a huge faux pas. Several of us come within inches of stepping on one of the giant turtles who are nestling into the sand to lay their eggs. We realize just in time that the turtles are all over the place, and we’d better step very, very carefully.

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We arrived at this Costa Rican village at about 4:30 a.m., after traversing two hours of rough roads. Apparently our bus even drove through a shallow river to get us here, not that it was light enough to see. I’m with a small group of people touring Costa Rica with Choose Life Sober Adventures. Our group’s guide, naturalist and all-around Costa Rica expert Marco Fallas, teamed up with Playa Ostional guide Maria Aviles to introduce us to the ways of sea turtles.

Related: Elusive sea turtles caught snuggling and making out on video

“My grandfather started with the project,” Aviles told us in Spanish, while Fallas translated. “That’s why it’s in my heart.” Ostional is a poor and isolated village. The people here have an intense symbiotic relationship with the shelled visitors. They protect the turtles, and the turtles power the village’s economic engine.

A turtle laying on sand

What it’s like to visit Playa Ostional

If you want to see turtles at Playa Ostional, you have to follow the rules. Don’t touch anything on the beach, even trash. If a turtle is walking toward the sea, don’t get between her and the water. Don’t go in the water with the turtles. If a turtle is laying eggs, she is in a trance so you can go right up close and take pictures. Stay with your group. In addition to Aviles making sure we behaved ourselves, stern-looking uniformed park rangers dotted the beach.

We had an hour to wander as a group, checking out the turtle show. Turtles arrive over the course of three days. They waddle up the beach until they choose a spot to build a nest. It’s a messy business. The turtles don’t respect previous nests. If another turtle already dug a hole and laid her eggs, a newcomer has no scruples about overlapping territory and kicking out somebody else’s eggs. Which is why eggs are all over the beach, emitting an awful odor. Or is that the turtles? Probably some of both. Later on, one of my traveling companions said he thought he’d never get the turtle smell out of his t-shirt.

Aside from the giant turtles and the eggs, here and there hatchlings are emerging from nests made two arrivals ago. One was staggering in circles, trying to find its bearings, while a big turtle furiously dug her nest right next to it. The hatchling seemed in danger of being flipped back into the hole at any second. I yearned to pick it up and move it out of flipper range. But no, I followed the rules and touched nothing.

Then there are the birds. I’ve never seen so many happy vultures, jumping and dancing around like they were at a music festival. Plus gangs of chickens and roosters sauntering along the beach. I don’t know why I was surprised to learn that chickens eat turtle eggs.

Multiple turtles laying on a dark sand beach

Egg harvesting controversy

I was even more shocked to learn that people eat sea turtle eggs. They have long been a source of both protein and cash for the local community. And some people consider them an aphrodisiac, calling them “sea Viagra pills,” Fallas told us. Some local bars serve them as appetizers.

Playa Ostional is the only place where it’s legal for people to harvest sea turtle eggs, but still within tight rules. Back in 1984, Aviles’ grandfather Basilio Vega Figueroa formed Asociación de Desarrollo Integral de Ostional with some other local elders. Along with University of Costa Rica researchers, they devised a system allowing townspeople to gather turtle eggs during the first 36 hours of an arrival on part of the beach.

Judging from my visit, many of the eggs laid in the first day get destroyed anyway by turtles excavating nests built by previous turtles. According to Aviles, locals remove less than 1% of the eggs the turtles lay on the beach. But egg gathering is still a controversial practice amongst conservationists. Some worry that any harvest opens the door for a black market in turtle eggs, since it would be very hard to trace eggs from point of harvest to point of sale.

Other places to see sea turtles

My group’s trip to see the turtles wasn’t on our itinerary, as turtles don’t keep to a regular schedule. It was a thrilling, last-minute add-on. If you visit Costa Rica, or another turtle destination, you might also have the opportunity to get up in the wee hours and witness the spectacular sight of a beach full of giant turtles. Ask your guides or innkeepers to hook you up with the latest local turtle intel.

George Shillinger, executive director of conservation group Upwell Turtles, knows all the best places to turtle watch.

“For olive ridleys, Costa Rica and Mexico are amazing,” he said. For leatherbacks, he recommends Trinidad, Gabon and Pacuare, Costa Rica. At Juno Beach and Jupiter, Florida you might see West Atlantic leatherbacks nesting. In Hawaii, green turtles swim in near shore habitats and hang out on resting beaches.  “Mexico also has miles of Pacific coast where nesting greens (called black turtles in Mexico), olive ridleys, leatherbacks and even hawksbills are sighted,” he said. “One other fun fact: we have giant critically endangered leatherback turtles foraging on jellyfish off the U.S. west coast, in waters off California, Oregon and Washington. In fact, they are California’s state marine reptile.”

Photography by Teresa Bergen