Ixtapilla Turtle Sanctuary


In 1994, the 50 or so families of the indigenous Nahua community who live at Ixtapilla on the coast of Michoacan, near the state border with Colima, decided they wanted to take action to save the turtles whose numbers were declining rapidly. Throughout 1994, they estimated that only about 300 turtles had come to the beach to lay their eggs. The numbers had been devastated because people came to the beach in lorries to kill the turtles for their meat, and take away the eggs which are believed to have aphrodisiac properties. The government had passed a law in 1984 banning the killing of turtles and the consumption of their eggs, but like many laws in Mexico, it was ignored.

This year, the numbers of turtles arriving have been very roughly estimated to be around 150,000. This is an extraordinary success story.

On Friday 19th December, I set off at 7am to visit this community for the second time, along with the coordinator of the course in alternative tourism at the university, his wife and three year old son, and two electricians from the university, who were on board to install in the community’s primary school the fifteen computers we were carrying in the minibus.

As always in Mexico, the journey is a key part of the experience. We stopped for coffee at the first pay-booth on the motorway; then for delicious tacos tuxpeños (steamed rather than fried tortillas filled with either frijoles, meat, potato or pork skin and covered, according to your taste, with chopped raw onion, lettuce, lemon juice, green or red salsas (hot or very hot), at a garage just outside Colima; then to buy lemons because one of the electricians had become car sick; then, when we were near the destination, at a hotel on the small town on the beach, where apart from seeing an interesting cactus pictured below, we had what the coordinator described as the best Michiladas (a mixture of beer, chili powder, ice, lemon, and various other secret ingredients, of which the only one I was allowed to know was a powder made up of the ground up worm that lives in the maguey cactus) in Mexico; and a final stop at the last small town before the community to buy the electrical equipment needed to install the computers. We finally arrived at the community at 12am, having told Gil, the president of the turtle sanctuary we would be there by 10am. Nothing unusual in that in Mexico.No pasa nada.


Gil greeted us with the news that an “arribazón”, a large arrival of turtles to lay their eggs had begun that morning. The turtles arrive at the beach steadily from June through to December, but in this period, there are four or so major occasions when really large numbers of turtles arrive. And we were lucky to be at the community at one of these times.

Fortunately, the installation of the computers went relatively smoothly, and we were able to head off to the beach at 3pm to see the turtles. One of the many remarkable things about the turtles, is that they select this small beach, just 1km long, to come to in huge numbers, and do not go to any of the neighbouring beaches. There were turtles everywhere. Swimming in the sea, coming out of the water, going back into the water, walking up the beach, scooping up sand to deposit the 80-120 eggs they lay. As well as the mature females coming ashore to lay their eggs, (a visit which lasts about 45 minutes) there were recently hatched tiny turtles, making the short but risky journey to the sea, as they try and avoid being squashed by the large turtles, or eaten by the predatory birds overhead. It was wonderful to be so close to the turtles and to witness this event.


Earlier, I had talked to Gil about the history of the community’s involvement in the conservation of the turtles. When I had visited the community before, I had been intrigued by a question. Why did this particular community decide to do something to protect their environment, when many people do nothing, even though they are aware that their environment is deteriorating in important ways, whether that is quality of air in the cities, or species, like the sea turtle becoming increasingly endangered? At my earlier visit to the community, the answer I had been given, was that the older members of the community had been concerned that their children and grandchildren might never again see turtles on the beach.

Gil filled in more details of the community’s involvement in this project over nearly 15 years. When they first started, they received no support from the state or federal government. In fact, at first, the government treated them with suspicion, and soldiers tried to stop them patrolling the beach. Later, they finally received government support, and now the navy help them guard the beach and stop people killing turtles and taking their eggs. They have created an area on the beach, where eggs are taken and carefully protected until the baby turtles are hatched, and then people are invited on certain days to help in the task of ensuring that the bay turtles arrive safely in the sea. There is small charge for this, which provides a valuable source of income for the community.

The key point is that all this work over 15 years has been voluntary, carried out by a group of people who, as is the case with many indigenous communities, are marginalised and exploited. For their efforts now, the 50 people involved in the protection of turtles, who give up their time for six months of the year, receive a total sum of 18,000 pesos from the government. That works out at 60 pesos (about 5 US Dollars) per person per month.

One of the main purposes of my visit was to understand the project better, especially what steps the community wanted to take next. These include extending the work they have been doing as a form of environmental education, where people are invited to visit the community and help in the liberation of the baby turtles. Another possible step is to undertake some form of more organized study and measurement of the numbers and behaviour of the turtles. My plan is to help secure further resources by applying to foundations in England and the US. I have discovered one foundation which seems ideally placed to help, the Rufford Small Grants for Nature Conservation, and to which I will be applying. Anyone reading this with knowledge and suggestions of other foundations or grant-giving bodies, please let me know. Also, if anyone wanted to make a donation, I can supply the details of the bank account which has been set up by the community to receive money.

There is one final point about this community which is important. In 1994, there were about 200 people living in the community. Now there are around 400, made up of about 100 families. One important reason why people have wanted to join this community is that the conservation work undertaken has enabled the community to find additional sources of income to the agricultural activity which is their primary revenue source. Apart, therefore, from the extraordinarily successful conservation of the sea turtle, there has simultaneously been an economic benefit to the community which has enabled it to grow and support its members, thus showing that economic and social development and environmental protection can go hand in hand.

14 comments so far

  1. Meredith on

    Touche! Another great account, wish we had visited there. It was in the Lonely Planet, I think. Do you have any pictures of the turtles?

  2. paulrobertsmexico on

    Meredith – I have now added a couple more photos to the account in the blog I have loads more I can send you, if you want

  3. Luke on

    What a forward-thinking community. Let’s hope they inspire other communities to do likewise. Do you know if the local or national press have written anything about these turtle conservation efforts?

  4. paulrobertsmexico on

    Luke……There is a local journalist very involved with and committed to this community and he has written articles for the local papers about the project. He has also helped them get free radio advertising to promote the days when people are invited to help in the liberation of the baby turtles.

  5. Tom on

    Superb! And well done on the grant application too.

  6. […] Just 2 kms along from La Ticla is the small village of Ixtapilla, where the indigenous people have created a very successful project to conserve the marine turtle. In 1994, they reckoned that only 300 turtles arrived. Concerned by the lack of numbers, they mounted guard over the beach, and began their work to conserve the turtle. Last year, 2008, it was estimated that 300,ooo female turtles arrived to lay their eggs. (I have written more about this project in another post). […]

  7. Kevin on

    This is a very heartening story. It puts me in mind of the situation regarding the Mariposas Monarcas at El Rosario near Angangueo, Michoacan. Seeing the Monarch butterflies is one of the great wildlife experiences of the world and the area has Biosphere Reserve status. In addition, according to what the local Tourist Officer, Francisco Velazquez Gonzalez, told me, local people gain economic benefit from it to the tune of about 300 jobs, servicing the 100,000 or so visitors who come each year and maintaining the sanctuary. After a study in the 1990s discovered a 44% decrease in the forest habitat the federal government tripled the size of the reserve.

    And yet the reserve is still under pressure. Around 5000 people live in the ´ejido´ of El Rosario and forest clearance for grazing and fuel is still happening. On the day we visited in March 2009 a local was leading three donkeys, heavily laden with firewood clearly taken from living trees, out of the supposed reserve.

    I wonder if the people of Angangueo could learn some lessons about the conservation of their valuable natural resources from the people of Ixtapilla?

  8. […] readers of this blog might know, I am enchanted by the Michoacán coast. I have already written one post about the remarkable efforts a Nahua indigenous community at Ixtapilla has made in the conservation […]

  9. alpinelakes on

    Some very good reportage here. Nice job.
    I borrowed one of your pictures for my site, here:


    The foto is credited and links to your site.
    Hope that’s ok… if not, message me and I’ll remove it.

    If you’d like to contribute any reports to the Coast of Michoacán, I’d be happy to make a page for you.

    cheers, alpinelakes

  10. Paul Roberts on

    Alpine Lakes

    Fine for you to use the photo and thanks for crediting me with it. Thats quite a walk you did. Very impressive and great photos. I think the Michoacán coast is exceptionally beautiful and potentially dangerous as you discovered

    One time I ended up removing a post on my site about a land fight issue near Ixtapilla as I worried I was getting
    involved in a volatile situation.

    Have a look at another post on


    best wishes Paul

  11. alpinelakes on

    Hi Paul

    Thanks for letting me use your foto, es muy amable.

    I’ve been following the Ostula conflict with a great deal of interest. I spent a lot of time on this coast and I’m forever in the debt of many, many kind people who helped me and treated me well.

    The violence has been as sad and shocking as it was inevitable. There have been horrific injustices perpetrated here, and the conflict is far from being resolved.

    The harsh fisking of the rancho buganvillas developers has been an unfortunate development, but honestly; what were they thinking?

    Did they bother to find out anything at all about the property they purchased, before buying it?

    Did they know about the genocide in Coalcoman, the land grab in Maquili or the colonization of La Placita?

    They bought stolen property on the boundary of a conflict zone, and then proceeded to carry out an ignorant, racist hate campaign on the internet to try to discredit the marginalized, impoverished, indigenous community which has occupied and preserved the land since time began.

    Really bad move. The issue could have easily been resolved.

    Instead, it caused a war. Many Nahuat communeros have been killed in this conflict. Perhaps more will die. They can never willingly surrender their territory- it is at the heart of their identity. Without their commual lands, they are not a people.

    Have you ever seen the old indigenous women begging? On the streets of Morelia, Patzcuaro, Uruapan? Colima, Ciudad Guzman, Tecoman? These are ones who have been driven off their lands.

    The Nahuat on the coast know perfectly well what fate awaits them if they give up their lands.

    They’re finally strong enough to fight back. Population levels on the coast of Michoacán are just now returning to the levels which existed before the genocide of the Motines era.

    I guess you can see which side I’m on here. I’d prefer not to take sides, but the nahuat are my friends and I always root for the underdog.

    My next post on the Coast of Michoacan will include all the information I’ve been able to glean about the Ostula conflict.

    I wish you well and I hope you keep posting for a long time to come.

    cheers, alpinelakes

  12. Paul Roberts on

    Alpine Lakes

    Thanks vey much for your very interesting comment. I’m currently in Peru working with a newly formed NGO to help preserve the culture of the indigenous Shipibo people. As in Mexico, the discrimination against them is systematic and shocking.

    I mainly took my blog post about the Ostula conflict off my blog because it got caught up in the conflict and was published in the local paper largely due I suspect to the racist comments made by the owner of the rancho bouganvillas on it. That day suddenly the number of people reading the blog shot up!I thought like you it was clear where my sympathies lay in the conflict. I felt cowardly taking off the blog but all my Mexican friends advised me to do it.

    I really look forward to reading your post about the Ostula conflict. Please make sure you send me the link when you do it

    Im back in Mexico on January 29th. It would be good to meet up sometime if you are ever in the Ciudad Guzman or Colima area

    best wishes Paul

    PS I have not posted on my blog for a long time. Maybe I should get back to it but Im really busy at the moment

  13. mike lin on

    Hi Paul
    I’ve posted some info about the Ostula conflict on my site:


    So far, there isn’t really a happy ending to this story. Xayakalan is a sort of miracle for the nahuat, but the revenge killings continue. The real story is the drugs, or rather, the money associated with the drugs. Turns out that the people with the drug money all have vacation homes in the Privada de San Juan, the secret, off-limits, big money resort enclave north of San Juan de Alima. Big-name traffickers like Vicente Fox and Chapo Guzman meet there to hold Yalta-style conferences where they draw circles and arrows on the map of mexico to lease out portions of the drug trafficking network.

    I tried to get in to the Privada on several occasions. The guards were polite, but firm. No entry for tourists. For years, I was led to believe that the Privada was some sort of academic retreat for university professors. Heh. It’s an illegally privatized party beach for the well conected- politicians, traffickers and celebrities.

    I’ll get to all that in my next post. I have to decide whether to name names, or not. I guess I could go hide in the desert for a while, after I post. I’ve been thinking about heading out there anyhow.

    I borrowed another picture. Spoke with the photographer, but she mostly flamed me with crude insults. I had mistakenly assumed she was the owner of Rancho B. Not the case, evidently. Clumsy me.

    Hope you’re well and doing good work.

    cheers, alpinelakes

  14. paulrobertsmexico on

    Hi alpinelakes

    Very interesting post on your site


    I would highly recommend it for anyone thinking of visiting this area

    best wishes Paul

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