Playa Las Tortugas: Eco-luxury (for humans and turtles) on Mexico’s Newly-Designated Costa Tortuga

Two hours north of the hip, bustling beach scene of Puerto Vallarta, lies Playa Las Tortugas, a place where the only crowds consist of feeding birds and nesting turtles.   Along a wide crescent of protected coastline, Playa Las Tortugas nestles between a natural, palm-lined estuary and miles of untracked beach.  Although PLT is the type of place you visit to escape the frenzied pace of more popular beach resorts, if you’re anything like me you may find way too much to do there anyway. This eco-friendly resort and residential community also shares the beach with a professionally staffed turtle camp where guests and homeowners can directly participate in the preservation of endangered sea turtles and learn more from biologists.  The elegant and secluded property places a premium on environmental stewardship, responsible development, and community values.  PLT is not just a new destination; it’s a new kind of destination.

A typical day at PLT might begin with strong, chocolatey Mexican coffee in the open-planned living area of your own private villa, or perhaps on the palapa-covered roof deck offering a view of the ocean.  Then how about a long walk on the beach—and when I say long, I mean that you can stroll for two or three hours without encountering another person or a single structure—unless you consider coconut palms to be structures (or persons).

While my wife Renee was content to fill her first day with a rigorous triathlon consisting of power-reading, hard-core pool-side napping, and relentless sipping of fruity drinks, I decided to take on a few of the seemingly gentle breakers just off the sandy beach.  Riding in a sea kayak, however, the waves provided enough challenge for an exhilarating hour of paddling, gliding, hydroplaning, and sometimes tumbling in the surf like a towel in a washing machine.

Lunch and a siesta on the couch beneath the ceiling fan in our villa living room demanded far more time than I would have suspected.  In the afternoon we considered maybe arranging a horseback ride or yoga class, but opted instead for massages in the quiet, landscaped gardens surrounding our villa.  After that it was clearly time for a walk on the beach.  As a means of cross training, we decided to collect shells along the way.

Cocktail hour didn’t so much arrive as become designated in the late, lazy afternoon.  Renee and I mixed up a pitcher of margaritas while we prepped dinner— red snapper marinated in my secret recipe sauce (no, I’m not going to tell you)— for its trip to the barbecue on our roof deck.

That night, though, the real action took place.  After we’d had a chance to enjoy the cooling salt breeze for a spell it was time to go to work—in this case, as volunteers for the turtle camp located just up the beach from our villa.  The entire enterprise of Playa Las Tortugas is built around the idea of saving endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles.

The moniker Costa Tortuga (Turtle Coast) has been given to this stretch of coastline because it is one of the few protected locations worldwide where Olive Ridleys return to the beaches where they were born to lay their eggs.  Vulnerable to poachers who sell the eggs as a delicacy, to predators (including man), and squeezed out of much of their natural habitat by development, turtle populations have plummeted in recent years.  The turtle camp at Playa Las Tortugas harvests eggs to protect them until they hatch, at which time baby turtles are released on the beach at night to give them the best chance of survival.  Guests and residents can work alongside biologists between June and February, when mother turtles come to the beach to lay their eggs and babies hatch and return to the wild.

On this night, the turtle camp’s head biologist carried several plastic containers of just-born turtles out on an all-terrain motorcycle to where we waited along with a group of Mexican graduate students on a dark stretch of beach.  He estimated the hatch to be around 750.  Some nights there are twice as many baby turtles to release.

Once on the sand some of the over-achieving youngsters (turtles, not graduate students) made right for the water and disappeared in swirls of foam, riding back out to sea like surfers headed in the wrong direction.  Other turtles circled pensively, trying to remember what their DNA had programmed them to do, which is to head toward the light of stars and moon shining on the water.  For this reason, one of the building codes at Playa Las Tortugas establishes a setback for lighting so that it will not distract the turtles and lead them to crawl inland, to certain death, as happens in many more developed areas.

After watching turtles and occasionally directing them toward the water for awhile, we eventually pitched in to help the stragglers, picking them up one at a time and setting them on the edges of outgoing waves before wishing them well on their journeys.  We spent an hour or two out in the warm night and surely deserved time and a half for our efforts as we performed this work after normal business hours.

Following such vigorous labor, Renee and I figured we’d better take the next day off and treat ourselves to lunch at the nearby fishing village of Platanitos, home to a series of palapa-roofed, sand-floored restaurants serving without question the best and freshest grilled fish I’ve ever eaten (okay, yes, even better than mine).  We canoed a short way across the natural estuary that empties into the ocean beside PLT, then strolled along a path over a rocky point to the tiny collection of small eateries.  While we waited for our fish to grill over the open fire our waiter brought us warm tortillas and two kinds of salsa, as well as a small metal bucket filled with ice and 6-oz Corona beers that were as refreshing as they were cute.

After lunch we took the short walk and canoe ride back across the estuary to the resort, thinking about what to do next—perhaps another massage?  Book a fishing trip for tomorrow?  Take another nap?  Hmmm.  We chose a croquet match on the lawn, which was among the most strenuous and competitive activities we pursued all week.

I should mention that Playa Las Tortugas is only a resort in the sense that you stay in beautifully architected and decorated villas set amid spectacular gardens.  But it is also the kind of place where you create much of your own fun—there is no activities desk, no concierge, not even a bar, restaurant, or store, at least not yet.  Most of the self-reliant guests stock up on supplies in Puerto Vallarta before venturing to the property, although some hire a chef to come in and cook two meals of simple local specialties each day.  Although a few supplies are available just a couple of minutes away in the village of Otates, PLT is like your very own private desert island.  Although it’s not really an island at all.  And not really a desert if you consider the surrounding jungled hills.

But a man can dream, can’t he?

Playa Las Tortugas offers horseback riding, surfing (including lessons), wave kayaking, canoeing, fishing, croquet on manicured lawns, yoga classes, massage, and walking, running, sand castle building, and shell collecting on miles of untracked soft-sand beach.  Nightly villa rentals are also available. The villas combine traditional Mexican and Mediterranean influences in such details as the use of open floor plans, palapa-roofed decks, and talavera tile with such modern concepts as sun-filtering Filtrasol window glass and Internet access.

PLT also offers several dozen home sites and villas for sale, spread across 44 acres of landscaped palms, pools, and gardens.  Sites offer ocean view corridors or are set back in coconut palms and offer garden and estuary views. All homes are eligible for inclusion in PLT’s active rental pool, which provides income to property owners.

For further info call 800-320-7769 or visit

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