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Into the Wild: A Journey to the world’s largest turtles

A leatherback turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs (Armila, San Blas)

The leatherback turtle is a magnificent creature, known for its massive size and ancient ancestry. These gentle giants can weigh up to 1,500 pounds or 700 kg and grow up to six feet in length (or: 2 meters), making them the largest of all sea turtles. Leatherbacks have been swimming in our oceans for over 100 million years, and their continued existence is critical to the health of marine ecosystems worldwide.

One of the best places to see these amazing creatures is in the small Kuna village of Armila, nestled between the lush jungles of the Darien Gap and the sparkling waters of the Caribbean Sea. This remote village is not only our home village, but also home to one of the most important nesting sites of leatherback turtles, making it the perfect destination for eco-tourists and nature lovers alike.

Guests of our 3-day border-crossing trips through the San Blas Islands (3-Day boat from Panama to Colombia or the 3-Day boat from Colombia to Panama) can book an extension to their trip to visit Armila and meet those magical creatures!

Leatherback turtle at their nesting site in Armila, watched by Kuna children
Leatherback turtle at their nesting site in Armila, watched by Kuna children

Leatherback Turtles – A Critical Part of Marine Ecosystems

Leatherback turtles are one of the most iconic and beloved creatures of the sea. They play a critical role in marine ecosystems, helping to maintain healthy populations of jellyfish and other sea creatures. Sadly, leatherbacks are also one of the most endangered species of sea turtles, with populations declining rapidly in recent years due to habitat loss, pollution, and poaching.

Conservation efforts are underway around the world to protect leatherback turtles and their habitats. Armila is one of the most important nesting sites for leatherbacks in Panama, and the local community has taken a leading role in protecting these magnificent creatures. The village has established a turtle sanctuary and conservation program, which has helped to stabilize and even increase the population of leatherbacks in the area.

Leatherback Turtle in Armil, Kuna Yala, Panama returning to the sea after nesting
Leatherback Turtle coming ashore on the beach in Armila, Panama

Armila – a step back in time

Armila is a unique and remote indigenous village in the Kuna Yala region of Panama, known for its stunning natural beauty and traditional Kuna culture and just a stone-throw away from the Colombian border. While part of Kuna Yala, it is at the very eastern end of the region known as San Blas islands and a very different kind of tropical paradise. The village is located on a small peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean Sea, surrounded on three sides by dense jungle and the Darien Gap to the east and accessible only by boat or plane.

Armila, a remote indigenous village in Panama known for its natural beauty, Kuna culture and as a leatherback turtle nesting site
View from the mountain across Armila (the small dent on the beach in the center of the image) and its beach

The Kuna people have lived here for generations, living in harmony with nature and maintaining their traditional way of life. The village has no paved roads or cars, with residents living in simple thatched bamboo huts and relying on fishing and agriculture for sustenance. The indigenous traditions of the Kuna people are still very much alive in this village, with many residents wearing traditional clothing (mola). Important decisions are made and issues discussed every other day in the Congreso, a community meeting where all residents have to participate.

The people here live a simple life, with the bare necessities and a deep connection to the natural world around them. Visitors to Armila can immerse themselves in Kuna culture, learning about their handicrafts, music, dance, and cuisine and step back in time. And experience leatherback turtles.

Kuna women drinking Chica fuerte in a traditional ceremony
Kuna women during a traditional ceremony in the Congress house in Armila

Local Efforts to Save Leatherback Turtles

The beach in Armila is an essential nesting ground for these ancient creatures, with thousands of female leatherbacks coming ashore each year to lay their eggs in the sand. The local community in Armila is acutely aware of the importance of these turtles and has taken steps to protect them from the dangers of habitat loss, poaching, and pollution.

The local community in Armila has taken steps to protect them from the dangers of habitat loss, poaching, and pollution.

They have implemented a range of measures to protect the turtles and their habitat, such as monitoring and patrolling the beaches to deter poachers, installing turtle-friendly lighting to guide hatchlings safely to the sea, and participating in beach clean-up initiatives to reduce pollution. Additionally, the community has established a turtle hatchery to protect and incubate the eggs, which are at high risk of predation from natural predators and human interference. Each year in August, the Festival de Tortugas (Turtle Festival) is held here, celebrating the leatherback turtles with traditional Kuna dances, music, and food, as well as educational programs about the importance of conservation efforts to protect the turtles and their habitat.

Turtle conservation efforts
Turtle conservation efforts

Through these efforts, the community has been able to significantly decrease the mortality rate of leatherback turtles and help ensure their survival for future generations. The conservation efforts of the community have been recognized by the Panamanian government, which has designated the area as a protected site, giving further impetus to the conservation work being done by the locals.

Children in Armila, San Blas Panama, celebrating leatherback turtles
Children celebrating leatherback turtles during the annual Festival de Las Tortugas Maritimas

The role of turtles in the Kuna culture

Turtles have always played an important role in the Kuna culture. There even is a month dedicated to these beautiful animals – in the Kuna calendar, the names of the months make reference to natural events and so May is the “month of the turtles” – Yauk nii.

Historically, the Kunas believed that everybody that eats a turtle will be punished by Bab Dummad (the Kuna creator of the world) and that those who kill a turtle, will suffer from horrible diseases because the animal’s spirit will invade his Burba (your own spirit, soul). Sadly, over time this belief has been fading and continuous education efforts, such as in Armila, are crucial.

Turtles are also part in Kuna art – during your visit to the San Blas Islands, you will certainly see turtles on some of the local colorful mola blouses worn by Kuna women.

Leatherback Turtle Spotting in Armila

Visitors to Armila can witness the magic of leatherback turtle nesting and hatching during the nesting season, which runs from April to June.

Visitors to Armila can witness the magic of leatherback turtle nesting and hatching during the nesting season, which runs from April to June. The beach in front of the village is one of the primary nesting sites for leatherbacks in the area and visitors can take a guided tour to the nesting areas and witness the massive creatures as they lumber up the beach to lay their eggs.

From late April to June, interested guests can visit Armila and the turtle nesting sites in combination with our 3-Day boat from Panama to Colombia or the 3-Day boat from Colombia to Panama through the San Blas Islands. During this extension to the trip, you can go on a guided tour to the turtles’ nesting areas, immerse yourself into the local culture and even take a trip in a traditional dugout into the jungle. In August, you can visit the Festival de las Tortugas with us and watch the tiny leatherback turtles in their hatching site. Reach out to us for more info!

Exploring the river in Armila with a traditional dugout canoo with the locals
Exploring the river in Armila with a traditional dugout canoo with the locals

In conclusion, visiting Armila and witnessing the nesting sites of the Leatherback Turtles is an unforgettable experience that not only allows you to witness one of the most amazing natural phenomena on the planet but also support the efforts of the Kuna people to protect their unique way of life and the natural environment around them. If you’re looking for an adventure off the beaten track, Armila is the perfect destination.

A group of tourists walking on the beach in Armila, San Blas Islands, Panama

Interesting facts about Leatherback turtles

 The leatherback turtle is the largest turtle species in the world.
2. Leatherback turtles are 4.5 to 5.5 feet (1.4 to 1.7 m) long and weigh up to 2,200 pounds (998 kg).
3. Leatherback turtles are the only turtle species in the world that does not have a hard shell and scales.
4. Leatherback turtles are named for their tough skin that resembles rubbery leather.
5. Leatherback turtles have not changed in millions of years and have existed in their current form since the time of the dinosaurs.
6. Leatherback turtles swim over 10,000 miles a year to reach their nesting grounds.
7. Leatherback turtles are expert divers, capable of diving down nearly 4,000 feet (1,219 m) deep.
8. Leatherback turtles can stay underwater for up to 85 minutes.
9. Leatherback turtles have sharp jaws that help tear through their gelatinous prey, such as jellyfish and salps.1

from: oceana.org

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A collection of inspirations, stories and tips about tourism, life and culture on and around the San Blas Islands in Panama.

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