Bethany Dean - Conservation & Environment, Sea Turtle & Coastal Conservation in Mexico
Arriving in Mexico
In July 2012 I arrived at Guadalajara airport after a tiring 32 hour journey, excited to begin my two months at the Conservation project. I was nervous as I didn't speak a word of Spanish and had never travelled alone before, but I was greeted by my host family and another volunteer who immediately put me at ease.
They talked me through what to expect and answered any questions I had on the drive to their home. I was to stay at their home for the weekend before I left for the Conservation project. During the weekend my host family showed me around Guadalajara, and took me to the cinema, where we saw the animation Brave - in Spanish! Then we went to Chapultepec for the night market.
Monday morning came around and it was time for me to leave Guadalajara for my Mexican conservation experience to begin. My host mother drove myself and another volunteer to the bus station, organised our tickets and then we said our goodbyes as we got on the coach to begin our long journey (6 hours!) to Tecoman.
On the way to the turtle camp
Once at Tecoman bus station, I was greeted by Roberto, one of the Projects Abroad staff, and a van full of volunteers who were already staying at the project. I couldn't believe how different Tecoman was from Guadalajara, the buildings, the atmosphere, even the weather - it was so much hotter in Tecoman! After half an hour in the hot and sandy van, finally I caught a glimpse of the sea through the palm trees and then the few buildings that made the Turtle Camp.
My first thought was that it was beautiful, I couldn't believe that I would be living on this beach just metres away from the ocean, for the next two months. Once out of the van I began trying to settle into my new home and was soon shown around the camp by the staff and then allowed to relax in a hammock for the rest of my day and get to know the other volunteers. It didn't take long for me to settle in to camp life and get used to the routine.
Daily life at the conservation project
We were woken up at 7.30am every morning to start digging holes to bury the turtle eggs collected from the nights patrols. On a busy morning there could be up to a hundred or more bags of eggs to bury - a hundred holes to dig! Then we would move on to our allocated camp chores, which could include sweeping the sand from the buildings, tidying the hammock area of any washed up debris, washing the dishes or raking up leaves, anything to help maintain the camp and keep it clean and tidy.
After all the morning tasks were done with, volunteers would have the chance to go in to Tecoman, as a change of scenery, to do their washing or buy anything they missed having while in camp. There was also time for sun bathing and relaxing in the hammocks and most days volunteers would go down to the lagoon about ten minutes’ walk down the beach were we could swim or sit with a beer whilst socialising.
The work activities at the camp were bird watching in the lagoon, night turtle patrols, visiting the crocodile farm and cleaning out old turtle nests. Once a week we would go out on a boat into the lagoon, choose a place to sit and then record all of the bird species that we saw, and their behaviours. I found it interesting just how many species of bird lived in a small area of the lagoon, however you should definitely be prepared for the mosquitoes on this activity! Long sleeves and lots of bug spray are advisable.
At the crocodile farm we would help clean crocodile enclosures. After the crocodile pools were emptied of water, we scrubbed the pools, as well as helping maintain the farm and looking for crocodiles in the lagoon. For me the best crocodile experience was when I got the chance to handle the baby crocodiles! They were adorable and it is so hard to believe they grow so big!
A few weeks into my stay, the volunteers were able to start cleaning out the turtle nests that were buried a month or so before our arrival. This was a very mixed experience as the job wasn't initially a pretty one - lots of maggots! However it was worth it in the end, when we started to discovered the alive and active baby turtles. Smaller than the palm of your hand, and their eyes still closed, they were so cute! The sight of the first babies I saw won't be something I will forget, and really reminded me of the importance of the project. Soon after discovering the newly hatched babies, they were released into the ocean, with all of the volunteers watching, making sure every turtle entered the ocean safely, and hoping the best for them in their big new world.
The beach patrols took place twice a night, at midnight and then again at 4 o'clock (am!). Patrols are another experience I will never forget. I remember my first patrol so clearly, sat on the quad bike at 4am with the wind in my face watching lightning strike miles away over the ocean, lighting up the sky. That was the first time I saw a turtle on the beach as it came up to lay its eggs. Renee and myself had to wait for it to lay its eggs and then collect them in a bag to take back to camp to bury the next morning.
Every weekend I would travel away from camp to neighbouring beaches or to Guadalajara or Colima to experience other aspects of Mexico with some fellow volunteers. I visited Colima on two separate weekends and was accommodated by Roberto, a staff member at the Turtle camp. We were very grateful to be taken into his home and to be able to see the reality of Mexico that tourists wouldn't usually get to see.
He took us to places in Colima that the locals go to, such as tasty places for breakfast, local fiestas and a beautiful waterfall and pools in the rainforest. I loved the weekends as it was a chance to see other parts of Mexico, meet new people and other volunteers from other projects, have a fresh water shower and to enjoy a nice, comfy bed!
Volunteering in Guadalajara!
For the last two weeks of my time in Mexico I decided to change projects to the Animal Care centre based in Guadalajara. I decided to do this after going to Guadalajara for a long weekend, where I enjoyed the lively, bustling, friendly atmosphere of the city and wanted to be able to really experience it before leaving Mexico.
I loved Guadalajara for the markets and the people, and the events I got to go to. The bus tours are cheap and easy to find and are definitely worth while using to familiarise yourself with the layout of Guadalajara. Nights in Guadalajara were great for socialising, and if you like to dance, there are plenty of chances to salsa!
Back to the UK!
Four months later my time in Mexico ended and I arrived back in England, I write this and still clearly remember so much about my experience and think about my time there every day. Deciding to volunteer abroad was probably the best decision I have made, as it gave me a new confidence and made it clear to me what I would like to do in my future.
From this experience I have taken so many brilliant memories and some great friends, from other volunteers and staff members who I am still in touch with today and one volunteer who I hope to travel with in the future! I would love to visit Mexico again, there is still so much I haven't seen. If you are undecided about volunteering abroad, I say go for it, you will be surprised at how amazing an experience you will have and the memories you will take from it.