The Isla Juan Venado Nature Reserve is a biodiverse coastal wetland region that exists thanks to the small barrier island Juan Venado. The island is basically just a thin, long strip of sand – but the nature is astonishingly beautiful and exploring the reserve by boat or on foot offers true tranquillity for all senses. There are no vehicles, no paved roads and no human settlements on the island.
Barley 25 meters above the water and very narrow, the 22 km long island is located right next to the Pacific coastline where it forms a sheltered saltwater habitat home to a prolific mangrove forest inhabited by numerous species of fish, bird and reptiles. The island also serves as nesting ground for the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle and is an important “nursery” for fry and juvenile fish that seek refuge from predators among the mangrove roots.
The Isla Juan Venado Nature Reserve is a part of Nicaragua’s national park system but has been put under the care of an NGO. The entire island is less than 3,000 hectares and has no people residing on it.
Exploring the reserve by boat or kayak is the easiest way to get around and you can do everything in your own pace. Some people like to get active and explore the small, curvy waterways on their own while others prefer to just relax and let someone else steer as they take in all the sights and sounds of the spectacular surroundings.
Isla Juan Venado and its estuary are especially popular among bird watchers since this is the home for 106 known species of bird – and counting. Lurking in the water or basking in the sun are reptiles such as crocodiles, caymans and iguanas.
Explore by boat or kayak
The reserve is located at the southernmost end of Las Penitas and most of the hotels and hostels will help you arrange a tour if you don’t feel like negotiating a deal directly with one of the local fishermen. It is also possible to rent kayaks at some of the hostels.
The water level depends on the tide, so keep an eye on the tide or you might end up stranded.
Take stroll on the island
Since the island is so narrow it will only take a few minutes to stroll from the secluded estuary part to the other side where you will see the Pacific Ocean in all its glory. Unless you happen to show up just when a tour bus arrives from Leon, you will have this island pretty much to your self during your stay. There are no people residing on the island and visitors are still few and far in between.
It is possible to wade over to the island since the water is shallow where the estuary connects to the open ocean, but the current is often quite powerful in this spot so most people prefer to access the island via boat from the estuary instead. You can also swim to the island from the estuary, avoiding the spot where the current is at its strongest.
Camping or sleeping on the beach
Camping on the island or simply sleeping on the beach is legal, but you must naturally make sure not to leave any garbage or disturb the wild inhabitants in any way. Tour operators commonly rent out tents and they can also arrange for a guide to stay close during the night if you want to.
Watching sea turtles lay their eggs
Between August and December, the Olive Ridley sea turtles travel to Isla Juan Venado to lay their eggs in the sand. This species of sea turtle lays its eggs during so-called arribadas; when an abundance of sea turtles arrive simultaneously to lay their eggs. On Isla Juan Venado, they usually arrive at night. The exact dates will depend largely on the moon and varies from year to year.
Tour operators and local hotels and hostels can provide you with a guide and updated information about the current arribada.
Common name Olive Ridley Turtle
Spanish name La tortuga golfina, La tortuga del golfo
Scientific name Lepidochelys oliveacea
IUCN Red List status Vulnerable
Length Up to 30 in / 76 cm
Weight Up to 100 lbs / 46 kg
Geographical range Indo-Pacific, Atlantic
It is of imperative importance that you don’t do anything that might disturb the female sea turtles or the hatchlings.
- Stay quite and calm. The best way of enjoying the show is actually to just sit down in the sand and relax, being as little of a disturbance to the mother as possible.
- Don’t get too close; three meters is a good rule of thumb.
- Never get between the mother and the sea.
- If you are a group of poeple, never form a circle around the mother or make her feel cornered in any other way.
- Shining artificial light directly on the mother can make her stop laying her eggs.
- Only take pictures when the mother has started laying eggs or is returning to the ocean.
- Pay attention to the turtle. If it seems to get anxious about something, stop your activities and back off.
- When the eggs hatch after two months, the hatchlings use the brightness of the horizon to find their way to the ocean and artificial lights can confuse them.
- Never try to “pet” a turtle or lift up a hatchling. They are wild animals, not pets, and human contact can harm them. Having a human up close is extremely stressful and things such as insect repellent residue on your hands can be dangerous for them.
The mystery of the barrier islands
A barrier island is a relatively narrow strip of sand running parallel to the mainland coast, and science is still at loss when it comes to explaining how barrier islands are actually formed. During the last 150 years, numerous explanations have been proposed by various scientists but no single theory can explain the development of all barriers distributed along the world’s coastlines. Today, most scientists agree that barrier islands may be formed by many different mechanisms.
Perhaps the Juan Venado barrier island has its very own story to tell about its origin?