Isla de Cañas is the most important nesting site for sea turtles on Panama ’s Pacific coast. Five species come here. By far the most numerous is the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), the smallest of the turtles that come to Panama, weighing in at about 35–45 kilograms and with a shell about 70 centimeters long.
The second-most frequent visitor is the Pacific green (Chelonia mydas), followed, in very limited numbers, by the loggerhead (Caretta caretta), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata).
To make things confusing, the green turtle is known colloquially in Panama as the tortuga negra (black turtle) and the olive ridley as the tortuga mulata (mulatto turtle).
Every year 20,000–30,000 turtles show up to lay their eggs in successive waves, which makes for a spectacular sight if you time a visit right. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, since no one seems to agree on the best time to come.
Visitors should be able to see the best action between September and November, though nesting season can begin as early as April or May, and islanders say that massive inundations of turtles have occurred as late as the end of December. Very few turtles nest during the dry-season months of January–March.
Isla de Cañas is a colorful place with a population of about 900, most of whom live in cane houses. The community has been here since the 1920s, drawn from mainland towns and the surrounding countryside. They protect the turtles and their eggs, in exchange for which they’re legally allowed to harvest some eggs (but not the turtles).
There are a few ultra-basic, no-name huts for rent near the beach for US$10–15 per night, but those who want to hang out here are better off pitching a tent on the beach for free. A local sugarcane farmer, Señor Fernando, will take visitors for a ride on his cane cart for US$8 per group, but the beach where the turtles do their thing is just a five-minute walk across the island.
Sea turtles lay their eggs only late at night, but trying to get to the island alone after dark can be tricky, not to mention spooky. Camping on the beach is probably the best bet for those not traveling with a guide. Do not use flashlights or wear light-colored clothing at night; the turtles are easily disoriented and scared off by anything brighter than moonlight.
Those visiting the island without a guide should still hire a villager to guide them to the turtles. It likely will cost less than US$10 per group (arrange the price ahead of time), and the tourism dollars help ensure the turtles are left in peace to procreate rather than end up on someone’s dinner plate.
Getting to Isla de Cañas is kind of complicated, but the trip is fun. From Pedasí , head south on the main road to the town of Cañas, about 40 kilometers away, or 11 kilometers south of Playa Venao . The turnoff is on the left, and it’s easy to miss because the sign faces the northbound traffic.
Head down the rocky but okay road until it dead-ends at the shore 2.5 kilometers away. Isla de Cañas is a long, narrow barrier island parallel to and quite close to shore. It’s an unusual island: Its ocean-facing beach is 13 kilometers long, but the island is just 175 meters wide at its narrowest point.
From the landing it’s a five-minute boat ride through mangroves to the island (US$0.50 pp each way). Go at high tide if you don’t want to slop around in muck. If there’s no boat waiting, call the island’s one phone (tel. 995-8002); it’s a pay phone. Ask for Neyla or for a lancha or bote. The closest pay phone to make the call is back in Cañas.
The biggest pain in all this is getting to the flyspeck village of Cañas, on the mainland. The area is not well served by buses, especially since a route running between Pedasí  and Tonosí  was dropped in recent years. Only two buses make the trip from Pedasí, at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The fare is US$2.25. Taxis from Pedasí are about US$20 each way; make sure to arrange a pickup time, try not to pay until the return trip, and hope for the best.
Given the logistical hassles involved in getting here, many will find it worthwhile to arrange a guided trip. Most of these will have to be arranged with a tour operator back in Panama City , but those near Pedasí should contact Mirna Batista at Dim’s Hostel (tel. 995-2303, cell 6664-1900, mirely [at] iname [dot] com), who if she has time may be able to arrange a trip for a quite reasonable fee, probably no more than the cost of a taxi. She knows the area well.