Isla Mujeres, located just 8 miles from Cancun, is an island popular for day trips, and is also home to the amazing destination, La Tortugranja. Spanish for turtle farm, this sea turtle rescue and release sanctuary is not only home to injured and unique sea turtles but is also responsible for repopulating the nearby bay and ocean with thousands of sea turtles every year. This is a must visit attraction for animals lovers, but the once-a-year release is an once-in-a-lifetime style of experience that must move to the top of your bucket list.

La Torugranja is the result of one man’s action to preserve the sea turtle population around Isla Mujeres. After years of hunting sea turtles for their shells and meat, this fisherman noticed the population was shrinking dramatically and began encouraging others to spare the turtle eggs so more turtles could be born. This small step later caused the government and private sectors to get involved and help aid in the protection of the sea turtles, which now thrive in the area. Starting small in the 1960’s, La Torugranja wasn’t a tourist attraction, but a sanctuary to aid in population recovery. Later, the sanctuary turned into an attraction, inviting school children, locals, and tourists to visit with the animals and help with the ongoing preservation efforts.

Driving up, in your island golf cart, the farm doesn’t look like much. In fact, the entire facility is basically one big open room and a small outdoor area with several big tanks. Unlike the large barriers and fences in American zoos, the turtle sanctuary allows visitors to be more than spectators, touching, holding and watching the turtles in a more intimate and personal way, in the turtle’s natural habitat.

The indoor concrete building is lined with large fish tanks full of indigenous fish and marine life found off the coast of Isla Mujeres. In the middle, there are wide-open tanks where young turtles and albino turtles swim in safety. Due to the rare skin disease, albino turtles cannot tolerate sun exposure for long and must be kept out of the sun to survive.

The outdoor sandy area has one big area fenced off to protect the sea turtle eggs from predators. Once they are hatched, they are transferred to larger outdoor tanks so they can age some before being released. Several older turtles, which have deformities or injuries, will never be release and live in these tanks full time. Observing the injured sea turtles, most harmed by boaters, makes the visitor more aware of their presence in the water and how we need to share the environment with all living creatures.

The educational experience continues on a guided tour. While the tour guides don’t speak much English, there is a common bond that people have over animals that makes their work transcend language barriers. The joy and enthusiasm when they talk about or hold the sea turtles is infectious to visitors. It is with this love of their work that visitors are truly immersed in learning about the history and what is needed to aid in sea turtles survival that goes beyond the island and filters into other aspects of their lives.

From May until October, visitors to the farm get the chance to participate in the turtle release program, guiding baby sea turtles to the ocean for the first time. At only 30 pesos, the equivalent to $3 US dollars, a trip to the turtle sanctuary should be on every visitor’s itinerary.