Retreat and advance 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - revival retreat Julia McCabe (left) leads a post-yoga work session in the turtle nursery at Los Cardones Ecolodge, Nicaragua.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • revival retreat Julia McCabe (left) leads a post-yoga work session in the turtle nursery at Los Cardones Ecolodge, Nicaragua.

Around 2 a.m., I wake to a hushed voice outside the hut. For a few seconds, my face pressed into mosquito netting, I think I'm dreaming. Then, when I realize it's real life, I'm freaked out. "Leeeslie...," hisses a disembodied voice, "tortuga!"

I sigh in relief. Of course. I asked one of the watchmen who patrol the beach nightly to wake me if a nesting turtle hauled out, and here he was confirming it.

Hustling to the strand, the high tide roars loudly ahead of moonlight-black waves. I see the watchman 100 metres to the north, so the turtle isn't far. It's an olive ridley, a smallish species with a shell just under a metre, and she's deep in the sand. Having scooped out a shallow depression her own size, she now digs a jug-shaped hole with her rear flippers, positions herself over it, and begins to lay. The watchman kneels expertly behind without disturbing her, gently removing eggs to a sterile plastic bag. There are over 80 by the time she finishes and begins to sweep sand into the hole. The watchman cradles the eggs back to a nursery where they'll be kept safe until they hatch. I go back to bed, awaiting an 8 a.m. yoga call. It's just another night at Los Cardones.

Ninety bumpy minutes from Managua on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, Los Cardones Ecolodge is one of those rare places that presents an entirely new world but feels immediately like home. And it's something Sea-to-Sky people well know, as they're often in the majority among guests and staff from numerous ski towns. One of the reasons for that north-south love affair is Whistler yogi Julia McCabe, who, since 2010, has held numerous teacher-trainings and retreats here.

Recommended to her by a friend, McCabe soon established a relationship with owners Laure and Isaac, and her groups have become a fixture in the lodge's evolution. Los Cardones, meanwhile, became a fixture in her heart.

"There's something about this setting," she notes. "A vast beach with a warm, gentle vibe. It's hard to describe. But another big part of why I like this place is that Laure and Isaac have always done things ethically and from their souls, working with locals and keeping it authentic. They've created a place for people to connect while disconnecting from the grid that delivers the stress of a messed-up world."

Engineers who met in graduate school, Laure and Isaac were dreamers enamoured of the idea of living in the tropical Americas. In 2000, they lit out on a surfing road-trip from San Francisco that cruised deep into Central America. On it, they found the plot of land that would become Los Cardones (after the barrel cactus known as cardon), purchasing the scarified plot Isaac calls "pretty much a disaster."

After intense habitat regeneration, hot, bare sand covered in weeds is now cool jungle shaded by native vegetation. Grass and cacti stabilize beach dunes. Fruit trees and flowers sustain insects and wildlife like iguanas, squirrels, and possums. Mangroves again grow along the adjacent river, providing habitat for migrating birds, spectacled caimans, crabs, and the young of several ocean fishes.

The hand-hewn main buildings and guest casitas fit right in, while treading lightly in every way — low-impact construction, low carbon footprint, organic local foods, compost toilets, filtered grey water and zero toxic material used for anything — raising environmental awareness in the community through education that honours Nicaraguan culture.

The group I've joined McCabe on is the first of its kind — a "revival retreat" involving a daily regimen of yoga practice, surfing and work in the turtle nursery (which means moving several metric tons of sand).

"The idea came from a deep place of sadness with the current world political situation," said McCabe. "It feels hypocritical to do yoga if I'm not putting those same ethics into practice off the mat. Some might say How is a few days of hard work going to do anything for the environment? But that's the problem — just giving up because we're overwhelmed. Change comes from the bottom up. The top-down approach isn't happening; our political leaders are screwing up horribly — they're doing less than nothing. Hopefully the ripple effect is greater than I can predict."

Years ago, one of McCabe's groups walked three hours down the beach and camped out during a wild storm. "We watched a poacher take all the eggs from a turtle and were all sad and crying," she tells me, as yet another molten sunset burns up from the horizon. "Then we were able to buy the eggs to bring back to the nursery. But just before the momma turtle disappeared into the ocean, she kind of gazed over her shoulder at me and the look in her eye said: please help us. That stuck with me."

Turtle work is done for the year but for anyone who wants to unplug for a week, sleep under thatched roofs, surf rad waves, practice yoga overlooking the ocean, and eat amazing healthy food by candlelight, McCabe is hosting a Surf, Yoga and Technology Detox at Los Cardones Feb. 9 to 16. For more information, visit: juliamccabe.com/retreats-workshops/

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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