Tortuguero means ‘region or turtles’ in Spanish and the cute little town lies on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the northeast corner near the border of Nicaragua. It’s an easy 125-kilometer from San Jose and sits on its own little island strip. Tortuguero is full of amazing wildlife, stunning beaches, national parks and more. Tortuguero is a rural town and it shows off how Costa Rica used to be before all the industrialization came in. It’s a lovely little spot to travel to, there are no cars, the town is charming with winding dirt paths, roadside dining and it has a great connection with nature. There is so much do there and here is a little insider knowledge for you about the top things to do in Tortuguero.
See The Turtles
Well, you are in the land of turtles and going to try and see them is a must while you’re in Tortuguero. Females come in their hundreds to lay their eggs on the beaches between July and October and the hatchlings make there dash for the sea between November and January. If you’re there during one of these times, your chances of seeing them are pretty good. Around 50,000 tourists come to Tortuguero every year to see this amazing spectacle.
Tortuguero is one of the only remaining undisturbed nesting grounds for Hawksbill Turtles, Green Sea Turtles, Giant Leatherback Turtles, and Loggerhead Turtles and the area is strictly protected by the Costa Rican Government. Tours begin at around 8 pm and can last until midnight. They cost around 10 USD per person and you will go with a guide to look for the nesting females or baby hatchlings. Do not attempt to go rogue and look for them by yourself, the beaches are strictly monitored and trespassers will be arrested. For the best experience, wear dark clothing and comfortable shoes and don’t forget your rain jacket. Flash photography is not allowed and all torch lights are usually green or red so as not to startle the turtles. It’s an amazing experience to see baby hatchlings heading out to sea or large females laying, it’s a real privilege to witness. It won’t always happen the first time you try and you may need to give it a few attempts but it’s well worth the effort.
Hiking Through Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is the 3rd most visited national park in Costa Rica. It is full of an incredible range of biodiversity thanks to the multitude of habitats that lie within it. The park is home to rainforest, lagoons, swamps, and mangroves. The park is huge and spans 31,173 hectares and connects all the way to the Nicaraguan border, where it joins another national park forming a corridor.
The park is home to 57 species of amphibians, 111 species of reptiles, 60 species of mammals, and over 300 species of birds. Birdwatchers commonly see keel-billed toucans, slaty tailed trogons, Montezuma oropendolas and a variety of parrots. Birds common along the canals include green and great blue herons, egrets, belted kingfishers, anhingas, jacanas, sun grebes and several species of hawks and kites. Other animals commonly seen are fishing bats, three-toed sloths, iguanas, basilisk lizards, poison dart frogs, and howler, white-faced and spider monkeys. The tracks of river otters, collared peccaries, and Baird’s tapirs are often seen on the banks of rivers and canals. Caiman are commonly observed in the waterways, which also are home to gar-fish, manatees, crocodiles, crustaceans, and an occasional bull shark. Jaguars, ocelots, and kinkajous inhabit the park but are rarely seen.
While visiting, you can either hike, hop on a boat or kayak. There are 3 hiking trails in the park and they range in length from half a mile to two miles. It’s 15 dollars to get in and the park is open from 6 am – 6 pm. When hiking in the park it;’s recommend to rent rain boots from the park office, these will help you on your walk.
If you follow the main street in Tortuguero south you’ll come to the entrance of Tortuguero National Park. Once you have paid your entrance fee and got your rain boots, it’s time to explore. You do have an option to take a guide and this is highly recommended, as their eyes will see things you may miss. While strolling through the jungle you could come into contact with any of the wildlife mentioned above. It is best to hike as early as you can, a 6 am arrival is the best, this is when the jungle will be most alive and the animals will be very active.
You can also go on a night walk through the park with a guide and can organize this at the park office. This will give you a chance to see the nocturnal animals of the park.
Tortuguero is surrounded by rainforests and Tortuguero National Park has been dubbed as Costa Rica’s ‘amazon’. The park is a giant river system and is full of canals that dissect the park. One of the best ways to explore the park is by hopping on a boat ride. You’ll meander through the jungle with a guide who will take you through some of the most beautiful parts of the jungle. The guides are very knowledgeable and will happily name every plant and animal that you might see. You’re likely to see caymans, herons, spider and howler monkeys and more, as mentioned above.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can rent your own kayak or canoe and go exploring the jungle. There are some parts of the park where motorboats are not allowed and you can only access them by kayak or canoe. It’s is a thrill to explore the jungle like this and you’ll see a lot more wildlife with your silent approach. The best time to go is early in the morning when the wildlife is most active. Just don’t get lost and remember to bring enough water, suncream and insect repellent.
There is one zipline in Tortuguero and it’s pretty good value for money compared to others in Costa Rica. Clip on to the zipline and cruise above the canopy of the national park trying to spot wildlife from above as you go. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a cool way to see a different perspective of the rainforest. The zipline is run by Aerial Trails Tortuguero and is easily booked through information centers in town or through your hotel.
All the equipment is high quality and the guides are excellent. They will do anything to make sure you are comfortable and help calm your nerves if you’re worried about climbing 75 feet and flying around the forest. There has never been an accident and if you’re looking for a thrill, this is where to find one.
Visit The Turtle Museum
This is not actually a turtle museum but is part of the Caribbean Conservation Center and is a museum inside the tourist center. Entry to the museum is $1 and it is full of information about the turtles and local wildlife. It is well worth visiting the day you arrive. All the facts you learn will help you see and understand the efforts that go into the conservation of the wildlife you will experience. The guides in the museum are very helpful and will answer any questions you have.
There is a focus on the turtles of course, and you will learn about the dangers they face and how conservation efforts are trying to negate them.
Chill On The Beach
Tortuguero beach is 35 kilometers long and it is pristine. There is nothing but sand, sea, and trees with no development what so ever. It’s perfect for long walks, sunbathing, reading a book and going for the odd dip.
The Mariposario is a pretty butterfly garden and has two enclosures. There is one for butterflies that feed on nectar, and the other for butterflies that feed on rotten fruits. The enclosures and home to a range of butterfly species and there are lots of them inside, they’re everywhere. You will be dazzled as they fly freely around the enclosure filling it with color, hopping on leaves, feeding, climbing trees and sometimes landing on your shoulder. This garden is located inside Mawamba Hotel, and is an amazing place to visit whether you’re into butterflies or not.
Just next door to the butterfly garden is Ranario, a frog farm. The farm specializes in two types of frog, the Blue Jeans Frog, and the Red-Eyed Tree Frog. The red-eyed tree frog is endemic to Costa Rica and has a lethal poison that has to be ingested to take effect. The blue jeans frog gets its name from its dark blue legs while its body can be a range of colors.
The fishing in Costa Rica is amazing and Tortuguero does not disappoint. Ernest Hemingway fished in Tortuguero and the area is known for a large population of snook and giant tarpon. You can find guides and boats to take you into the jungle to hunt for these fish or to go offshore in the search of sailfish, wahoo and more. The season runs all year round and if you’re a fishing fanatic, there are fly fishing lodges to stay at in Tortuguero that will cater to your needs.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Tortuguero for turtle besting is from July to October and this also when the weather is best, with peak months being September and October. Tortuguero is busiest in July, August, and December. People usually stay for 2 or 3 nights and this is enough time to explore the area. Wildlife is present all year round and the canals are stunning, even if you miss turtle season it’s well worth a visit.
Tortuguero sits on a little sandbar with no connecting roads. You have to fly or get a boat from La Pavona to get to the little town. Here’s a brief overview on getting to Tortuguero.
Sansa and Aerobell fly to Tortuguero from San Jose. The flight takes 25 minutes and costs about $80-100 one way and there are 2-3 flights per day. Once you land, you’ll hop on a boat to your accommodation.
This route involves two buses and a boat. Starting in San Jose, you’ll need to get on the bus to Cariari. Make sure you get on the 10:30 am bus or earlier in order to reach the last boat to Tortuguero in time. The bus takes 2-hours and leaves from San Jose Terminal del Caribe, on Calle Central Ave 15.
Once at Cariari bus station, hop on the next bus to La Pavona which takes 1.5-hours. The bus leaves from Terminal de Buses Coopetraca, 500 meters north where the Cariari bus drops you off.
When you reach La Pavona dock, buy your boat ticket from the restaurant there and hope on the next boat to Tortuguero.
This trip costs around $10 each way.
You can book a shared shuttle to La Pavona dock from San Jose or La Fortuna. This costs around $70 per person and leaves in the morning. You can also book a private shuttle which is around $200 from San Jose to La Pavona dock for 1-6 people.
At La Pavona, you need to buy a boat ticket. A boat ticket costs around $3 each way and you buy the tickets inside the restaurant. The boat ride is around 1 to 1.5 hours depending on the tide. The boats run regularly all day and be sure to tell the captain where you are going to they can drop you off at your hotel or in town.
Renting a Car
You can rent a car and drive to La Pavona. Leaving a car there costs $10 a day but it is not gated so don’t leave any valuables in there. Car rental is easy in Costa Rica and as usual, it’s best to go with international companies if you can.