Travelling to Costa Rica without seeing Tortuguero would mean leaving out one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. The name of the place is a direct reference to the turtles nesting here in July and August, when the area is at its best and when everything is fully booked. Nevertheless, it is one of the interesting places to visit in Costa Rica during other seasons too, because of its nature and wildlife. Yet, as this is one of the wealthiest (and most expensive) countries in Central America, the costs of visiting the region and taking part in an organised tour may be a deterrent to many travellers on a budget. Worry no more: with a few, simple rules, you may be able to enjoy Tortuguero without spending a fortune. Here is a list of what you should and should not do.
It wouldn’t be Tortuguero without turtles
Do go in July or August if you care to see the turtles.
Do travel by public transport: the village is completely isolated and can only be reached by boat, via Cariari (the most common way) or Moin (less common and more expensive, but the scenery is beautiful). There are regular buses connecting San Jose Gran Terminal de Caribe to Cariari. The trip takes about 3 hours. Once in Cariari, you can get a Clic Clic or Coopetraca bus to the dock, and then a boat (bus + boat should cost around 5$).
Do travel during the day: the boat trip to reach the village is possibly among the best (and cheapest) Costa Rica attractions. Lush nature, crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds. Keep your eyes open and camera ready, because this is your “free” visit to Tortuguero national park and chances are you will get to see more animals here than on any of the tours.
Do withdraw cash before getting to the village: there are no cars and no banks, and few places accept credit cards.
Do appreciate the simplicity of Tortuguero: one main dirt road; the side streets all connect to the beach.
Do enjoy the artesania shops on the main street.
Do be prepared for the weather: this is the rain forest. It rains year round. On any regular day there will be short but strong showers.
Do encounter the locals: the 2000 inhabitants are mostly of Jamaican descent, speaking a funny variety of Creole English mixed with Spanish lovely to listen to. They are very friendly and relaxed (too relaxed at times).
A beautiful sunset in Tortuguero
Do remember that this is a tourist destination: the village lives off tourism, so there is a lot of competition among local businesses.
Do go the information centre: once in Tortuguero, it is right on the dock. This is the best place to ask for organised tours of the park.
Do keep in mind that there are many agencies in the village that attract tourists by offering “free” information. This is just a way to attract paying customers.
Do be aware that, should you opt for a guided tour, there are day or night ones, kayak or boat tours. For extra adventure, there are canopy tours (zip lines). Should you opt for a walking tour with a guide, this will cost 20$ per person, including the entrance fee. A good guide can point out animals and plants, but you won’t necessarily get to see all (or any!). Some animals are night creatures – the jaguar, of which the guide can point footprints, has been spotted 4 times in the last few years – or the various species of frogs that live in the park (which by the way can also be spotted in the village).
Do realise that sloths and monkeys live high up in the trees and with that thick vegetation they are hard to see. Snakes hide so well that sometimes not even guides can recognise them.
Do remember that the park can be seen independently, without a guide but just paying the entrance fee (10$): the best and even the most reasonable option if you are travelling to Costa Rica on a budget.
Do make sure to rent wellies, as the paths are extremely muddy and they will protect you should you have an unfortunate encounter with a snake.
Do carry insect repellent or mosquitoes will feast on you.
Do go for a walk at the beach: it is a pleasant way to cool off in the late afternoon and this is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica.
The beach in Tortuguero – nobody swims. It is too dangerous!
Do not make hostels reservations: the village offers many options, for almost any budget. The average price for a double room with a private bathroom is 15$ per person, but if you take your time to walk around you will be able to find something for 9$ per person. Be a real backpacker and sweat under the sun (or the rain) to get a cheap hostel.
Do not eat at trendy restaurants: they are expensive (think 20$ for a pizza). Instead, eat at the sodas: they are basic eateries that tend to close earlier than most restaurants.
Do not miss local specialties such as seafood and the local version of “gallo pinto” – rice and beans – a national staple and accompaniment to any meal, here made with coconut milk/oil.
Do not forget to try some freshly made juice and fruits which are abundant and delicious in the area.
Do not swim in the sea: swimming is not recommended due to the presence of sharks and strong currents.
For more of Costa Rica attractions, or for more of the best things to do in Costa Rica, do check my other posts here.
There are many places to visit in Costa Rica, but a trip to this amazing country would not be complete without a visit to Tortuguero. The name of the place is a direct reference to the turtles, which nest in the area between July and August. That’s when the park is at its best, and when the village is fully booked. Nevertheless, it is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica year round and it is possible to travel cheap if following my advice.
Costa Rica attractions: Tortuguero National Park
Reaching Tortuguero is in and of itself one of the top Costa Rica attractions. The village is completely isolated and can only be reached by boat, via Cariari (which is the most common way) or Moin. There are regular buses connecting San Jose and Cariari. All leave from the Gran Terminal de Caribe, and the trip takes roughly 3 hours. Once in Cariari, go to the estaciòn vieja, where most travellers get a Clic Clic or Coopetraca bus to the dock, and then a boat. A combination of bus and boat should cost around 5$.
The boat trip to reach the village is possibly the best (and cheapest) attraction: imagine lush nature, crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds… My recommendation would then be to leave as early as possible from San Jose, in order to catch the boat well early in the day and have full view of the surroundings. Keep the eyes open and camera ready, because this is a “free” visit to the national park and it is possible to see more animals here than on any of the Tortuguero tours.
A gorgeous cayman in Tortuguero
The village is far off from pretty much anything, there are no cars and no banks in the village, and not many shops will accept credit cards. So, make sure to withdraw cash before getting there. There is one main dirt road and various side streets, all connecting to the beach, which is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The main road is home to a number of artesania shops. Tortuguero is surrounded by luxurious nature – think palm trees along the coast, rain forest and thick vegetation, and wildlife is rich. The fact that it is right in the rain forest means that it rains year round. Almost any unbearably hot, humid day will have some downpours.
The 2000 inhabitants are mostly of Jamaican descent, and speak a funny variety of Creole English, mixed with Spanish, that is really lovely to listen to. They are very friendly and relaxed (too relaxed at times, as seen in certain local businesses), but keep in mind that this is a tourist destination, that the village lives off tourism, so the locals will often engage in an open battle with other villagers to offer their services to tourists.
It wouldn’t be Tortuguero without turtles
Costa Rica attractions:
Once in Tortuguero, right on the dock there is the main information office and tourist agency, where it is possible to ask for organised tours of the park. Visiting Tortuguero National Park is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Keep in mind that there are many agencies in the village that attract tourists by offering “free” information, as signs hanging outside would say. This is just a way to attract paying customers. There are day or night tours, kayak or boat tours. For extra adventure, there are canopy tours (zip lines).
By all means, the park can be seen independently, without a guide but just paying the entrance fee (10$), which is the best and even the most reasonable option for those travelling to Costa Rica on a budget. Whichever mode one picks to visit the park, make sure to rent rain boots, as the paths are extremely muddy and boots protect in case to be unfortunate enough to be bitten by a snake. Also bring insect repellent. Needless to say, in such humid weather, mosquitoes will attempt to feast on any living creature.
A walking tour of the park with a guide costs around 20$ per person, including the entrance fee. A guide can point out animals and plants, but remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean seeing all (or any!) of them. Some are night creatures – so is the jaguar (of which the guide can point footprints, at most, and which has been spotted 4 times in the last few years) or the various species of frogs that live in the park (which by the way can also be spotted in the village by an expert eye). Sloths and monkeys live high up in the trees and with that thick vegetation they are hard to spot. Snakes hide in the vegetation and sometimes not even guides can recognise them.
The beach can be a pleasant place to cool off in the evening, but keep in mind that it is highly recommended NOT to swim in the sea, although it is considered one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. Shark attacks have been reported and the currents are very strong.
The beach in Tortuguero – nobody swims. It is too dangerous!
Where to stay and where to eat:
The village offers many options to sleep and eat, for almost any budget. The average price for a double room with a private bathroom is 15$ per person, but take some time to walk around the village to be able to find similar options for as little as 9$ per person. Arriving early is a good way to have sufficient daylight time to walk around and the cheapest accommodation. The most convenient places to eat are called “sodas”, basic eateries that tend to close quite earlier than most restaurants. Local specialties include seafood. Try the local “gallo pinto” – rice and beans – a national staple and accompaniment to any meal, that in Tortuguero is made with coconut milk/oil. Freshly made juices and fruit are abundant and delicious.
For more information on places to visit in Costa Rica, click here!
A beautiful sunset in Tortuguero
Puerto Viejo is the perfect place to be a beach bum or to practice one’s surfing abilities in the pristine Caribbean waters of Costa Rica. It has some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The lush nature around town, its dusty streets, artesania shops, good bars and seafood restaurants and its relaxed rastafarian community (be prepared to listen to reggae music all day long, see the typical colours of rastafarians all around town and being served by a waitress who will laughingly admit to having smoked marjiuana) make this place charming and therefore one of Costa Rica attractions. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap accommodation, eating options and activities not to blow anyone’s travel budget.
Waves and wildlife are among Costa Rica attractions
Things to do in Costa Rica:
Surf and snorkel
Salsa Brava is thought to have the best waves of the country and is among the best beaches of Costa Rica for surfing. The coral reef almost emerges from the waters, so make sure to catch that wave unless willing to crash on the reef: in other words, it is only good for experts. Playa Cocles, about 2 km east of Puerto Viejo, has great but less dangerous waves, usually in the first hours of day. To catch the best ones, go between December and March. Not a surfer but willing to give it a try? Enroll in one of the surf camps.
Playa Negra is a great beach for swimming and body board. Snorkelling is best enjoyed in the areas between Cahuita and Manzanillo – for better visibility go when there are no waves. For scuba diving, there are over 20 good sites in the area where it is possible admire various species of fish. For information, the best option is Reef Runner Divers – it is even possible dive with a temporary permission for those who do not have a patent.
Sand, coral reef and forest in one of the best beaches in Costa Rica
Hike and bike
Puerto Viejo is a great starting point for other things to do in Costa Rica, such as a hike in the rain forest, kayaking, walking. And then go back to town to enjoy a delicious rondon soup (a traditional fish soup with vegetables and spices typical of the area). There are organised tours of the parks, but it is easy to hike around (and for free) independently in the Parque Nacional Cahuita and in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo where toucans and sloths can be spotted. South-east of town the jungle meets the sea, contoured by palm trees and inhabited by toucans, sloths and monkeys: it all gives this a special aura. Carry lunch and plenty of water.
For those who want to be extra lazy, the best option is to just walk around, browse the artesania shops, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and mingle with the local artists.
Biking around? One of the many things to do in Costa Rica
Where to stay and eat:
Backpackers looking for cheap accommodation in Puerto Viejo will find Hostel Pagalù a great quality option: comfortable beds (dorms are 12 US dollars), rooms and bathrooms are spotless, there is a cozy common area with books, wifi and computers, a well equipped kitchen to prepare meals. No reservations are accepted but those lucky enough to find a bed, will never be kicked out unless they decide to leave!
There are good supermarkets to buy and prepare meals. Those too lazy to cook who would rather eat out shoudl go to Soda Mirna, in the main street, as it is the best budget option with its set meals and large portions. Bread and Chocolate is perfect for a very filling breakfast, and everything is organic and prepared from scratch, not to mention delicious.
Various bars have live music at night.
Getting to Puerto Viejo and away:
It is possible to get here by catching a bus from the Gran Terminal de Caribe in San Jose. From Tortuguero, catch a bus from Cariari to Guapiles and then hop on another bus to Puerto Viejo.
To reach Panama get a direct bus to Sixaola (they leave several times a day) and then cross the border in Guabito.
For more things to do in Costa Rica click here.