Easily one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica, Tortuguero National Park is a prime wildlife watching destination, and one of the best places in the world to see baby turtles hatch.
Tortuguero means “turtle catcher” and is a clear reference to the green sea turtles that each year, between July and October, visit the local beaches to lay down their eggs, which then hatch between November and January. When an American researcher defined it “the most important nesting site for green turtles in the Western Hemisphere” in the 1950s, Tortuguero became world famous and tourists started visiting. It was with the aim of protecting turtles that the national park was created, in 1970.
Located on the northern Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is blissfully isolated and not exactly an easy place to reach. Yet, it’s definitely worth visiting and you should consider adding it to your Costa Rica itinerary.
In this post, I highlight everything you should know about Tortuguero, Costa Rica. I will be sharing information on the things to do, the best tours and activities, and tips to plan your visit.
To begin with, however, let me stress once more the reasons why you need to visit Tortuguero when in the country.
Why Visit Tortuguero, Costa Rica?
Although the name Tortuguero is a clear reference to turtles, the biodiversity of this area – which includes rainforest, mangrove forest, beaches, lagoons and swamps and granted it the nickname of Costa Rica’s Amazon – provides an ideal environment for a multitude of animals.
Throughout the year you’ll be able to spot amphibians such as the famous red-eyed frog and the strawberry poison dart frog; reptiles which include green sea turtles, leatherback sea turtles, crocodiles and caimans, iguanas and various kinds of snakes.
If you are into birdwatching, you will be in for a real treat: more than 300 species of birds live in Tor tuguero, with parrots, parakeets, kingfisher and toucans all easy to spot.
Around 60 species of mammals populate the area. Spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys and howler monkeys are easy to spot; whereas the jaguar is infinitely more elusive – most visitors only get to see its footprints, but even that’s quite unique if you ask me.
With such a beautiful, pristine environment and so much wildlife, it’s easy to see why Tortuguero is a favorite tourist destination in Costa Rica, and why you too should visit.
The Best Things To Do In Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Visit Tortuguero National Park
Spread across a whopping 31000 hectares, Tortuguero National Park benefits from an incredible biodiversity. It’s the third most visited national park in Costa Rica, and a great place to discover the incredible wildlife that lives in the area.
Once you walk in, you can walk one of the 3 trails – the longest one is 3.5 km (little over 2 miles) – or go on a boat ride.
Whether you want to take a boat ride around the park or just hike, I recommend hiring a guide to make the most of all the wildlife. Guides have a trained eye and may help you spot species that you won’t otherwise be able to see.
You need to wear rain boots to visit the park. Several places in the village have them for rent for a reasonable price. Make sure to wear socks!
Tortuguero National Park is open daily from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. Admission is $15 USD and can be paid at the entrance in either cash or card.
Go on a turtle observation tour
The main reason to visit Tortuguero is to admire turtles – though you need to visit in the right season for that, as well as a guided tour.
During the tour, a guide will take you to a designated are where turtles have been nesting, and from there you will be able to observe them. You can expect to see green turtles (the most common ones), but also leatherbacks, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles.
Make sure to wear dark clothes for the tour, and don’t bother bringing your camera as you aren’t allowed to take photos anyways. Flash and strong light upset the turtles and may disorient them.
Be respectful of the turtles by not raising your voice!
Check out my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.
Tours take place after dark, usually departing at 7:00, 8:00 or 10:00 pm and lasting about 3 hours. Turtle tours cost around $25 to 35 USD depending on the company that leads the tour – enquire in the tourist information office located close to the dock for more information. If you visit in the peak season, advanced bookings are recommended.
You can book your turtle tour online here.
The small Sea Turtle Conservancy Tortuguero Visitor Center is a good place to get more information on turtles and other species living in the area. Admission is $2 USD, payable in local currency. All profits go to the conservation of turtles.
Go on a night tour
Many animals living in Tortuguero – frogs, snakes, crocodiles, bats and even jaguars – are nocturnal, so your best chance to spot them is on a night tour.
You can opt fo to a boat tour (costing around $35 to $40 USD), or a walking tour such as this one (which is in the range of $25 USD).
Kayak across the rivers and canals
For the most sporty ones, renting a kayak and exploring the canals and waterways of Tortuguero may be a great idea. The best part of it is that while some areas are off limits to motorized boats, they are not to kayaks!
Kayak and canoe rental is available in various places in town for around $20 USD per person per day. Tours are around $35 USD and can be booked online here.
Hike Cerro Tortuguero
Believe it or not, there really is a mountain near Tortuguero, called Cerro Tortuguero (Turtle Hill). It’s the highest peak in the Caribbean side of the country, and it’s a fun place to go for a hike. From there you can enjoy beautiful views of the canals and the jungle, and you will get to spot a lot of wildlife on the way.
The hike is strenuous – if anything, because of the heat and humidity, but very rewarding. It lasts about two hours.
Cerro Tortuguero is at about 10 minutes by boat from the village. You will need a guide for your hike.
Another cool (and easy) hike is the Galivan trail. You will need rubber boots for that.
There are many places to go ziplining in Costa Rica, and Tortuguero is one of them. Ziplining is a great way to come close to all the incredible vegetation and wildlife in the area – not to mention, to get a proper adrenaline fill! Aerial Trails and Tortuguero Adventures run tours that cost around $35 USD. Enquire at your accommodation or at the tourist information center.
With more than 300 bird species, Tortuguero is a great place to go birdwatching. Enquire locally for guided birdwatching tours and bring your binoculars!
Before tourism became the main revenue for people living in Tortuguero, fishing was the main industry. The canals are a great place to wander through if you are interested in fishing, and several small operators in town, as well as the best lodges organize fishing expeditions for which they provide all the necessary equipment. You can even ask them to cook what you catch!
Hang at the beach
The beach is what made Tortuguero famous – it’s where turtles nest! Yet, it’s not nearly as beautiful as many other in Costa Rica. However, it is definitely a good place to hang out, go for a walk and catch some fresh air in the late afternoon.
Swimming is not recommended: the currents are very strong, and shark attacks have been registered.
Explore the village
Tortuguero is a truly small village – around 2000 people live there, in a grid of dirt roads you can criss cross in a few hours. Most people are of Jamaican descent, and speak Limonese Creole, a dialect of Jamaican Creole.
The village has some nice souvenir shops, a few hostels and hotels, a church, a dozen of restaurants and eateries and very little in the sense of entertainment.
Practical information to plan your trip to Tortuguero
Guided tours of Costa Rica
With some careful planning, you can definitely make it to Tortuguero independently. If you are tight on time and planning is not your favorite thing to do, you may simply want to join a guided tour of Costa Rica that also goes to Tortuguero. The following are some good options:
- TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK TOUR: 4 DAY INDEPENDENT ADVENTURE – This G-Adventures tour focuses solely on this part of the country, and arranges everything you need for a memorable trip.
- COSTA RICA KAYAKING ADVENTURE – The perfect tour for adventure lovers, this 9-day G Adventure tour also goes to La Fortuna and Sarapiqui.
- THE BEST OF COSTA RICA INDEPENDENT ADVENTURE – A fantastic tour if you care to see strictly the best of the country.
- EXPLORE COSTA RICA – This National Geographic and G-Adventures tour is easily one of the best you can book to explore the country. It also goes to Monteverde and Manuel Antonio National Park.
- COSTA RICA ADVENTURE – Another fantastic tour that goes to the best places to visit in Costa Rica, including Puerto Viejo.
How to get to Tortuguero
Tortuguero is completely isolated and can only be reached by plane and by public or private boat.
The quickest (though definitely not the cheapest) way to get to Tortuguero from San José is by plane. The flight lasts about 30 minutes and is incredibly scenic, with views of volcanoes, mountains and jungle. Sansa and Aerobell operate daily flights, which are in the range of $90 to $100 USD one way.
If you want to make the most of the landscape of Costa Rica, opt to get to Tortuguero by plane, and make your way back to San José by boat.
By Private Shuttle and Boat
Another way to get there is by private shuttle to one of the docks where boats to Tortuguero depart from – Cariari, Caño Blanco, Moín and La Pavona. Once there, you’ll hop on a fast boat through the canals and jingles. and boat. You can ask your accommodation in San José to arrange transportation or alternatively you can book it here (please beware that the price quoted is per group).
By Public Bus and Boat
Getting to Tortuguero won’t be an issue if you are traveling on a budget and prefer to opt for public transportation.
Grupo Caribeños operates two daily buses (one at 9:00 am and one at 10:30 am) from San Jose Gran Terminal de Caribe (located in Calle Central, Ave 15) to Cariari, north of Guápiles, which is just 22 km (13.7 miles) away. The ride lasts about two hours and costs 2100 Colones.
There also are buses from San Jose to Cariari at 6:30 am, 1:00, 3:00, 4:30, 6:00, 7:00 and 8:30 pm.
Take the bus to Cariari that leaves from San Jose at 9:00 am for the 11:30 am connection to La Pavona. Keep in mind that if you leave later than 10:30 am, you won’t be able to catch the last boat from La Pavona.
Once in Cariari, the bus will drop you at the estación nueva (New Station), from where you have to walk to the estación vieja (Old Station) which is about 500 meters away and get a bus to La Pavona (Rancho la Suerte). Buses to La Pavona leave at 6:00, 9:30, and 11:30 am, and at 12:00 and at 3:00 pm. Clic Clic and Coopetraca operate the route. The ride lasts 1.5 hours and costs 1100 Colones.
Boats from La Pavona to Tortuguero leave at 7:30 and 11:00 am and at 1:00 and 4:30 pm. The ride costs around 3000 Colones and lasts between one and 1.5 hours.
The overall trip – bus + boat ride – should cost be in the range of 6000 Colones, which is about $10 USD.
The boat trip to Tortuguero is a fantastic introduction to this part of the country, with plenty of chances to admire wildlife. Make it a point to travel as early in the day as possible to enjoy the ride!
When to visit
The reason why Tortuguero is so lush should be obvious: it rains a lot! This is one of the wettest regions in Costa Rica. The rainiest months are December and January, whereas February, September and October are meant to be the driest months. I visited in February and it sure rained – although it was usually just showers that lasted for an hour at most.
The area is also very hot and humid, with temperatures during the day going all the way to 32° C!
The best time to visit Tortuguero if you are hoping to see turtles is July to October – that’s when they lay their eggs on the beach. November is when they hatch. Leatherback turtles nest from March to May. Having said so, Tortuguero is a great place to visit even when it’s not turtle season, as there’s still lots of wildlife to admire!
Turtle season is the busiest one in Tortuguero, so if you intend to visit then make sure to book your accommodation well in advance. Plan to spend a minimum of two nights in Tortuguero, to make the most of what it has to offer. 3 nights is ideal.
Where to stay and eat
Tortuguero has a good range of accommodation options for all budgets and needs. Although you won’t have troubles finding last minute deals in the low season (you may even just show up there with no previously arranged reservation), if you intend to visit during peak season you are certainly better off booking in advance. I have selected the best places to stay in the village for you:
- Tortuga Lodge and Gardens is easily the best place to stay in town. It features spacious rooms with river views, a beautiful pool, a restaurant and a bar. Breakfast is included in the price. Click here for the latest rates.
- Tortuguero Casa Pelican is an excellent mid-range option with comfortable rooms facing a lush garden. Click here for the latest rates.
- Hostel Tortuguero 7BackPackers is the best budget friendly option in town, perfect for backpackers or travelers on a smaller budget. Click here for the latest rates.
Some restaurants in town are simply overpriced for what they offer, but you can certainly find a couple of good “sodas” (local eateries) where you can have a full meal at reasonable prices, and where you can taste local flavors. Mi Niño, Miss Mirian and Soda Oasis all offer tasty local dishes. If you are prepared to pay for something more elaborate, go to Budda Café.
Final tips for visiting Tortuguero
Finally, here are some useful tips to make the most of your time in Tortuguero.
The weather in Tortuguero is very humid, with chances of rain throughout the year. Make sure to pack a waterproof jacket such as this one, and quick dry clothes. Use a good waterproof daypack (especially if you are bringing your camera gear) such as Osprey Daylite Pack.
Bring mosquito repellent
Mosquitoes thrive in humidity. If you don’t want them to feast on you, make sure to bring and apply mosquito repellent regularly. This is a good one.
A long lens is everything!
Monkeys, sloths and birds live high up in the trees and if you want to take pictures of them, you will need a long lens. I recommend a 70-300 mm one.
Withdraw cash before getting to Tortuguero
Cash is king in Tortuguero, and it’s best to pay in Costa Rican Colones than in US Dollars. As there is only one ATM now in town, you are better off bringing the amount of cash you think you may need for the duration of your stay.
Beware of the free information signs
Most locals in Tortuguero live off tourism, which means they may be quite pushy in pursuing clients – whether direct, or for their friends (which may in turn offer them a commission).
Don’t fall for the “free information” signs scattered around town. They are often a way to attract tourists and have them sign up for tours. And don’t be afraid to say you are not interested in an activity and to enquire in different places for a tour.
For more information about Costa Rica, make sure to read my other posts:
- 38 Absolutely Fabulous Things To Do In Costa Rica
- 16 Cool Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica
- A Guide To Renting A Car In Costa Rica
- A Guide To Driving In Costa Rica
- Latin America Border Crossing: What You Need To Know