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.
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$).
Do travel during the day: the boat trip to reach the village is possibly among the best (and cheapest) Costa Rica attractions. Lush nature, crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds. Keep your eyes open and camera ready, because this is your “free” visit to Tortuguero national park and chances are you will get to see more animals here than on any of the tours.
Do withdraw cash before getting to the village: there are no cars and no banks, and few places accept credit cards.
Do appreciate the simplicity of Tortuguero: one main dirt road; the side streets all connect to the beach.
Do enjoy the artesania shops on the main street.
Do be prepared for the weather: this is the rain forest. It rains year round. On any regular day there will be short but strong showers.
Do encounter the locals: the 2000 inhabitants are mostly of Jamaican descent, speaking a funny variety of Creole English mixed with Spanish lovely to listen to. They are very friendly and relaxed (too relaxed at times).
Do remember that this is a tourist destination: the village lives off tourism, so there is a lot of competition among local businesses.
Do go the information centre: once in Tortuguero, it is right on the dock. This is the best place to ask for organised tours of the park.
Do keep in mind that there are many agencies in the village that attract tourists by offering “free” information. This is just a way to attract paying customers.
Do be aware that, should you opt for a guided tour, there are day or night ones, kayak or boat tours. For extra adventure, there are canopy tours (zip lines). Should you opt for a walking tour with a guide, this will cost 20$ 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$): the best and even the most reasonable option if you are travelling to Costa Rica on a budget.
Do make sure to rent wellies, as the paths are extremely muddy and they will protect you should you have an unfortunate encounter with a snake.
Do carry insect repellent or mosquitoes will feast on you.
Do go for a walk at the beach: it is a pleasant way to cool off in the late afternoon and this is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica.
Do not make hostels reservations: the village offers many options, for almost any budget. The average price for a double room with a private bathroom is 15$ 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.