Tortuguero is one of 28 national parks in Costa Rica, and the country's third-most visited. This is impressive, considering it's comprised primarily of a network of alluvial marshlands on the northern Caribbean Coast, making it accessible only by plane or boat. Its remoteness hasn't stopped travelers and tourists from flocking to Tortuguero annually to catch a glimpse of its unique aquatic eco-system and abundant wildlife, namely the sea turtles that nest here.
The park was created in 1970 by the Sea Turtle Conservancy (a non-profit research and conservation group) in tandem with the Costa Rican government to protect sea-turtle nesting sites. But within the park's 312 square kilometers (194 square miles) you'll find much more than marine life. Its biodiversity stems from the myriad rainforest, mangroves, rivers, marshland, and lagoons that exist here.
Despite being located just a little more than three hours from Costa Rica's capital of San José, it's a different culture in Tortuguero, as indeed you'll find all along the Caribbean Coast. The small population of just 1,500 residents is a melting pot of indigenous, Hispanic, Miskito, and Afro-Caribbean influences. Linguistically, this reveals itself in the fact that both Spanish and Creole English are spoken in the region.
Turtle Spotting in the National Park
Far and away the most popular activity in Tortuguero is turtle spotting. The park's nearly 35 km (22-mile) long beach that starts at the mouth of the Río Tortuguero represents one of the few nesting sites in the country home to most major species of sea turtle, including leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead, and green sea turtles.
The reason it's so hard to see many species in one place is that many of them are threatened. Not so long ago green sea turtles were near extinction due to hunting. Moreover, hawksbill turtles are still listed as critically endangered because their meat is viewed as a delicacy in certain cultures, and many also take their colorful shells for decoration.
Not to worry in Tortuguero, though. Here, there are no poachers in sight, which leaves mother turtles free to come and lay their eggs once a year. The nesting season takes place from July through October, mostly at night. So if your aim is to witness this phenomenon of marine biology, there are some things you need to know.
First, no visitor is allowed on the beach unaccompanied after 6 pm. To view the nesting, you will have to enter the beach with a professional guide. And no photos are allowed of the nesting—the mother turtles must be allowed to lay their eggs without being spooked or interrupted.
Trust us, the visit is worth the planning. Leatherback sea turtles can reach up to seven feet long, and seeing a handful of these giants arrive on shore to lay eggs is quite the sight. If you're really lucky, you'll not only get to see the mothers laying eggs (they can lay up to 100 at a time), but you might arrive at just the right time when the hatchlings emerge from underground and race toward the surf, propelling themselves along the sand into the water like little wind-up toys.
Crafting Your Itinerary
The nice thing about Tortuguero is that despite its relatively large size, you can experience most of its ecological activities and do a good amount of wildlife spotting in very little time. Even if you're only passing through as part of a multi-leg tour of the country, two days is enough for the highlights. For inspiration, take a look at this 12-day Costa Rican itinerary that covers the essentials.
You can mix and match a visit to Tortuguero on a Costa Rican itinerary anyway you see fit. A stop here works as part of a big loop if you're traveling on to popular areas that aren't particularly closeby—uber-famous Arenal Volcano National Park, for example, provides a totally different ecosystem and experience. Another option is sticking to the Caribbean Coast, beginning in the north and ending up at Puerto Viejo, in the south.
Again, access is the most cumbersome part of Tortuguero. You can only reach the park by boat or plane. That said, there's enough tourism infrastructure in place to make your arrival to the park (relatively) straightforward. Really, the journey to arrive there is almost as much of an adventure as actually being in the park.
If you're coming from the capital of San José, our experts can arrange either a flight or overland transport, which involves a connecting boat trip. If you do decide on an overland transfer, your journey will take you north for about an hour on the Guapiles Highway, through Braulio Carillo National Park. You'll arrive at the La Pavona dock, near the town of Guápiles, at which point you'll hop on a motorboat for the scenic 90-minute ride into Tortuguero. Note that if you are on a road trip, you will have to leave your rental vehicle at the covered parking structure near the dock (around US$8 per day) for the duration of your stay.
What to See and Do
While most visitors to Tortuguero come to view the mother turtles during nesting season, there are a couple other activities you don't want to miss during your time here.
Boat and canoe tours
The best and most efficient way to see the most of Tortuguero is to zip around the channels on a lancha (motorboat), canoa (canoe), or cayuco (kayak). In fact, boat travel is the official mode of transport here. Many travelers prefer a canoe or kayak trip, as these are great ways to stay active while marveling at all the incredible ecosystem. These tours typically last around 3-4 hours and are led by multi-lingual guides who can point out all the unique flora and fauna. Some animals you'll likely spot include caimans, river otters, howler monkeys, and rare tropical birds like macaws, toucans, and kingfishers.
There's no better way to experience the flora and fauna of Tortuguero than by embarking on a brisk hike into the surrounding rainforest with a local guide. You'll almost certainly see one or more of the three kinds of monkeys that exist in Tortuguero, including white-faced capuchins, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys. Anteaters, sloths, green macaws, and even bats abound here too.
As for the trails, one popular option is El Gavilan. It's a short two km hike and the trailhead is located just outside the town of Tortuguero. You can also choose to hike up Cerro Tortuguero. This is the highest peak in the area (390 meters, 1,290 feet) and a guide is mandatory if you opt to do it as the trail ascends near some deep gorges.
When to Go
If your aim is to arrive during the aforementioned nesting season, then you'll want to plan a trip between March and October (see the table below for the nesting windows of different turtle species). Note that this time period falls within Costa Rica's "green" season, the colloquial term for the nation's rainy season. While the Caribbean Coast doesn't see much rain at any time of year, there will be lots of precipitation throughout the rest of the country. Tropical greenery is in full bloom, and you can expect lower prices, though some areas and activities may be off limits. Here's more information on traveling to Costa Rica during the green season.
|Species||Nesting Season||Hatching Season|
|Green Sea Turtles||July - October||September - November|
|Loggerhead||July - October||September - November|
|Hawksbill||March - October||Year around|
|Leatherback||March - May||May - July|
Where to Stay & Eat
If you're arriving at the park, there's really only one place to stay: the village of Tortuguero. This small village (only about 1,500 residents) with a heavy Afro-Caribbean culture is situated on a sandbar island right on the coast, near to the beach. It's the main hub from which to embark on boat and hiking tours into the park, and here you'll find most of the area's lodging and dining options. It's also where the airport is located.
Much of the lodging in Tortuguero isn't as flashy as it is in other popular areas in Costa Rica like Tamarindo and Manuel Antonio National Park. Here you'll find mostly guesthouses and charming B&Bs, which, although lacking the amenities of four-star resorts, nonetheless make comfy and relaxing places to hang your hat. That said, if luxury and creature comforts are what you're looking for, then there are some high-end eco-lodges. These include Tortuga Lodge and Gardens, a 27-room jaw-dropper on green grounds with some rooms overlooking the Tortuguero River. There's also the larger Laguna Lodge Tortuguero, which features 106 rooms, six acres of tropical gardens, and a giant blue-tiled swimming pool. For mid-range/budget accommodation options, try La Baula Lodge or La Casona.
For food, you'd do well to sample the Afro-Caribbean fare on offer at places like Miss Junies, a local favorite that does good jerk chicken, red snapper, and coconut fish curry; for pizzas and crepes in a relaxing setting, try Budda Cafe; and those just returning from a hike can fill up on seafood (try the Caribbean shrimp) or veggie curries at Donde Richard. If you're an early bird looking for a good breakfast, go to Dorling Bakery for the cinnamon rolls and banana bread.
Tortuguero Travel Tips
Since nesting season in Tortuguero generally coincides with the rest of the country's green season, you may want to plan your visit during July or early August if you're going anywhere outside of the perpetually sunny Caribbean Coast. During this time, there's typically a "mini dry season" when the sun is out— it's like your own personal high season without the crowds.
Stock up on cash before arriving. There is now a single ATM in Tortuguero (Banco de Costa Rica), but you don't want to take your chances.
Tortuguero isn't a swimming beach. Strong currents and choppy waters make this section of coast unhospitable to swimmers. So leave the swimsuit in the luggage and come for the turtle viewing instead.