The watery web of Tortuguero’s river canals meanders through the remote northern Caribbean, where the most popular sight is visible only by the light of the moon. Every year, between March and October, four species of marine turtle – green, leatherback, loggerhead, and hawksbill – lay their eggs on these protected shores. Our Tortuguero travel guide introduces you to one of the most moving, most unforgettable sights and places in Costa Rica.
- Area: Caribbean
- Average Temperature: 71° to 87° F (22° to 30° C)
- Closest Airport: Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose. The journey to reach Tortuguero from here can take 5 or more hours on land and water. Flights are also available via charter planes and Costa Rica national airlines.
- Can’t-Miss Attractions: Make sure to book a night tour to watch giant turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
- Hot Activities: Boat or kayak up the canals and bring your binoculars. Zip line above the incredible landscape.
- Great for: Bird lovers, turtle conservation, environmentalists, remote vacationers.
Tortuguero, and the National Park of the same name, is a magical place. It is often compared to the Amazon basin due to its water canals lined by dense tropical jungle. It is one of the most important sea turtle nesting spots in the region and a hotbed of biodiversity.
Four different species of sea turtles nest on the long stretches of beach, including the endangered green turtle, hawksbill, loggerhead and the massive leatherback turtle. During nesting season, night tours are organized so you can watch the arrival of these gentle giants to lay their eggs in the very same spot where they were born. A few months later, you can witness the miracle of life as the little turtles’ hatch and rush into the water to start their lives at sea.
The intricate maze of canals, rivers, lagoons, beaches, mangroves and jungle form a unique ecosystem that is best viewed aboard a boat. In fact, Tortuguero cannot be reached by land. Visitors must navigate the canals or fly into the small village for their visit. The best experiences and close up views are achieved on the water. The boat ride is highly recommended over flying.
Our Tortuguero travel guide introduces you to the area’s four turtle species, the best beaches, the greatest tours, and our favorite hotels, restaurants, and bars in Tortuguero National Park.
“The dark waters of the canals spectacularly mirror the jungle above, giving you the impression that a complete rainforest lies underneath the calm cool waters. As the boat makes its way down the channel, the gentle ripples of the water relax and transport you to a world full of stunning and unspoiled natural beauty.
What to do in Tortuguero
Tortuguero is somewhat remote and getting there will take several hours, so we recommend you plan to stay at least 2 days in this beautiful part of the country.
“The trip to Tortuguero is as beautiful as the destination itself. You will travel down route 32 right through the Braulio Carrillo National Park, meandering up and down the lush mountains, where you will see the ecosystems drastically change with the altitude.”
Tortuguero National Park
The National Park is located south of the village. Although there are a few trails you can walk, most the park is only accessible through the water canals, so boat tours are the best way to take in all the sights.
Boat tours are arranged by the hotels and their expert guides; most of which are locals who were born and raised in these waters. They can take you to the best spots so you can see up close all the wonders Tortuguero has to offer.
The waterways inside the National Park are accessible year-round and the experienced guides will be quick to point out all the wildlife that surrounds you. Expect to see crocodiles and their smaller cousins the caimans, as well as iguanas, sloths, a variety of monkeys and beautiful birds while touring the canals. Over 300 bird species live here and the park is one of the last habitats of the endangered Green Macaw which can be seen flying high up in the sky. Occasionally, visitors are lucky enough to encounter a river otter, manatees or a jaguar.
Kayaking and Paddle Boarding
For those who are a little more adventurous, you can opt for renting kayaks, canoes or paddle boards to travel down the water canals. Although, if you have no prior experience, this is not a good place for a trial run. Falling into the water could be dangerous because of the crocodiles that live here.
If you are into hiking, then a tour to Cerro Tortuguero is just what you were looking for. The Hill is the highest point in this area with an elevation of 390 feet (119 meters) and offers spectacular views of the National Park, its lagoons and canals. A hike up its trails will give you a chance to get up close and personal with nature. The hike takes 2 hours. Because it rains so much here, the trails will be muddy. Make sure you have appropriate shoes or rubber boots. It may be possible to rent rubber boots from the tour organizer.
Sea Turtle Conservation Museum
This small museum offers an opportunity to learn more about the different species that visit Tortuguero annually to lay their eggs. After your visit, you will have a better understanding of the turtles life cycle and habitat, as well as the risks they face and the different conservation efforts that are taking place to safeguard their environment and preserve their species. The Museum also has a souvenir shop.
Turtle Watching Night Tours
Nesting times vary depending on the species. Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles nest between the months of July through October and peak during the month of August. Leatherbacks nest here from mid-February to July.
The turtles arrive in mass during the night. A guide will take you to the beach and explain the process. Artificial illumination (camera flashes, flashlights) is kept to a minimum to avoid disturbing the turtles. It is recommended to wear dark clothes and keep noise down while on this tour.
These tours need to be guided. To protect the nesting areas, nobody is allowed on the beach after 6:00pm unless they are accompanied by a nature guide.
Turtle Hatching Tours
Some 60 days after nesting, the young turtles will break out of their eggs and dig their way out of their nest. From here they start their frantic journey to the sea, battling obstacles and predators to survive. The conservation efforts in Tortuguero not only monitor and protect the nests, but also assist the young hatchlings to reach the water in hopes of improving their chances of survival.
Trained nature guides will escort you down the Tortuguero beach to watch this magnificent miracle of life. Those turtles who make it into adulthood will someday return to this same beach to continue the circle of life.
Canopy Tour, Zip Lines and Hanging Bridges
To see everything that Tortuguero has to offer, you need to see this remarkable place from different angles. The canals and hiking tours give you a ground view while the canopy tour will give you a bird’s eye view.
Tortuguero’s biodiversity is so vast that you will never get to see it in its entirety, but by soring high up in the canopy you will get to see a lot more than you could ever imagine.
Bird Watching Tour
Over 300 different bird species have been identified in Tortuguero, so for an ornithologist this is a special place. Some of the most notable birds that can be spotted during your bird watching tour are the Red and Green Macaws, Pelicans, the Magnificent Frigate Bird, a myriad of Herons like the Great Blue Heron, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and the Boat-billed Heron, and of course the Oropendulas with their hanging nests. Make sure to bring binoculars and your camera.
Tortuguero Travel Guide to Bars and Restaurants
Most hotels offer their own dining and entertainment areas, but there are also a few good options if you want to get out of the hotel.
Wild Ginger: Offering a combination of Caribbean, American and fusion cuisine, this restaurant which is run by a Costa Rican and his American wife is a gem. Food is good, the desserts are wonderful and the ambiance is perfect. Some items can be pricey.
Budda Café: Their menu includes Mediterranean and Italian dishes. The atmosphere is relaxed, the place is nicely decorated and the food is good. The best part of an experience here is sampling their wonderful list of cocktails. Try their piña colada!
Taylor’s Place: If you are in the mood for some romance, try Taylor’s Place for some wonderful Caribbean food, great service and a romantic candle lit atmosphere.
Tortuguero Travel Guide to Hotels
Mawamba Lodge: Located on the same sand bar island as the village of Tortuguero, Mawamba Lodge is on a 15-acre property that offers direct access to both the beach and the water canal. The resort has beautiful manicured gardens, a swimming pool, butterfly garden, restaurant, bar, self-guided nature trails and more. The hotel offers packages that include transportation to and from San José to the Resort as well as meals and tours of the National Park.
Pachira Lodge: This hotel is right across the village of Tortuguero facing the main canal, and is surrounded by a network of very scenic water canals. The hotel offers 88 rooms, a restaurant and bar, a spa and is home to the Canopy Tour in Tortuguero. Like most hotels in the area packages, are offered that include transportation, meals and tours.
Hotel Ilan Ilan Trails and Lodge: A budget hotel with great amenities, including a pool and jacuzzi, walking trails into the jungle behind the hotel and great restaurant serving local cuisine. Most of the staff are locals, so their knowledge of the area is unparalleled, as well as their appreciation of the natural beauty.
Tortuguero is located in the north-east region of the province of Limon, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The small Village of Tortuguero sits on a sand bar island straddled between the Caribbean Sea and the Tortuguero river. Most of the area is right at sea level. The highest point is some 390 feet above sea level.
This area is warm and humid with average temperatures ranging from 71° to 87° F (22° to 30° C). It rains year-round, with an average rain fall of 200 inches per year. The months between January-April and September-October tend to be the driest. The days are warm, but tempered by the trade winds. Nights tend to be a little cooler, but very pleasant.
Getting to Tortuguero
The best way to get to this paradise in the Caribbean is by booking a tour which will include transportation by land and boat, lodging accommodations, meals and tours.
Choosing the land transportation over flying will allow you to enjoy the trip through the mountains and the Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Traveling within Tortuguero will only be possible via the water taxis as there are no roads here.
Costa Rica is known around the world for its biodiversity and conservation efforts, few places in the country embody these as much as Tortuguero. Unspoiled natural beauty will surround you and make you forget the stress of modern life. Here there are no cars, no traffic jams; time seems to move at a different pace and life is simply enjoyed.
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