It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more difficult it is to reach a place, the more rewarding it is when you get there. That’s proven true on so many of my trips (Copper Canyon, San Blas Islands, Senegal to name a few).
However, it’s a truth not to be taken for granted in the world of travel. And as I handed over my dollars and made a note of the multiple bus, boat and guided tour times, I wondered if it would be true of Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica.
I was even more hesitant since I would be visiting off-season, when the nesting turtles, which give the park its name and are without a doubt the star attraction, had long hatched and swam out to sea.
Was it worth the journey? That’s what I’m going to share with you in this guide.
I’ll give you the low down on the best things to do as well as tips on how to get there, when to go and what to pack. I’ll also share my views on whether it’s worth visiting when the turtles aren’t nesting.
(sorry Jane Austen for cannibalising your famous opening line from Pride & Prejudice).
Let’s start with some quick facts about the park…
Quick Facts about Tortuguero National Park
- It’s located on the northeast coast of Costa Rica.
- It’s Spanish name is Parque Nacional Tortuguero.
- Tortuguero means nesting turtles and the park is so named because it’s a popular nesting ground for turtles.
- The park is around 20,000 hectares and has been a conservation area and protected nesting sanctuary since the 1970s.
- It can only be reached by boat and the best way to explore when you get there is by boat.
- Turtle season runs approximately July to November with nesting and hatching phases.
- In season, you can expect to see green sea turtles, leatherback turtles and hawksbill turtles.
- Even out of season you can expect to see the occasional turtle hanging out.
- Aside from turtles, the park is rich with other wildlife including caiman, otters, spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys and lots of vivid, tropical birds including toucans, macaws and kingfishers.
Things to do in Tortuguero National Park
Here’s a list of the best things to do in the Park. This list will be especially useful if you’re visiting out of turtle season when the main attraction isn’t on offer.
Take a boat trip to the national park (wildlife spotting on the way)
One of the most frustrating things about visiting the park also happens to be one of the best things – you have to get there by boat. That means a pretty long day of transport and little scope for getting there by your own steam. However, it also means that during the 1-1.5 hours you’re on the boat travelling into the park, you’ve got some excellent sightseeing along the way. Our boat driver was more than happy to stop when he spotted wildlife worthy of a picture. We had photo opps for caiman and a few lone turtles.
Confession: I ate turtle soup when I was in New Orleans. I was writing a local food guide and it’s a creole favourite. It turns out most turtle soup is actually ‘mock’ turtle these days and is made with veal, phew.
Take a turtle tour (in season)
It was just a matter of decades ago that hunting green sea turtles (for food – turtle soup and eggs) led to their near extinction. In the 1970s, Tortuguero National Park was established as a protected area for the turtles to nest. The park has become a tourist attraction with visitors stopping by in the thousands to see the thousands of green sea turtles during nesting season.
Nesting season runs broadly from July to September with hatching taking place around September to November. Tours are regulated (rightly so), meaning you need a guide with a permit. The tours tend to take place between 8 p.m. and midnight. You’ll be asked to wear black so you don’t scare the turtles. And you won’t be able to take photos. Console yourself with the fact it’s all for the good of the turtles.
See the park by canoe
After seeing the turtles, this is one of the most popular things to do in the park. So, if you’re going outside turtle season, it’s going to be the highlight of your trip. And, I have to say, even for this non-morning person, there was something very magical about gliding across the water in a canoe, powered only by an oar, to the sounds of wildlife and lapping water.
We didn’t see a huge amount of wildlife on our canoe trip – a few turtles and caiman as well as a distant toucan and some otters. However, being remote and detached from the vibes of modern life, cutting through the canals and working through the narrow river routes was reward enough.
Don’t worry, our guide did all the paddling so you can probably enjoy this without touching an oar.
Walk the park trails
There are three short trails in the park (up to a couple of miles each). Since I only had a couple of days in the park, I prioritised the water-based activities and suggest you do the same. From what I heard, there isn’t a great deal of wildlife to spot on the trails so, if you do go, take a guide for their expert spotting skills. I had a (very) short walk around the small trail on the grounds of my lodge and the main wildlife I encountered was mosquitoes. Pack mosquito repellent. (See my packing tips below).
Walk on the wild black sand Tortuguero beach
I love the wild, back-sand beaches of Costa Rica so even though I’d explored a few already (Cahuita near Puerto Viejo was a favourite), I still hadn’t had my fill. What makes this black sand beach special was its expanse. In season, it’s where the turtles nest and hatch. Off-season it’s still a splendid swatch of volcanic matter.
Can you swim at the beach? The advice is no. Why? As well as strong currents, there are sharks and caiman. That’s enough to put me off but feel free if you think you’d make tasty bait ;p
Tip: find a hotel that has a pool for a post-sightseeing dip. There was a lovely oasis of a pool at my lodge (details in the where to stay section below). If you do want to swim in a national park, head to Manuel Antonio or Santa Teresa for surf.
Visit the Caribbean Conservation Centre – The Turtle Museum
There is a wonderful conservation centre in Tortuguero town with plenty of fact boards for museum nerds like me. Sadly, I was rushed through by my guide who (in fairness to him) was being harassed for dining recommendations by some of the group members who were getting hangry. I didn’t feel too hard done by since I’d recently visited the Turtle Hospital and Conservation Centre in the Florida Keys. If you can make time, I’d recommend exploring the turtle museum in Tortuguero to add some rich context to your visit.
Don’t forget to look up for Toucan spotting
If I could only spot two animal in Costa Rica, sloths and toucans were the top of my list and although sloths were not on the cards for Tortuguero, I was delights to see more toucans. My point: don’t spend so long staring at the water for turtles that you forget to look up and see the tree-based wildlife. Including iguanas.
Tip: tell your guide you want to see toucans and they will almost certainly find you one (no pressure, guides).
Explore Tortuguero village
With one eye out for turtles and another keeping time on your packed itinerary, it’s easy to forget that Tortuguero is a village with normal people doing normal, everyday things. I took a short but informative guided tour of the village exploring the local school, football pitch (people make assumptions about the fact that I lived in Liverpool, England) and homes.
Much of the central street of the village has now been given over to serving the tourists with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. I passed a very peaceful half hour enjoying coffee and a cake in a cafe overlooking the water (details below). Peaceful sigh.
Zipline over the jungle canopy
Zip lining is one of my favourite things – I did it first in Monteverde. If you have time, do it twice. However, if you have the budget and time for only one zip-line experience in Costa Rica, hold off for Monteverde – it is the longest zip-line in Latin America.
How to get to Tortuguero National Park
Car hire, private shuttle bus and public bus are the three most typical ways of getting around Costa Rica and I’ve taken a combination of these options on my trips. However, Tortuguero is more difficult since the most common way to get there is by boat (and I don’t tend to travel with one of these in my bag – remiss, I know).
For Tortuguero, your main three options are:
- package tour – includes transport, hotel and activities (this is what I did and would recommend).
- private transport (shuttles and boat) then book your own accommodation and activities (I considered this but it didn’t feel cost effective or time efficient).
- public transport and book your own activities (I briefly considered this but it works best from San Jose and I was in Puerto Viejo).
Book a package tour
After researching the three main option, I booked a package tour. Here’s why:
- Laziness – let’s not underestimate the wonderful feeling of having someone local line up all the timings.
- Door-to-door pick up and drop off (also falls under laziness).
- To make public transport work, I would need to go back to San Jose and I didn’t want to waste a day doing that from Puerto Viejo.
- Accommodation is included in the price.
- Brilliant if you’re a Last Minute Larry (like me) – I booked 2 days before I went and all the hotels were otherwise sold out (the tour operator managed to find a lodge that could squeeze me in).
- Time efficient – all my activities were pre-arranged and lined up nicely so I didn’t waste a day while I was there figuring out what to do and the best time to do it. There is also always the risk that activities book out (the hotels certainly had).
- It wasn’t that expensive – for 2 days/1 nights including all my transport, a very nice lodge on the river and activities I paid $175. There was a more budget option of $155 (lower-quality hotel/hostel) but I was too last minute and that was fully booked.
- I looked at the private transfer and booking my own accommodation and activities but it wasn’t much of a saving.
- Laziness. This can’t be overstated.
I bought my tour in person from a side of the road travel desk in Puerto Viejo, from a well-know Costa Rican tour operator, Exploradores Outdoors. I paid cash, the lady wrote a carbon copy slip of paper as my receipt and I travelled a couple of days later. Personally, I really enjoy this old-school form of travel booking. But you can book ahead of time.
- Exploradores Outdoors 2 Day Tortuguero Expedition – this is the tour I took and would highly recommend it. I booked the 2-day, 1 night tour. I think this was enough but in turtle season you might prefer two nights.
- You can find other overnight package tours of Tortuguero.
- You can take a day trip to Tortuguero National Park from San Jose – it’s a good option if you’re short on time and either visiting out of season/the turtles aren’t hatching (which you’d miss because this is a night event).
- Here’s where you can book private transport to Tortuguero, using Exploradores Outdoors.
- And if you want to book your own activities while you’re in Tortuguero, you can find an excellent list (with reviews) of bookable tours on Viator.
Take a private shuttle and boat from San Jose, Arenal or Puerto Viejo
I did consider this option since it solved my transport issue (and allowed me to swerve another trip to San Jose) but it wasn’t much more to book the package trip, which included accommodation and activities. Also, as I was booking last minute, I was running out of accommodation options.
However, if you are more organised, just booking shuttles/private boat is a good option because it will take you door to door and then give you freedom to plan the rest. You can book with the same company I booked my package through, Exploradores Outdoors and choose to go from Arenal, San Jose and Puerto Viejo. As with the package tour, you can book to a different onwards destination e.g. Puerto Viejo – Tortuguero – Arenal, like I did.
The price is around $55-$60 dollars each way, including your boat. Compared to $155 for a 1-night package, it seemed much better value to pay for the package.
Take public transport from San Jose
I’m typically a book-it-myself kind of girl but I was in Puerto Viejo and made a rookie mistake thinking I’d be able to get reasonably easy public transport from Puerto Viejo to Tortuguero, what with the two locations being on the same coast and all. If you do want to go to Tortuguero by public transport, I’d highly recommend going from San Jose. Here’s how.
You will need multiple buses with the easiest and fastest route being from San Jose (Caribe terminal in the south) to Cariari then a second bus to Pavona. From there, you can take a public boat to Tortuguero village. The journey takes about 6 hours but is likely to take much longer because this assumes you’ll line all the connections up perfectly (does that ever happen?). Therefore: start early otherwise you’ll miss the last boat out to Tortuguero, around 4:30 p.m. You can plan your route (including bus times) on Rome2Rio.
It is possible to fly to Tortuguero from San Jose. The flight is less than 60 minutes and, as you can imagine, is the most expensive way of reaching Tortuguero (ticket prices will depend on when you book). Keep in mind that if you’re flying to avoid taking a boat, you still need to take a boat to reach Tortuguero.
I have read some safety worries and reports of plane crashes so please do your research before you book.
General tips for planning your Costa Rica itinerary
I’ll say this over and over about Costa Rica – it really pays to plan your route in advance. I like to think of Costa Rica as a bit of a bike wheel with San Jose as the central hub and the interesting things to see dotted around the wheel rim. Unless you have a car in Costa Rica, transport routes between the interesting places can be unexpectedly patchy. All roads lead to San Jose and if you don’t plan it properly, you can spend a lot of your trip going in and out of San Jose, travelling the spokes of the bike wheel rather than travelling from one interesting place to another around the edges. Check out all my tips in Your Ultimate Guide to Travel in Costa Rica.
What to pack
I also have a more detailed section of what to pack for Costa Rica here. For a trip to Tortuguero I’d recommend taking:
- Mosquito repellent – You can read my tips for the best mosquito repellent.
- Binoculars – these are mine for under $20
- Light rain jacket
- Allergy medicine if you have grass pollen sensitivity
- Water canister – there are water refilling stations available and single use plastic is discouraged.
- Snacks – this applies to all visitors to Tortuguero. The backpackers I met were outraged at the prices on Tortuguero (captive audience) while the lodge I stayed in had set buffet meal times and they didn’t always align with my activities. Also, it’s an early start for the canoeing and I was glad I had a bag of fruit, nuts and biscuits with me because we were on the boat for a couple of hours without breakfast.
Tip: I bought a pineapple from the fruit stall in Tortuguero village and the chef at my lodge kindly agreed to prepare it for me. I popped it in my room fridge and it provided good snacks for two days. Love some exotic fruit!
Where to stay
Budget and availability might decide this (or your package tour might give you no option) but if you do have a choice, the first decision is whether to stay in Tortuguero town or in one of the lodges along the river. If you want cheap(er) eats and access to some sort of hustle and bustle and activities, stay in the town. If you want to escape for a while and don’t mind being tied to the hotel for food, definitely go for a lodge. I stayed in a lodge and would highly recommend it.
La Baula Lodge – This is where I stayed – a lovely lodge on the river with large rooms, a swimming pool and pretty grounds. Highly recommended.
Laguna Lodge – This beautiful wooden-style lodge also on the banks of the river is another great option if La Baula is booked.
Hotel Tortuguero Beachfront – Located on the beach in Tortuguero town, what more can you want from a town-based stay?
Tortuguero Hostel and Backpackers is right in the centre of Tortuguero town and the place to stay if you are visiting on a budget.
Where to eat
I usually have a full section on where to eat in a location but on this occasion, I ate most of my meals in my hotel. No, the prices were not included and no the food wasn’t so spectacular it merited multiple meals but there was the practical issue that my lodge was on the opposite side of the river from Tortuguero town and it was around $5-$7 each way to travel out for food. As a solo traveller, I didn’t think it was worth adding another $10-$14 to the cost of my evening meal.
I do, however, have a couple of suggestions:
Budda Cafe – this was recommended by my guide to the hangry couple on my trip and they rated it highly (also gets lots of good reviews from non-hangry people).
Dorlings Bakery – I had a very beautiful coffee, cake and view out over the water at this cafe.
Sodas – in general, eating the local plate (chicken/fish, rice, beans and salad) at a soda (name for a locally owned restaurant) is going to offer the best food and best price.
Tips for planning your trip
In this section, I’ll give you some practical details for planning your trip.
When to visit
What most people are asking here is when is the best time to see turtles in the park. And, I’ve got to tell you, the answer isn’t so straightforward. You’ll read some general advice to visit between July and October but it’s a little more complicated than that because a) there are different kinds of turtles that come to shore at different times and b) it depends on whether you want to see nesting or hatching.
If you don’t much care about species or the phase i.e. you just want to see turtles, aim for July to October with September being one of the best months for seeing both nesting and hatching.
Is Tortuguero National Park worth it out of season?
It’s hard to say since I didn’t visit Tortuguero in season so I can’t really compare. I do recall sending a message to a friend after I left Tortuguero saying ‘It’s an awful long way to see more wildlife’ (she was considering visiting Tortuguero and had just been in Corcovado National Park).
However, on balance, I’d say it was worth it. Why? I love hard-to-reach places, where the journey is part of the adventure. Also: more wildlife is more wildlife, even if the star of the show wasn’t around. That said, we did spot some tiny turtles hanging around (look closer at the picture above and you’ll see one on the log). On top of it all, I had a few lovely days of serenity and that sense of detaching for a while. Nice room, good food and an early morning canoe ride. What’s not to love?
On the other hand, if you’re on a small budget (time or money) and it’s not turtle season, it might be worth visiting other places in Costa Rica. If you want to leave a comment with your itinerary options below, I’ll let you know if I think it’s worth adding in Tortuguero.
How long do you need to visit
It’s funny, when I was writing this post I was convinced I’d spent two nights in the park – so convinced, I dragged out my box of papers and receipts only to find that I had, in fact, only stayed for one night. I don’t know whether it was the journey or the early morning or the activities but it felt like I was there longer than I was. For me, two days and one night was enough.
If it was in-season, I would have considered adding an extra night to my stay. Do you need more than that, I’d say no but if you’re looking for somewhere to kick back for a few days, it’s a great place to do it.
What turtles are in Tortuguero National Park
Endangered green turtles are the main turtles people come to see. However, you can also see Giant leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles in the park.
So, that’s my guide to Tortuguero National Park. Got any questions, let me know in the comments below.
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