Thanks to its outstanding biodiversity, Tortuguero National Park (Parque Nacional Tortuguero) is among Costa Rica’s most visited national parks. One of the best places in the world to watch green turtles, a host of natural and cultural activities await travellers who make the epic journey to the park. Planning to visit? Discover the best Tortuguero National Park tours and activities.
A 254km trip by road and water from San José, Tortuguero was awarded official national park status in 1970. It covers a protected, biodiverse expanse of some 770 square kilometres, 500 square kilometres of which are marine.
Tortuguero National Park certainly lives up to its “Central America’s Amazon" moniker. It’s a richly rewarding delight for nature lovers — think tropical rainforests and lagoons, tangled mangrove swamps, and wildlife-rich waterways and canals.
To help plan your trip, read on to find out about the best tours and activities in Tortuguero National Park. For more pre-trip info and inspiration, read our full guide to Tortuguero National Park and our Costa Rica travel tips.
Travel tip: to take the hassle out of planning, explore our customisable Costa Rica Coast to Coast trip — it includes Tortuguero National Park.
One of the reasons Tortuguero National Park is among Costa Rica’s most visited national parks is its astounding abundance of wildlife. As a result, going on a guided nature trip is one of the best activities in Tortuguero National Park.
If you’re not visiting as part of a bigger package tour, your best bet is to enlist the services of a local guide. Several guides in the village offer tours of both the canals and national park.
As for what you’ll see, the park boasts around 160 mammals and over fifty kinds of fish. Tortuguero National Park is also something of a paradise for bird-lovers, with vultures and the endangered green parrot among its arboreal residents.
Keep your eyes on the trees and you're likely to see spot howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys.
Get lucky in the company of a good local guide and you may even glimpse a jaguar. That said, while they used to thrive here, they're slowly being driven out by encroaching banana plantations. Other lucky spots include West Indian manatees, sea cows, and bull sharks.
Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Perhaps our local experts can help you make the best of your trip!
Booking a boat trip is one of the best ways to soak up Tortuguero’s majestic tropical landscape and wildlife in one memorable sitting.
With guided tours available from around US$25, you’ll venture through the caños (lagoons) surrounded by lush forests and knotted mangroves.
When it comes to wildlife, the extraordinary basilisk lizard deserves special mention. Thanks to their apparent ability to walk on water, they’re known locally as Jesus Christ lizards.
Caimans and crocodiles also inhabit these waters. They’re often sighted basking in mud on the banks before slipping into the water.
Your guide will also point out sloths slumbering in trees, chattering spider monkeys, and plenty of birdlife.
Travel tip: love exploring natural attractions? Discover the best waterfalls in Costa Rica and read our guide to the best national parks in Costa Rica.
The main reason most people visit Tortuguero National Park is to witness endangered sea turtles laying eggs.
It really is an extraordinary experience, with sightings pretty much guaranteed if you visit during the two laying seasons — March to May, and July to October.
During these periods, certified guides offer turtle tours. These leave the village’s information kiosk at 8pm and 10pm each night.
Note that if you’re not going as part of an organised group from a lodge, you’ll have to buy your own park entrance tickets from the kiosk.
As for what to expect, you’ll see turtles edging their way from the sea to a spot above the high-tide mark. After digging a large, deep hole, they lay eighty (or more) eggs.
Following this exhausting process, they cover the eggs before making their way back to the sea.
A few weeks later, the eggs hatch, and the little hatchings scamper to the sea, instinctively following the light of the moon on the water.
Along with the green turtle, you might also see the hawksbill, with its distinctive hooked beak, and the leatherback — the largest turtle in the world.
Travel tip: want to see green turtles and hawksbills? These nest mainly from July to October, with August being the peak month. Leatherbacks are best seen from March to May.
If you’re nifty with a paddle, taking a kayak tour is an exhilarating way to explore the canals and wildlife of Tortuguero National Park. And that rings true even if you’ve already taken a boat tour.
Handily, many of the area’s lodges have kayaks and canoes you can take out. In addition, the information kiosk in the village of Tortuguero has a list of locals who rent canoes, so there's no excuse for not taking to the waterways.
Travel tip: if you’re going it alone without a guide, it’s best to stick to the main canal — it’s easy to get lost in the complex lagoon system northwest of the village.
Chances are, if you’re visiting Tortuguero National Park, you’ll take a turtle tour and explore the canals with a guide. But that’s only the half of it.
Come nightfall, the park takes on an entirely different aspect, offering opportunities to see dozens of extraordinary species you’ll never see during the day.
While night walking tours follow the same trails explored during the day, come dusk different creatures come to light. Expect to see the likes of armadillos, opossums, bats, frogs, snakes, and insects.
Often suspenseful and always fascinating, night walks can't come more highly recommended for wildlife-lovers.
Ask at your lodge to book a trip, or check the info kiosk in town for detail on local guides offering this unforgettable Tortuguero National Park experience.
One of the joys of visiting Tortuguero National Park is the variety of experiences it offers. Even after taking a tour of Tortuguero’s canals by boat, and exploring the rainforest on a nature walk, you still won’t have seen its beauty from every aspect.
For a thrilling bird’s eye view of the forest, adventure-minded travellers will want to take to the skies on a thrilling zipline experience through the jungle canopy.
To do just that, the 1km run of lines at Aninga Lodge comes highly recommended. With seven cables, eleven platforms, four suspension bridges and a Tarzan swing, you’ll get a fresh perspective on the forest in the company of birds, monkeys and sloths.
Tours are available for individuals, groups and families (children from six can enjoy the experience safely) and last 1.5 hours.
To uncover local history, natural history, culture and flavours during a single trip, visit Casa Cecropia in Tortuguero village. Handily, it’s next to the main entrance to Tortuguero National Park.
This long-standing eco operation offers a range of tours that are all focussed on ecology and culture, including their cacao and chocolate experience.
The two-hour tour kicks off with a visit to their orchard, where you’ll learn about local trees and their importance to the region.
Next up, in their charming traditional Caribbean house, the process of harvesting and drying cocoa beans is unveiled.
In addition, you’ll discover the importance cocoa played in ancient Mayan and Aztecs culture — it was an important ceremonial drink, and used as currency.
Then comes the highlight of the trip — getting hands-on tasting the fruit and grinding beans before grinding your own artisanal chocolate on the traditional table stone.
Trips don’t come much tastier, with lots of fascinating cultural context shared throughout the experience.
If you only have a few days in the area, we suggest focussing on seeing the canals by boat. If, however, you're lucky enough to have more time here, head out on a hike to get a real feel for the forest and its resident wildlife.
The trailhead for a rewarding land hike can be found near the ranger station in Tortuguero village.
This L-shaped looped, route stretches from one side of the peninsula to the other. It then continues along a stretch of beach, taking around three hours in total.
Be aware that this can be muddy, with sections closed when conditions are especially difficult. Given that venomous snakes are found here, you'll want to have your wits about you.
6km north of the village, the ancient volcanic deposit of Cerro Tortuguero rises to a height of 119m above the flat coastal plain.
A climb up the gently sloping sides leads you to the peak, where you can enjoy good views of flat jungle and inland waterways.
Note that you must go with a guide, and that it’s only accessible by lancha from Tortuguero village.
Travel tip: discover the best hikes in Costa Rica.
Looking for more inspiration? Read up on the best things to do in Costa Rica, and get yourself a copy of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica.
Not keen on planning? Browse our customisable Costa Rica itineraries, or talk to our Costa Rica experts.
Header image: Tortuguero Canal, Costa Rica © Kenneth Vargas Torres/Shutterstock
Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her