It’s clear to see why the uninhabited Islas Tortuga — officially Isla Tolinga and its neighbour Isla Alcatraz — is one of the most popular day-trip destinations in Costa Rica. Though only a little over three square kilometres in size, Tortuga island is undeniably big on natural beauty. Plan your trip to Tortuga island with our guide to Tortuga island — based on The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
The best travel tips for visiting Tortuga island
Alongside having lush, tropical deciduous vegetation to explore on land, the area offers opportunities to spot marine animals, including large whale sharks, depending on the season.
During the week, it's especially enchanting, offering real tranquillity and sheltered swimming and snorkelling.
Come the weekend, it’s a different story. Saturday and Sunday see boatloads of passengers come ashore, somewhat marring the islands’ image as a pristine tropical paradise. With that in mind, you'll want to time your trip carefully.
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Best things to do on Tortuga island
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to the best things to do on Tortuga island, it’s all about the water.
To mix things up, we'll kick off with a suggestion for what to do before (or after) you board your boat to the island...
#1 Walk trails and watch wildlife in Refugio de Vida Silvestre Curú
Protecting a wide variety of fauna and flora, many people only enter the semi-privately-owned Refugio de Vida Silvestre Curú to take a boat across to Islas Tortuga.
But, if you love walking in the great outdoors, and want to see some classic Costa Rica wildlife, you won’t want to miss exploring the park.
The entrance lies 5km south of Paquera on the road to Montezuma, where you pay the entry fee and follow a dirt road to Playa Curú, the park headquarters. From here you can rent kayaks, and get boats to the Islas Tortuga.
Beyond Curú, you can hike to the more attractive Playa Quesara via the 5km Sendero Quesara — allow four hours for the round trip.
The real action is found along the park’s interior trails. These offer the best chance of seeing some of the reserve’s variety of wildlife.
For example, passing through mangroves, the 2km Sendero Finca de los Monos passes is a good place to spot the likes of northern tamanduas, iguanas and agoutis.
The longer trails — such as 2.25km Killer and 3.5km Avispero — require proper hiking footwear and plenty of insect repellent. Along these you’re likely to see racoons, coatis, anteaters, crocodiles and monkeys, including white-faced capuchins, howler monkeys, and squirrel monkeys.
Of the many bird species here, perhaps the most exciting are scarlet macaws, sometimes seen foraging for almonds along the coast.
Wild about walking? Read up on the best hikes on Costa Rica.
#2 Swim and snorkel pristine waters
With such clear, calm waters, it’ll come as no surprise that swimming and snorkelling are among the best things to do on Tortuga island.
Based in Jaco? You can still visit Tortuga island on a day trip, but you’ll travel by speedboat.
Such tours typically include plenty of time to chill on the beach after you’re done snorkelling. They often also include lunch and drinks.
#3 Explore sunken ship wrecks
With three shipwrecks in the waters around these parts, Tortuga island has the potential to deliver extraordinary diving experiences.
At 98 feet, the Caroline Star is the deepest. Be sure to shine your light into the hull for a chance to see white tip reef sharks.
The Franklin Chang wreck lies on the seabed at 23 meters, extending to 17 meters below the surface.
Meanwhile, the Coronel Alfonso Monge — an 85-foot coast guard ship — has an average depth of 40 feet.
Ship wrecks aside, the La Cueva (cave) site usually presents opportunities to see a white tip reef sharks sleeping.
For a thrilling drift dive, opt to explore the Bye Bye Reef site. Expect to see manta rays and eagle rays as you explore volcanic rock walls around the eastern edge of Tortuga.
#4 Watch wildlife from the water on a kayak trip
Between November and April, Seascape Kayak Tours offer rewarding small-group kayak trips around the waters off Playa Curú.
With an emphasis on wildlife-watching and learning about the local environment, full-day trips also take in a short birding hike, plus lunch on the beach.
Sea turtles are commonly sighted, and you might also get to see dolphins, spotted eagle rays and a variety of seabirds.
The same operator also runs three and five-day kayak tours that explore further afield around the Gulf of Nicoya.
For added magic, book a night-time bioluminescence kayak trip with Tursomo Curu.
When night falls, you can either observe this extraordinary phenomenon from the shore, or take to the water to snorkel among the natural neon light show.
#5 Go fishing
Based on Playa Curú, Turismo Curú run sustainable sport fishing tours operated by local fisherman.
Mackerel and sailfish are common, with November-February heralding mahi mahi season, a fish known for its strength and extraordinary jumping prowess.
The southern area of the Nicoya peninsula presents opportunities to land snappers, groupers and giant roosters.
As a bonus, you’ll also get to see lots of seabirds during your trip — where there’s fish, there are birds wanting to feed on them, especially pelicans, poised to swoop and dive.
Where to stay
If you’re looking to stay close to Tortuga island, your best is Paquera, given that the island itself is uninhabited.
This small town on the northern side of the Nicoya Peninsula acts as an important service centre for this largely rural region. Its centre lies 4km southwest of the ferry terminal (the “Embarcadero”).
If you're on a budget, check out Mapi's Cabins. With Tortuga Island reachable within 8.4 km, the Mapi's cabins offers an outdoor swimming pool, non-smoking rooms and barbecue facilities.
Alternatively, Hotel Vista las Islas offer sensational views from a luxurious jungle lodge. Each room comes with a balcony overlooking the bay and the islands. There’s also a pool and excellent on-site restaurant.
Browse places to stay in Paquera.
Best restaurants and bars
Many day-trip tours include lunch on the beach and drinks, so you’ll almost certainly be catered for.
Back on the mainland, Paquera has a supermarket and a fair few places to eat.
For lovely views and frinedly service, try Lugar Favorito. It’s near the beach and serves top cocktails, salads and fried chicken.
Or, for tasty local seafood, head to Las Vegas Restaurant in the Las Salinas area of town.
How to get to Tortuga island
In the first instance, you’ll need to get to Paquera.
Paquera is connected by bus with Cóbano, Jicaral, San José and the beach resorts to the south.
All buses between Montezuma/Cóbano and Paquera pass by the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Curú entrance — ask the bus driver to stop. From here it’s a 2.5km walk to the beach.
Ferries for Puntarenas depart six times daily (5.30am–8pm) from the Embarcadero 5km northeast of town. Buses meet incoming boats.
For Tortuga, boats depart Playa Curú twice a day.
How many days do you need?
Tortuga island is a day trip destination. And, unless you’re particularly stuck by it, a one-day visit is enough time to swim and snorkel, and walk the trail to the summit.
If you fancy an extra experience of the island, you could take a night-time kayaking tour to be wowed by bioluminescent waters.
Tips for getting around
After arriving by boat, once you’re on the island getting around (or not) is all down to you!
After snorkelling, swimming and lunching, many visitors opt to give themselves a rest by stretching out on the soft sand for the afternoon.
Alternatively, you could explore the forested interior by foot. Trails lead through lush hills to the peak of the island, where splendid views await.
Along the way, you might just spot peccaries (though they’re also known to come down to the beach) and macaws.
Best time to visit
As Tortuga island is visited on a day trip, you’ll want to maximise your chance of sunshine and clear water.
As a result, the best time to visit Tortuga island is during the December and April dry season.
You might also want to take a trip during the week, when there are fewer visitors.
For more on this subject, read up on when to go to Costa Rica.
Looking for more inspiration? Read up on the best things to do in Costa Rica.