Tortuguero National Park
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Despite its isolation — 254km from San José by road and water — Tortuguero National Park (Parque Nacional Tortuguero) is among the most visited national parks in Costa Rica. Though its biodiversity has few peers in the country, it's most known for its turtles, specifically the green sea turtle. Plan your trip to Tortuguero National Park with The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
Along with leatherback and hawksbill turtles, green sea turtles lay their eggs in Tortuguero National Park between July and October in great numbers. This makes it one of the most important nesting sites in the world for the species.
First established as a protective zone in the 1960s, Tortuguero officially became a national park in 1970. It encompasses 770 square kilometres of protected territory, with some 500 square kilometres being marine.
The area includes not only the beach on which the turtles nest, but also the surrounding impenetrable tropical rainforest, coastal mangrove swamps and lagoons, and canals and waterways.
Except during the comparatively dry months of February, March, September and October, the park is fairly wet, receiving over 3500mm of rain a year.
As elsewhere in Costa Rica, logging, economic opportunism and fruit plantations have affected the parkland. That said, the journey to Tortuguero has an Amazonian vibe, and many package-tour brochures advertise the trip as a “Jungle Cruise” along “Central America’s Amazon".
Most people visiting Tortuguero National Park come for the desove, or egg-laying of endangered marine turtles. Few are disappointed, with the majority of tours during laying seasons (March–May & July–Oct) resulting in sightings of the procession of the reptiles from the sea to make their egg-nests in the sand.
After lumbering up the sands to their chosen spot above the high-tide mark, each turtle digs a hole in which she lays eighty or more eggs. The collective whirring noise of sand being dug away is extraordinary.
Having filled the hole with sand to cover the eggs, the turtles begin their course back to the sea, leaving the eggs to hatch some weeks later. When the hatchlings emerge they instinctively follow the light of the moon on the water, scuttling to safety in the ocean.
Along with the green turtle, you might see the hawksbill, with its distinctive hooked beak, and the leatherback. Weighing around 300kg – though some are as heavy as 500kg and reach 2.4m in length — this is the largest turtle in the world.
The green turtles and hawksbills nest mainly from July to October (August is the peak month), while the leatherbacks may come ashore from March to May.
Turtle tours, led by certified guides, leave at 8pm and 10pm every night from the information kiosk in the village. If you’re not going with an organised group from one of the lodges, you’ll need to buy park entrance tickets from the kiosk.
Alongside the turtles, Tortuguero National Park is home to a staggering abundance of wildlife. This includes fifty kinds of fish, about 160 mammals and numerous birds, including the endangered green parrot and the vulture.
Due to the waterborne nature of most transport and the impenetrability of the ground cover, it’s difficult to spot them, but howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys lurk behind the undergrowth.
The park is also home to the fishing bulldog bat, and a variety of large rodents, including the window rat, whose internal organs you can see through its transparent skin.
You may also spot the West Indian manatee, sea cow, or bull sharks — as good a reason as any to not swim here.
While jaguars used to thrive here, they're slowly being driven out by the encroaching banana plantations at the western end of the park.
The peaceful village of Tortuguero lies at the north-eastern corner of the park, on a thin spit of land between the sea and the Tortuguero Canal.
Dug in the late 1960s to bypass the treacherous breakers of the Caribbean, this waterway connects the port of Moín (8km north of Puerto Limón) to the national park.
The exuberant foliage of wisteria, oleander and bougainvillea imbues the village with a tropical garden feel. Tall palm groves loom over patchy expanses of grass dotted with zinc-roofed wooden houses, often elevated on stilts.
Smack in the middle of the village stands one of the prettiest churches (Iglesia Católica de Tortuguero) you’ll see anywhere in Costa Rica — tiny and pale yellow, with a small spire and oval doorway.
Near the beach at the northern edge of the village, the Natural History Museum has a small but informative exhibition explaining the life cycle of sea turtles.
Before you leave, you’ll be invited to “adopt a turtle” for US$25, for which you’ll receive an adoption certificate. You’ll also be given information to track the migratory progress of your chosen beast on the internet as it makes its purposeful way across the ocean.
Tortuguero’s boat tours (from US$25) through the caños, or lagoons, are almost as popular as the turtle tours for very good reason.
You’ll get to spot a jaw-dropping array of wildlife, including caimans, crocodiles and incredible basilisk lizards, known in these parts as Jesus Christ lizards due to their apparent ability to walk on water.
You may also glimpse immobile sloths clinging to a tree, or a troupe of spider monkeys making their leaping, chattering way through the waterfront canopy. The birdlife is incredible, too.
Most lodges have canoes (some also have hydro-bikes) you can take out on the canal – a great way to get around if you’re handy with a paddle. In addition, the information kiosk has a list of locals who rent canoes.
You should stick to the main canal, though — it’s easy to get lost in the complex lagoon system northwest of the village.
6km north of the village, the ancient volcanic deposit of Cerro Tortuguero looms 119m above the flat coastal plain.
A half-day 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.
Love hiking and exploring the great outdoors? Discover the best hikes in Costa Rica, and find out more about Costa Rica's national parks.
The main entrance to Tortuguero National Park is at the south end of the village, open daily 6am–6pm (last entry 4pm). The entry fee is US$15.
The most popular way to see Tortuguero is on one of the tour packages, many of which are two-night, three-day affairs that use the expensive lodges across the canal from the village. Accommodation, meals and transport (which otherwise can be a bit tricky) are all taken care of.
The main difference between tours comes in the standard of accommodation and the quality of your guide. Ask about your guide’s accreditations, and don’t hesitate to check their level of English.
Budget options also tend to involve some form of bus/boat transfer, while the more expensive tours fly direct from San José.
A small display on the turtles’ habits, habitat and history surrounds the information kiosk (daily 9am–6pm) in the village centre. This is the official place to buy tickets for turtle tours — park rangers sell the tickets at the kiosk 5–6pm.
Be sure to get to the information kiosk early because the number of visitors is strictly limited — no more than 200 people are allowed on the beach at any one time.
There are over a hundred certified guides in Tortuguero, and the fee they charge doesn’t normally include the park entry ticket. If you haven’t already sorted one out, certified guides conveniently hang around the kiosk at 5pm.
Or, to take the hassle out of planning, our customisable Costa Rica Coast to Coast trip includes Tortuguero National Park.
While on the tour, visitors must wear dark clothing and refrain from smoking. You’re not allowed to bring cameras (still or video) or flashlights, and everyone must be off the beach by midnight.
With a little planning you can get to Tortuguero independently and stay in basic cabinas in the village. Basing yourself in the village allows you to explore the beach at leisure — though swimming is not advised — and puts you within easy reach of restaurants and bars.
If you haven’t booked a hotel in advance, be aware that accommodation in the village can fill up quickly during the turtle-nesting seasons (March–May & July–Oct).
Another option is to stay in one of the lodges, most of which lie across the canal from the village.
Note that while these are convenient, and in some cases quite luxurious, life as a lodger can be a rather regimented affair. Guests are shuttled in and out of the lodges with stopwatch precision, there’s precious little nightlife and, as all meals are included in most packages, it can be tempting to never leave the grounds.
If you want to explore the village and the beach on your own you have to get a lancha across the canal (free, but often a hassle to arrange).
Note also that outside turtle-watching season, most lodges don’t operate their lanchas at night and, owing to Tortuguero’ popularity with package tourists, lodges don’t always have space for independent travellers.
Browse places to stay near Tortuguero National Park.
Tortuguero village offers homely Caribbean food with an especially wide selection of fresh fish. Expect the likes of zesty ceviche, garlic shrimp, plus solid Caribbean food — red beans, jerk chicken, rice and breadfruit.
Several friendly places serve Costa Rican regulars like grilled beef with rice and fried plantains, and you’ll find good international options too, including tantalising crêpes and pizzas at the Budda Café.
While you can expect to pay more for a meal here than you would in other parts of Costa Rica, the standard is comparatively high.
If you’re looking for nightlife, La Culebra, next to the dock on the canal, has a booming nightly disco, while La Taberna (next door to Bambú supermarket) is Tortuguero’s best bet for a laidback sundowner.
Find out more about eating and drinking in Costa Rica.
North of Puerto Limón, there’s no public land transport at all. Instead, lanchas ply the coastal Tortuguero Canal. Expect a 3–4hr trip (sometimes longer), depending upon where you embark.
If you’re on a package tour, it will probably be Hamburgo de Siquirres on the Río Reventazón. Travelling independently, you’ll find it logistically easier to leave from La Pavona or Moín.
The lanchas drop you at Tortuguero dock in the centre of the village. From here, you can walk to the village or take another lancha up the canal to the lodges.
A co-operative of water taxis provides a shared service from the docks at Moín to Tortuguero (daily 10am; 3–4hr; US$35). The return boat also leaves at 10am.
Alternatively, you can do as the locals do and take a 6.30am, 9am (best option) or 10.30am bus from San José’s Terminal Gran Caribe to Cariari (1hr 30min–2hr).
From here, switch to either the 9am, 11.30am or 3pm bus to La Pavona. The journey takes 45min–1hr, and you pay on the bus. Note that the bus terminals in Cariari are around five blocks apart, though some buses pick up from both terminals – ask when you buy your ticket.
From La Pavona, public lanchas depart daily along the Río Suerte to Tortuguero (7.30am, 11am, 1pm & 4.30pm). The journey takes around 1hr 15min, and a boat is timed to leave shortly after the bus arrives from Cariari. It will wait if the bus is late. While the journey is long, you’ll save money, particularly if you’re travelling alone.
Return boats to La Pavona leave daily at 5.45am, 9am, 11am, 2.30pm. The last bus to San José from Cariari departs at 5.30pm.
Private boats are available for a reasonable price — around US$30/₡175,000 one way.
The best entry point by far is La Pavona. Though the roads are in reasonable condition (the last 16km or so are gravel, but fine for normal cars in dry weather), don’t rely on signposts to drive between Guápiles and La Pavona via Cariari. Use GPS/SatNav or a very good map.
Allow at least three hours from San José, and don’t leave valuables in the car.
Much less time-consuming, of course, is a flight from San José to the airstrip across the canal from Tortuga Lodge, 4km north of the village.
The trip is a spectacular one, as you rise above the mountains outside the city and are afforded a bird’s-eye view of the canals as you approach the park from the south.
Sansa and Nature AirAerobell fly thrice daily in high season from San José, with some flights also routing through Puerto Limón. Aerobell have one flight a day.
Water taxis usually meet flights, though the more upscale lodges will come and pick you up. Otherwise it’s a long walk south on often-muddy paths to the village.
Destinations: Limón (1–2 daily; 15–20min); San José (4 daily; 25–35min).
There are numerous guides in the village who offer tours of the canals and national park. Rates tend to be pretty similar, so if you find one you’re happy with, there isn’t much point shopping around. They tend to be a standard US$20–25 for 2–3hr.
It’s generally best to not immediately make arrangements with the guides who hover around the lanchas arriving from Moín or La Pavona. Those listed below are among the best and most established, and all speak good English.
If you’ve come for the turtles, which is most likely the case, laying season is the best time to visit Tortuguero National Park. This is from March to May, and July to October. Green turtles and hawksbills nest mainly from July to October, with August being the peak month. Meanwhile, leatherbacks come ashore from March to May.
Receiving over 3500mm of rain a year, the area is pretty wet year-round, except during the relatively dry months of February, March, September and October.
All that considered, the best time to visit Tortuguero National Park is between March and May, or in September or October, depending on which turtles you're most desprate to see. Or, if you don't mind some rain, bear in mind that August is peak turtle month.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to 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. Our Costa Rica travel tips will also help you plan your trip.
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Header image: Tortuguero Canal, Costa Rica © Kenneth Vargas Torres/Shutterstock