In the summer of 2022, we explored beautiful Costa Rica. In Tortuguero, we had our first encounter with the fantastic wildlife this country is so famous for. This cosy and isolated village in the northeast of the country uniquely located offers excellent wildlife, amazing canals, green turtles, river side balconies, exquisite guides, thunderstorms and lightning. Costa Rica’s rainforest experience at its very best. Definitely a must do in every Costa Rica trip!
Tortuguero and its national park are one of my favorite destinations in Costa Rica. It’s a spectacular place due to its unique, stunning location, nestled between the Caribbean beach, Tortuguero National Park, Tortuguero river and its canals, all at your fingertips.
On top of a magnificent rainforest experience, this location is internationally recognized for protecting the green turtles on its beaches, one of the most important nestling locations in the Western Hemisphere.
We embarked on an early morning – rise at 6 am – quiet and comfortable electric-powered boat tour to discover Tortuguero’s wildlife on the various freshwater canals, an intricate network of natural waterways in the national park The views were breathtaking. Not to speak of the variety of wildlife we encountered: various birds, toucans, howler monkeys, enormous iguanas and even a caiman. Amazing.
In the afternoon, we enjoyed a walk in the National Park, partly along the Carribean beach. It’s a short easy walking trail, more or less running in a loop. The first part of the trail runs between the ranger station and the beach.
When we visited, it was very muddy since it has been raining a lot. But then rubber boots, for free in our hotel or to rent at the entrance of the park, were a solution. At the beach, there is a parallel hiking trail. We just went to the beach and hiked back to the village. There were few tourists, so we nearly had the beach to ourselves. Just be aware this is a turtle nestling area, so you always have to watch your steps. You can easily explore the park yourself, no guide needed.
In the evening, the night turtles tour was a real treat. We left our hotel around 9 for a trip through the village reaching a shelter near the beach. Instructions were strict: dark clothes, no insect repellent spray, no noise, no cameras. In the small shelter, we waited for further instructions. There were spotters scanning the beach for turtles and it’s only at their signal you can get along, always in small groups and with a recognized guide. As such, the beach is not tramped with tourists disturbing the turtles.
During our visit, it was very clear Tortuguero has gone through a lot of efforts to make sure these endangered animals are well protected. So as a tourist, just make sure to follow all the instructions of your guide and don’t go out on your own.
We were very early in the breeding season, so it was not sure at all we would be able to see some turtles. Luckily, spotters found two. Once they found one, our guide was informed and we could have a look at a turtle.
With an infrared light as to not to disturb her, we gazed at her whilst laying on average 100 eggs. A bit later, we saw another turtle covering her eggs with sand. We were truly impressed.
Returning to the hotel, our guide pointed out a lot of night animals, ranging from small frogs over a night butterfly and small lizards. What an evening!
And as a cherry on the cake, we were treated at night to a spectacular thunderstorm and lightening show while pouring rain. No surprise this is one of the wettest places of Cost Rica.
#2 How to get to Tortuguero?
There are various ways to reach Tortuguero. The most convenient and fastest way is flying, offering you, as we heard, a fantastic areal view over the canals and the village.
But we went for the alternative way and took a small ‘longtail’ boat leaving La Pavona dock. There are several boats leaving per day on a preset time schedule.
This way of travelling is an adventure on itself and offers splendid views on the canals and the rainforest.
We embarked around 9 am in the morning and were one of the first boats heading towards Tortuguero. There were only a few boats around at that time. The boat snaked its way from the mainland, going through rivers and canals, to reach Tortuguero. For nearly a full hour, we enjoyed breathtaking views of lush rainforest and birds and animals along the banks.
Once on the boat, take pictures when you can. We had no rain when getting to Tortuguero and enjoyed the trip a lot. When returning however it was raining very hard, so the plastic shields of the boat were lowered and the visibility was very low.
Keep in mind it can be very muddy at the boat dock. There are no wooden platforms, so you go straight from the grassy and muddy road on the boat.
Finally, let your hotel know which boat you take. Your accommodation can also help you with the reservations. Most of the times, there are some agents of the hotel at the boat dock in La Pavona. In our case, they assigned us to the boat which even docked directly at our accommodation.
#3 The village of Tortuguero
Tortuguero is small and cosy, full of life, with bright colors and as a big plus, no cars. You can get around easily on foot – the village is about 1 kilometer long – by bike or, mostly, by boat. Groceries are transported by bicycles or tricycles, straight from the boat into the supermarkets. There are bakeries, supermarkets, a bunch of restaurants, a lot of accommodation, a very small church, a school, sportsfields and colorful houses. You can walk to the Caribbean beach, Tortuguero National Park or easily get on a boat or canoe to Tortuguero river or the canals.
#4 Where to stay?
In Tortuguero, we stayed at Casa Marbella, an excellent choice for several reasons.
- This small hotel with its clean and comfortable decent rooms has an excellent location. At the edge of the Tortuguero river side, it has a spacious deck overlooking the river. You can sit there whenever you want and breakfast is served on the deck. The views are superb, in particular at sunset, during a thunderstorm or simply during the day when reading a book. Boats are passing by, birds are flying around …. Some rooms also have a balcony at the water side.
- Each morning a different dish is served for breakfast. We had pancakes one morning and scrambled eggs the next. You can take coffee, thee and water for free.
- The hotel is located in the center of the village, right in front of the church, very close to supermarkets and within walking distance of the Caribbean beach and Tortuguero National Park.
- The hotel offers canoes for free, a refrigerator to stock your supplies and even rubber boots to go hiking. Very convenient when it has been raining cats and dogs and it’s all muddy in the national park.
- The staff is very friendly and helpful. They suggest excursions, respond to your questions, … kindly and swiftly.
- The wildlife tours offered by the hotel are superb and offered for a reasonable price. They really earned their certificate of excellence. We took the evening turtle tour, one of the best tours we had in Costa Rica and the morning tour with a quiet boat. The guide gave a lot of information, we saw a lot of animals and we were in small groups. During the morning tour, we explored a part of the canals where we didn’t even see other boats. We had the feeling we experienced the real Tortuguero wildlife and culture!
- The taxi boat took us straight from La Pavona dock to the hotel. No hassle with luggage or walking around.
We stayed for two nights, which was perfect. We had sufficient time to visit the turtle beach in the evening, the canals in the morning, Tortuguero National Park in the afternoon and still walk around a bit in the village.
#5 Something to eat
Dorling Bakery, located next to Casa Marbella, offers great banana bread and other yummies such as lemon, orange or chocolate cake and plain bread. Just make sure you are early to have the best choice. You can even sit outside to enjoy a coffee, they are located on the riverside.
We had dinner at Taylor’s place, one of the places with the best reviews in town. To be honest, we were a bit disappointed. The restaurant has a pleasant and cosy location but we were not that impressed by the food. We had a much better experience at Mi Nino, good Caribbean food at a decent price.
And don’t forget to get some great smoothies or even a coco loco, one of Costa Rica’s famous cocktails, at the best smoothie stall in Tortuguero, the Coco Loco. All smoothies are made fresh in front of your eyes and the possibilities are endless. Just pick one, two or three fruits and they mix it for you.
#6 An idea of the cost
A trip to Tortuguero is reasonable in price, depending on the tours you want to take.
Taxi San Jose – La Pavona – La Pavona – Guapiles (private taxi, 6 persons and luggage): 200 USD (performed by CoachCostaRica, perfect service, very friendly and on time).
Boat trip: 5-10 USD per person one way
Evening turtle tour: 25 USD + 5.56 USD tax per person
Morning silent boat tour: 25 USD per person + separate entrance fee to the National park (15 USD per person valid for a full day)
Restaurant: between 10 and 15 USD per dish
Casa Marbella: 330 EUR for 2 rooms, 2 nights, breakfast included
#7 General recommendations
If you are planning a trip to Tortuguero, some recommendations.
- Bring cash, dollars or colones. There are no ATM in Tortuguero and some hotels don’t accept credit cards. So make sure you calculate upfront how much money you need, since even on an ATM machine, cash withdrawals can be limited.
- Choose a hotel in the center of the village. Tortuguero is very small and everything is within walking distance, also the Carribean beach and Tortuguero National Park. If you stay in the village, you can get around easily. Should you choose for a hotel outside the village, you always need a water-taxi to get around, which is a bit of a hassle.
- Make sure you bring rainwear. Tortuguero is one of the wettest areas in Costa Rica, certainly in the rain season. So you can definitely expect some rain. And not a bit of it. We brought rain jackets, trousers, waterproof smartphone bags and, in general, waterproof bags. These are a must to protect your camera and other valuables. Buy decent stuff. You don’t want your camera ruined by a bag which is not waterproof. Rubber boots are also handy, since the national park can be very muddy. Quite some hotels offer them for free and you can also rent them near the park.
- Don’t forget insect repellent. We didn’t need any, but it might come in handy in other seasons.
- Make sure you visit the turtle-breeding beach with official guides and follow their instructions strictly. Also, when exploring the canals, choose an organisation offering quiet boats or even canoes to minimize disturbance of the wildlife.
- Be aware of the opening hours of the National Park. In Costa Rica, most national parks close around 3 pm. So always leave early in the morning, the best time to spot animals by the way.
- Reserve your tickets for the National Park upfront. You can do so online. Mostly, the tour does not include the price of the entrance to the national park. However, you can use the ticket the whole day. So, if you embark on a morning trip with a guide, you can use the same ticket again in the afternoon while exploring the park yourself. Check this with the organisation upfront.
- We arranged for a taxi between San Jose and La Pavona and La Pavona to Guapiles instead of a rental car. We didn’t want to leave the car behind for 2 days at the start of our trip. There are several car rental offices in Guapiles so it’s easy to pick up a car there.
- Try to get as early as possible to La Pavona. We arrived around 9 am. There was no one in the restaurant. We could leave immediately and without any hassle. When we returned, the boat dock was full of tourists and it was quite a hassle to get from the boat to the restaurant.
- Should you prefer flying, book your tickets upfront. Also, take into account that you can only take limited luggage. This means you have to stock your main luggage in your hotel, so you have to pick it up there again. This may have implications for your travel route.