Some places are just meant to be difficult to get to. The places that are so damn beautiful and amazing that you instantly forget how long and arduous the journey was as soon as you arrive. Tortuguero in Costa Rica is one of those places. Located at the northern tip of the Caribbean coast, the tiny settlement has attracted tourists over the years due to its being one of the world’s major turtle nesting sites (wikipedia.org).
Turtle nesting season begins in July and ends in October. During this time the island is seldom at anything less than full capacity and the prices anything but cheap, but seeing droves of leatherbacks, hawksbills and green turtles paddle ashore and shuffle up the beach to lay literally thousands of eggs is probably worth the money. Watching the hatchlings scramble back into the ocean some weeks later is probably worth pushing the boat out for too.
Unfortunately, when I alighted in Tortuguero in mid-March it was still too early to see any turtles, despite one or two recent reports of early-morning sightings. However, over my 3-night stay I found that you don’t need to see turtles laying eggs in Tortuguero to reap incredible rewards.
The remarkably high rainfall and lush environment where freshwater meets the sea makes Tortuguero’s beaches, canals, lagoons and wetlands areas of exceptional biodiversity and seventh heavens for nature lovers. Howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, sloths, caimen, snakes, iguanas, lizards, toucans, frogs and more species of bird than you can imagine occupy the noisy jungle canopy, and are not hard to spot from a canoe (tortugueroinfo.com).
As far as I was concerned, Tortuguero was an unmissable destination in my Costa Rica itinerary, particularly after having been regaled with tales of its striking beauty and sense of isolation from other travellers.
What to do in Tortuguero: Wildlife Safari
For nature lovers, there is no end to the list of untold pleasures waiting in Tortuguero National Park (costa-rica-guide.com). You may want to explore the forests and network of forest trails yourself but in order to make the most of Tortuguero and see the best sights you’ll need to either rent a boat or pay a tour company to take you out.
I chose to go with Tortuguero Tours (tripadvisor.com), a dedicated and hard-working team of professionals who really know how to deliver. There were several tour options available but I chose just the canal boat tour in the morning ($20) and the day hike in the afternoon ($20).
We were welcomed the next morning at 5.45am with fresh coffee and bananas before heading to the park entrance to pay the obligatory park entrance fee of $15. Here we boarded the boat and set off on the 2-hour trip.
By mid-afternoon we’d seen the lot, the highlight being a family of white-faced capuchin monkeys swinging amidst the low-lying branches above our heads. Fauna life aside, the scenery along the canal is beautiful; a feast for the senses and well worth the $35 it costs you to do it.
Later that afternoon, Fran – one half of the management team behind Tortuguero Tours – took us on the day hike, armed with several pairs of binoculars and a powerful telescope. Within minutes we had seen a three-toed sloth, and there were snakes, lizards, parrots and more monkeys to follow. Fran’s expert knowledge of the reserve and turtle nesting was seriously impressive – he has been doing this for decades after all.
Why Choose Tortuguero Tours?
Staffed by a team of 3, Tortuguero Tours work incredibly hard to make sure their clients leave Tortuguero having had an unforgettable experience. The canal tour runs every morning, starting at 6am sharp; the day hike takes place every afternoon and the night walk, run by third staff member Lily, every evening. During turtle nesting season beach walks take place every evening, from 8pm-10pm and 10pm-midnight.
Fran knows the jungle better than anyone and knows where to look and what to look for – I was amazed at how good his eyesight was. He could even spot a sleeping sloth amid the trees from over 50ft away – without the telescope! If you explore the jungle without a guide, binoculars or telescope you are unlikely to see sloths and howler monkeys.
But those are not the only reasons why Tortuguero Tours are a worthy investment, for not only do they offer fantastic tours but they will also come to meet you at the water taxi station in La Pavona and escort you to Tortuguero; they give you a welcoming orientation on arrival and will even arrange accommodation on your behalf. It’s a great way to begin your experience in Tortuguero, helping you to settle in quickly, feel relaxed and excited about the days ahead.
You can check out their website (tortuguerotoursclosetonature.com) for more details about the tours and packages they offer, or head over to their Facebook page (facebook.com) to see what they’ve been up to recently!
Places to eat in Tortuguero
It’s no secret that Costa Rica is expensive (for backpackers at least) and unfortunately it seems the more remote the destination the higher the cost of just about anything. Not even supermarkets lend themselves to a standard backpacking budget in Tortuguero, but luckily the local soda restaurants just about qualify. Here are my recommendations:
Cheap: Soda Heliconia (Behind main supermarket in town square). Serving up budget-friendly breakfasts until noon every day, you can’t go wrong with this place. Perfect for post-tour munching.
Splurge: Taylor’s Place (Along the footpath between Soda Heliconia and Tortuguero Natural B&B). The design and décor draw people in at Taylor’s but the menu prices can just as easily drive them away. However, if you’ve got money to burn then you probably wouldn’t feel guilty about digging into something off the grill. Expect to pay $8-10 for a meal.
Where to stay in Tortuguero
Accommodation options in Tortuguero are plentiful but can get expensive if you want to stay in hotels – some of the price tags I saw in the town made me gasp with horror. A cheaper option is hostels. There aren’t many but there seemed to be plenty of space when I was there in March (low season). However, to be sure that I had a place to stay I asked Tortuguero Tours to arrange accommodation for me.
I ended up in Tortuguero Natural B&B, a small, reasonably priced hostel at $20/room (3 beds per room). I spent 2 nights here before switching to Meriscar ($9/night for private room) just a few yards away, since my roommates had left and I didn’t fancy stumping up $20 solo. There were kitchen facilities at Meriscar, but not at Tortuguero Natural B&B. However, Tortuguero Natural B&B was cleaner and more comfortable.
Getting to Tortuguero
You’ve probably realised at this point that getting to Tortuguero is by no means an easy ride. In fact, it’s somewhat of a mission if you choose to do it as cheaply as I did, since you have to take a combination of buses and a boat to get there (alternatively you can take a flight on a private plane) (natureair.com).
From San Jose
If arriving from San Jose as I did, you’ll need to take 2 buses and one boat to get to Tortuguero.
The first bus departs from the Gran Caribe Bus terminal in San Jose city centre and takes you as far as Cariari (2 hours). This costs about $3. From here you’ll need to wait (in the station) for the next bus that takes you to La Pavona (1.5 hours). This costs another $2. From here you’ll first have to pay the fare for the water taxi ($3) and then be taken to the nearby pick-up point (by the Tortuguero Tours rep if you book through them). You’ll need to put your big backpack in the luggage boat and pay a further $2 (to the driver) for this. The journey takes about an hour but you won’t want it to end; the scenery and sense of adventure as you speed along the jungle-flanked canal is quite incredible!
Total cost of journey: $10.
Buses to Cariari from the Gran Caribe terminal depart at 09.00 and 10.30.
If you’re looking for a good budget hostel in San Jose (hostelcasacolon.com) that is close to the Gran Caribe bus terminal, Hostel Casa Colon is your best bet at $10/night (dorm bed, breakfast not included) and a 5-minute bus ride to the terminal (just ask for directions to the bus stop at reception).
If you’re coming up the Caribbean coast, you may want to visit Tortuguero before heading to San Jose. This is possible, but rather complicated unfortunately, since there is no coastal road between Limon and Tortuguero. Instead, you have to take the bus from Limon to Guapiles (around $8) and from here the bus to Cariari (around $2). From Cariari, you’ll need to take the connecting bus to La Pavona ($2). The journey takes anywhere between 3-4 hours, depending on how long you have to wait in Guapiles and Carari (buses to La Pavona depart shortly after arrivals from San Jose). It’s best to leave as early as possible to avoid being stuck in Cariari for the night.
You can also take the boat from Moin for $35 per person (and vice-versa). This is much quicker but obviously a lot more expensive.
My Wildlife Safari in Tortuguero was provided by Tortuguero Tours free of charge, but I was in no way renumerated for this post. All opinions are my own.
Liked it? Share it! 😀