Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and a vast rainforest, you’ll find Tortuguero. This remarkable place can only be reached by boat or a small plane. It may take some effort to get to Tortuguero, but it’s definitely worth it. Get ready for breathtaking boat rides, wildlife encounters, and pristine nature.
What is Tortuguero Exactly?
Before we take you to the beautiful Tortuguero, let’s understand what it refers to. First and foremost, Tortuguero is a village in the northeastern part of Costa Rica. This village is located on the edge of the stunning Tortuguero National Park.
When people talk about Tortuguero, they usually mean the Tortuguero National Park. Sometimes, the term is used to refer to the entire area. If relevant, we’ll clarify in this article whether we’re talking about the village or the national park.
How to Get to Tortuguero?
The village of Tortuguero can only be reached by boat or a small plane. Additionally, you’ll need a boat to visit the Tortuguero National Park since it’s entirely water-bound. It’s advisable to explore the park with a guide to make the most of your visit.
Below, we’ll discuss the two options to reach Tortuguero. Taking a small plane is the priciest but fastest way. Traveling by boat takes longer but is considerably cheaper. Whichever option you choose, it will be a remarkable experience.
Visiting Tortuguero by Plane
From the capital city of San José, it’s approximately a half-hour flight to Tortuguero. You’ll land at the short runway of Tortuguero Airport. Since only small planes can land here, major airlines don’t operate flights to this airport.
The small airlines that do fly to Tortuguero often have no or poorly functioning websites. The best way to book a flight from San José to Tortuguero is by contacting your hotel in Tortuguero in advance. Expect to pay around 150 euros for a one-way flight.
We stayed at Tortuga Lodge & Gardens, a stunning hotel located by a large river in Tortuguero. It happened to be conveniently close to the small airport, and we were able to book a flight through the hotel.
Visiting Tortuguero by Boat
If you prefer to visit Tortuguero by boat, you’ll first drive to La Pavona. It’s a large parking lot situated by the river leading to Tortuguero. Here, you can securely park your rental car for a fee and find a few shops, restaurants, and restrooms.
Make sure to arrive on time as the last public boat departs around 4 p.m. It takes about an hour and a half, navigating through a winding river in the heart of the rainforest, to reach the village of Tortuguero. You can bring your luggage onboard for a small additional fee.
In addition to the affordable public boats, there are also commercial operators departing from La Pavona. They are slightly more expensive but offer faster boats and are not bound by fixed departure times. We took one of these boats, and within an hour, with only two other tourists, we arrived in Tortuguero. Along the way, we made stops to observe crocodiles and other wildlife.
How to Get to Your Hotel?
The boat from La Pavona will take you to the village of Tortuguero, a colorful maze of streets. It’s worth strolling along the houses and shops or ordering a refreshing pineapple juice (agua de piña) from one of the street vendors.
In the village of Tortuguero, you’ll find various accommodation options, but most of them cater to backpackers. If your hotel is located here, you can likely walk to it. The more upscale hotels are situated outside the village, along one of the rivers. In that case, you’ll need to take a short boat ride.
We stayed at Tortuga Lodge & Gardens, and the hotel picked us up from the village using their own boat. Alternatively, you can also hire a water taxi for a small fee. These are usually covered boats that can drop you off anywhere. Don’t be surprised if your taxi stops along the way to give a local a ride across the river.
Sights to See in Tortuguero
While the journey to Tortuguero itself is already a sight to behold, there are more reasons to visit this remote place. Below, you’ll find our favorite attractions in Tortuguero.
Tortuguero National Park
Marshes, mangrove forests, and countless plant and animal species. That’s what you’ll encounter when you visit Tortuguero National Park. The best way to explore the park is by boat.
The nature reserve has only been protected since 1975 and covers nearly 800 square kilometers. In addition to an impressive variety of birds—researchers have found over 400 species—you can also spot many mammals here.
Sloths, capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, and howler monkeys are particularly common sightings. Our guide once claimed to have seen a puma, but we weren’t fortunate enough. Luckily, the turtles, iguanas, and crocodiles are less elusive.
We booked the excursion through our hotel, and our guide took us to the tropical rainforest in a motorboat. This has its advantages: you get to see a lot of the park because the boat can move quickly. However, the noise from the engine can scare away animals, so our guide frequently turned it off.
It’s also possible to explore the park by canoe, which is ideal if you want to combine nature with a bit more physical activity. In that case, it’s advisable to have a guide with you, as you’ll see fewer wild animals without one. Some guides use traditional canoes with just a paddle, which is quieter but naturally slower.
Make sure to bring sufficient mosquito repellent with DEET. Additionally, it’s nice to have binoculars, although your guide will probably have a pair you can borrow. Nevertheless, a good pair of binoculars is a worthwhile purchase when visiting Costa Rica, as you’ll have many opportunities to use them.
Nighttime Turtle Spotting
The beaches of Tortuguero are important nesting sites for several turtle species. From February to April and between July and October, different types of turtles lay their eggs on the beach, and the hatchlings make their way to the sea in the pitch dark.
It’s crucial to visit the turtles with a guide to avoid unintentionally disturbing the nesting process. While observing the turtles, you’re not allowed to take photos, you must wear black clothing, and perfume is strictly prohibited. Light and strong scents can deter the turtles.
If your visit to Costa Rica doesn’t fall between February and April or July and October, you still have a chance to see turtles. They can be found in Tortuguero throughout the year.
Explore the Village
The village of Tortuguero consists of narrow streets lined with brightly colored houses. You’ll mainly find budget accommodations, restaurants, and souvenir shops here. Street vendors make cocktails and refreshing drinks with fresh fruit.
The village is car-free, creating a relaxed atmosphere. It’s quiet during the day, but in the evenings, when tourists return from their excursions, Tortuguero turns into a vibrant village where locals and tourists mingle.
How Many Days to Spend in Tortuguero?
Since Tortuguero is quite remote, it’s recommended to stay for at least one night. We stayed for two nights, which worked out well. You can easily spend multiple days exploring the National Park or, for example, searching for turtles.
Our Favorite Hotel in Tortuguero
We stayed at Tortuga Lodge & Gardens, a beautiful hotel located right on a large river. Although the rooms are a bit pricey, don’t expect luxury. There’s only mesh covering the windows, so you’ll wake up to the sounds of howler monkeys in the morning.
However, the somewhat primitive hotel room fits perfectly in this environment. Moreover, the restaurant serves delicious food, and there’s a lovely pool where they serve delightful cocktails.
If you want to visit Tortuguero but don’t feel like arranging everything yourself, you can also book this 3-day excursion from the capital city of San José. It includes transportation, excursions, and accommodations at a nice lodge.