The Ultimate Travel Guide to Tortuguero, Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, a country so famed for its wild landscapes, a town called Tortuguero is a cut above the rest. The whole place is enfolded by sweeping jungles on one side and dreamy beachfronts and alligator-filled lagoons of the Caribbean Sea on the other. No roads penetrate this Central American village, so boats and planes are your only way in. Once you’re in though, you will navigate through biodiverse canals by boats, kayaks, and canoes. It is common to stay in rustic lodges wedged between groups of ancient raffia palms.
Did you know the Tortuguero name is derived from the Spanish translation for turtle? The inspiration comes from the Tortuguero beaches which are recognized as some of the most famous green turtle nesting sites across the entire western Caribbean coast. You can expect your daily itineraries to revolve around wildlife encounters with turtles, hallucinogenic frogs, and elusive jaguars. With Tortuguero being home to some of the rarest animal species, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most desirable locations to birdwatch and sportfish.
Tempted? Any adventure-loving traveler should be. This ultimate guide to travel in Tortuguero can help you plan your trip. It’s full of great information to better prepare you for visiting this far-flung ecotourism hotspot on the Costa Rican map. For details on the best seasons to catch a glimpse of its wildlife, typical weather conditions, some of our favorite hotels, and things to do in town, read on!
My Experience in Tortuguero
One of my top adventure destinations is Costa Rica, a place where I have explored extensively. In my time there, I especially loved everything from hiking around the Arenal volcano and the beaches of Tamarindo, to the rich history of San José. With a strong sense of sustainability, amazing opportunities for adventure, and some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet, Costa Rica and its Tortuguero National Park are must-sees for any traveler.
Ever since I was young, I have dreamed of exploring this incredible planet. I have been very fortunate to have explored over 50 countries across this extraordinary world and to have made travel my career. I am very grateful to run The Explorer’s Passage, a premier adventure travel company and, in my opinion, the best tour operator in Costa Rica. Our team has over 30 years of experience running successful tours there. If at any point throughout this guide you find yourself with any questions, reach out to our team and we’ll gladly help build your dream trip!
What’s in this Guide?
1. Why visit Tortuguero?
Tortuguero is an eco traveler’s dream come true. In many ways, the town can be viewed as the poster child of ethical, sustainable tourism in Costa Rica. That’s really saying something in a country laden with carbon-neutral lodges, where 28% of the total land makes up its national parks!
See, back in the 1930s, Tortuguero was actually founded as an outpost for loggers, and canals were dug into the rainforest to facilitate the removal of ancient timbers from the primeval woods. Things quickly changed as the Costa Rican government began to recognize the value of their wildernesses.
By 1975, a great swathe of the region was designated as a national park, and the Tortuguero village at its center was established as a prime gateway to turtle-rich beaches and forests filled with sloths, spider monkeys, and other wildlife – a true delight for any animal lover.
Today, whenever you touch down here, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re going somewhere truly wild. And we don’t mean wild in the safari park sort of sense, either. We mean totally untouched by human hands; a land where majestic monkey pot trees rule the canopy and pumas stalk the undergrowth. Intrigued? Take a look at our customizable Costa Rica trip to learn more.
2. Where is Tortuguero?
Tortuguero is quite easy to pinpoint on the map. It’s basically as far northeast as you can possibly go in Costa Rica before hopping across the border into Nicaragua. And you’ll find the popular Tortuguero National Park located within Limón Province. Tortuguero village – the place where 99.9% of travelers base themselves for trips to the turtle beaches and rainforests – is smack dab midway through the region. Uber-remote, it’s over 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the nearest major highway, with the great Tortuguero River snaking by on its way to the Caribbean Sea.
3. How to get to Tortuguero?
Getting to Tortuguero is half the fun. It’s not going to be easy – did we mention that this is one of the most remote destinations in the whole of Costa Rica?
There are only two ways to arrive: by boat or by plane. The vast majority of travelers go for the former as it’s cheaper and a bit of a wildlife adventure, taking you along forest-fringed waterways replete with caiman alligators and kingfishers. The latter is pricier but a whole lot faster. Here’s a more detailed look at some travel options.
- Boats to Tortuguero – First, you’ll need to get to one of the principal river ports that has services linking to Tortuguero. The most popular route is the one from San José to Cariari and then an onward bus to La Pavona, where you connect with a boat transport. Leaving San José at approximately 5:00 AM, you’ll arrive in Tortuguero around 3:00 PM.
- Flights to Tortuguero Airport – Flashpackers can opt for the flight option. SANSA and Nature Air both run short-haul links from San José, taking 30 minutes from departure to arrival. There are also SANSA services from Arenal. However, be warned: The Tortuguero Airport is tiny and the airstrip is rustic, to say the least. One upside to flying is that the views of the beachfronts, wetlands, and the entire Tortuguero National Park from above are simply breathtaking.
4. Getting around Tortuguero
There’s zero reason for getting a car rental in Tortuguero – as there are no roads! Plus, the Tortuguero village is so compact that you can walk between most of the major lodges and restaurants without any problems. When it comes to seeing the national park, there are really just two main ways to get around.
The first is by hoofing it on the trails. This isn’t Manuel Antonio, though. There’s but a single marked loop called the Jaguar Trail (more on that later) and the route to Cerro Tortuguero to boot. Motorized boats leave early – around 6:00 AM – from the town to take you into the depths of the reserve, but not as deep as you can go.
This is where canoes and kayaks come in. They’re small enough to navigate the narrower canals and reveal more hidden corners of the park. What’s more, kayaks and canoes are quiet and cause less of a disturbance, so your chances of seeing birds, fish or other wildlife increases with this option.
5. The best time to visit Tortuguero
Since the main attraction in Tortuguero is the booming population of turtles that come by for the annual nesting season between July and October, that’s also when you’ll find the highest number of travelers in Tortuguero village.
More pointedly, September and October are the peak of the peak for the National Park. Those fall months are when the turtles finally begin to hatch, offering travelers a chance to witness the turtles’ great run across the beaches towards the Caribbean Sea for their first swim.
6. Weather and temperature
The fall months also happen to be the driest months of the year on the Caribbean side of the country (notice how that’s the opposite of the Pacific side). However, you can expect the weather to be humid and rainy in Tortuguero no matter what time of year you visit.
As for temperature, you’ll find these fall months are ideal as Tortuguero averages a warm 84°F (29°C). Nevertheless, if you plan to visit another time of year, Tortuguero temperatures generally fall between 71-89°F (22-32°C).
7. Top things to do in Tortuguero
True to Costa Rica’s style, Tortuguero is all about nature and wildlife. Come here for visions of ultra-rare sea turtles nesting on cinnamon-tinged beaches. Or come to tread paths worn by jaguar paws. Even come to hike trails through ancient groves of towering almendro trees. Here are some more of our suggestions on the top things to do:
- Turtle Tours – You simply must book onto a guided tour to see the famous turtles of Tortuguero. For conservation reasons, travelers aren’t allowed to enter the beaches on their own where these amazing creatures nest and hatch. The stickers purchased for access to turtle nesting sites go a long way in aiding in the sustainability of this beautiful place, so they’re worth forking out for.
Turtle tours take place in the peak turtle season of July through October on this side of Costa Rica. They usually last around 2.5 hours and always happen after dusk. You’ll mainly be looking for green turtles, but there are also hawksbill and leatherback species to be found on these beaches. There is over 11 miles (17 kilometers) of protected beach for these turtles to roam, so you should have no trouble catching a glimpse of these astonishing reptiles.
- Kayak or canoe Tortuguero National Park – Our favorite way of navigating the canals in the untamed jungles of Tortuguero National Park is unquestionably by kayak or canoe. Although you’ll have your own kayak or canoe, you’d still do it as part of a guided tour. Not only is it easy to get lost, but the outfitters here really do know the best spots to go for your sightings of those rare great green macaws and mantled howler monkeys. The experience is quintessential for a Costa Rica trip, transporting you to wetlands riddled with mangroves, patrolled by caimans, filled with freshwater gamefish, and watched over by the extinct caps of ancient volcanoes.
- Boat trips in Tortuguero National Park – If you’re not feeling the energy to kayak your way through these wild rivers, then you could always join the crowds who go for the motorized boat tours of the Tortuguero National Park. They leave around 6:00 AM each morning and last two or three hours.
The plus side is that you can cover more ground with this option. The negative is that motorized boats can’t fit into all the canals and can be noisy enough to scare away wildlife like those amazing parrots, kingfishers, and other bird species. However these boat tours can be great to fish for tarpon and other smaller fish species as you navigate through the national park.
- Hike the Jaguar Trail – The main trail in town, the Jaguar Trail is a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) loop that’s often not a loop – turbulent weather and heavy rains (common in these parts) regularly shut the final portion of the path down. It’s still a fun romp through the coastal woods, starting with a worrying warning sign that lets you know what to do should you encounter a jaguar (not likely, but not impossible).
It starts at the edge of Tortuguero village and along the way, you’ll get visions of the lapping Caribbean waves, palm groves strewn with coconut husks and turtle shells, and all manner of bird life. Don’t be tempted to swim in the beach (or the canals, rivers, or anywhere in Tortuguero for that matter) – currents are rough and fatalities have occurred.
- Cerro Tortuguero – There is another hiking path up Cerro Tortuguero, an extinct volcano to the north of the Tortuguero village within the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge. It’s only accessible by boat and then boots. However, recent years have seen it completely closed due to conservation reasons. If it happens to be open, then you’re looking at a relatively easy 40-minute trek on scaffold boardwalks to a lookout point that gazes across the emerald forest canopies and the white-capping Caribbean Sea beaches.
- Birdwatching – Although we’ve already mentioned the various birdwatching opportunities within Tortuguero’s canals and rivers, if you’re looking for more alluring migrant bird species, look no further than Tortuguero village itself! It’s home to over 350 migratory and resident bird species. Simply enjoying the view from the lodges can provide the perfect place to explore some of the greatest biodiversity Costa Rica has to offer.
You can even take your birdwatching to the beaches, where water bird species like the sanderling can be seen chasing the waves and frolicking in the sand. If birdwatching is your motivation for the trip, the best months to visit are January through February when bird species follow their migratory paths and take a pit stop in Tortuguero.
- Fishing – Tortuguero is one of the world’s best fishing destinations for both saltwater and freshwater fishing. It is also known for the presence of the fabled “Silver King” or the tarpon, a powerful and acrobatic fighter. Here you’ll find some of the best tarpon fishing tour guides in Costa Rica and enjoy a rare learning experience for fishers of all skill levels.
You can discover Barra del Colorado, the largest reserve in the nation with over 30 miles (48 kilometers) of canals and rivers, and home to notable fish species such as the guapote and snook. The best months to fish for tarpon are usually from January to June. However, it is important to note that Tortuguero is mainly a catch-and-release region in order to sustain a healthy fish species population.
8. Where to stay?
Tortuguero is small. There isn’t an overload of places to bed down like Tamarindo and the booming eco destinations of Monteverde. There are but a handful of lodges, some of which ooze authentic Pura Vida charm. Here are some of our suggestions for the best Tortuguero hotels and lodges to stay at:
- Mawamba Lodge – The very definition of boutique eco accommodation, the Mawamba Lodge is an earthy yet super-comfy place to stay within walking distance of the Tortuguero village. It’s the only lodge that has direct access to the turtle beaches. We love the interiors that fuse Latin charm and raw natural materials, not to mention the blue pool and its surrounding palm trees.
- Tortuga Lodge – Sitting opposite to the dusty airstrip, Tortuga Lodge is one of the finer Tortuguero hotels. It’s too far to walk from the center of town (a 10-minute boat is the only way in). However, that allows for extra seclusion. This hotel also has one of the best pools around, and sprawling suites that are primed for honeymoon travelers and couples seeking a romantic getaway.
- Evergreen Lodge – The eco-friendly option, Evergreen Lodge counts a cluster of simply and sustainably built shacks set deep in the verdant jungles to the west of Tortuguero village. They get you closer to the jaguar-stalked wilds than any other accommodation in Tortuguero. This lodge is great for observing wildlife as you can access the national park from just a 5-minute boat ride through the canals.
9. Where to eat?
Again, there aren’t stacks of places to eat in Tortuguero, but there are some enticing options. Many great spots are conveniently attached to the lodges or hotels in which you may stay. Let’s take a look at some of our top places to eat in Tortuguero.
- Miss Junies Lodge – We think Miss Junies Lodge and Restaurant serves up some of the tastiest local food around. Located on the outskirts of Tortuguero village, come here for your fix of gallo pinto with fried eggs, sweet plantain chips, and all sorts of fruit-packed smoothies.
- La Macarela – La Macarela is the on-site restaurant of the aforementioned Mawamba Lodge. The location can hardly be beaten as the eatery sits on a floating platform on the Tortuguero River. Potential sightings of manatees and caimans come free, you’ll just need to pay for the delicious organic and authentic Costa Rican cuisine.
- Dorling Bakery – Dorling Bakery would be our go-to suggestion for breakfast, if you don’t have it included at your hotel. The menu reads omelets and scrambled eggs, and the coffee is some of the best in town. Some of the seats also have sweeping views of the river so you enjoy watching the birds while you eat.
10. Sample Tortuguero itinerary
A Costa Rica trip to Tortuguero sounds great, doesn’t it? Whether you plan the whole thing yourself or decide to come with us (fingers crossed!), we hope this guide will serve you well.
Below is a sneak peek of what you can expect during your adventure with The Explorer’s Passage. Although we’ve included our picks for some of the best places to visit, everything is fully customizable to your idea of the perfect trip. This sample adventure includes touring the city of San José, observing the turtle conservancy, and a night tour in the Tortuguero Forest.
- Day 1 (San José) – Start off by diving into Costa Rica’s rich history and culture with a city tour of San José. Learn about Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian past through impressive exhibits at the National Museum and National Theater. Gaze at neoclassical architecture and enjoy one of the best views of the capital city during a tour of an old fortress. Squeeze in some shopping and admire the craftsmanship of local wooden and leather goods before heading to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in San José.
- Day 2 (Tortuguero and Turtle Conservancy) – Rise early for your transfer to Tortuguero and enjoy a local breakfast along the way. You’ll arrive in the Caribbean Lowlands before a boat transfer to your hotel. Fuel up with lunch before heading into the charming town of Tortuguero and visiting the Turtle Conservancy.
- Day 3 (Tortuguero Beach and Night Tour) – After breakfast, it’s time to explore the beaches of Tortuguero. Enjoy a fun-filled day that includes a garden tour, visit to a frog farm, and an evening hike. You’ll be accompanied by one of our expert naturalist guides who will lead you to our private trails near the Tortuguero National Park. Your walk at twilight will whisk you into the mysterious world of the forest as the nocturnal wildlife and insects awake. Prepare for the magical sights and sounds of nature!
- Day 4 (Kayak Tour and Cerro Tortuguero) – Venture on a kayak tour inside the canals as your knowledgeable guide eagerly points out Tortuguero’s amazing flora and fauna. Keep your eyes peeled for some of the more than 350 bird species identified so far, three of the four species of monkeys in Costa Rica, caimans, crocodiles, toucans, sloths, and much more. Break for lunch before your afternoon Cerro Tortuguero hike. Your climb up the extinct volcano will reward you with the most spectacular panoramic view in all of Tortuguero! Take in endless views spanning the local canals, the Caribbean Sea, and the cozy towns of San Francisco de Tortuguero and Tortuguero itself.
That’s just a glimpse of what awaits you. Tempted to experience the full adventure? Join us!
Got more questions on touring Tortuguero or need help planning your trip to Costa Rica? Our knowledgeable Adventure Consultants would love to hear from you so contact us and let us show you what’s possible.
Why travel with The Explorer’s Passage?
Experience Tortuguero National Park with the best tour operator in Costa Rica. With over 30 years of experience in the tourism industry, our team has extensive local knowledge and networks that you can trust.
We pride ourselves on delivering extraordinary tours based on travelers’ needs and are humbled by our guests’ testimonials. In fact, our dedication has earned us a 5-star rating on Tripadvisor, and awards by Travel+Leisure Magazine and Newsweek. Check us out and discover why so many travelers worldwide choose us. My team and I would love for you to join us on a trip to Tortuguero or any of our many other adventure trips!
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage
About Jeff Bonaldi
Jeff Bonaldi is the Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, an adventure travel company. His mission is to provide travelers with the opportunity to transform their lives and the planet through the power of adventure.