Tortuguero, or Land of Turtles, is the only village in Costa Rica without cars, you can get there only by boat or plane. If that’s not enough to get you interested, know that when you visit you will spend your days exploring the incredible biodiversity of Tortuguero National Park, also by boat and on foot.
Navigable canals and rainforest surround this village, which means exciting opportunities to observe and photograph the many species of flora and fauna that inhabit this complex wetland. Caimans, several monkey species, a myriad of exotic birds, as well as charismatic sloths are often seen on the morning and evening boat tours, and there is even a chance of viewing Costa Rica’s most secretive mammal, the jaguar. At night you can see sea turtles nesting on the local beaches or early morning and late afternoon you can witness young turtles racing down the beach towards the water to start their adventure into the deep sea.
Now that you are convinced you must visit this amazing part of Costa Rica, here is some information that will help make your trip great.
Tortuguero National Park and the Turtle Season
Tortuguero National Park, located in the northern Caribbean slope region, is the third most visited park in Costa Rica. The park is 77,000 hectares (190,000 acres), one-third of it covered with natural and man-made water canals connecting several rivers of the Atlantic slope to the ocean, the biggest concentration of protected tropical wet forest, which is also part of the Ramsar list; the rest of its protected area is maritime. Biodiversity flows all over the place within its 11 different habitats, including the mangrove forest, rainforest, swamps, and beaches. Only 1% of its land is open to visitors, and 100% the protected sea is dedicated to conservation.
The best way to explore the park is by boat. Almost every hotel in town offers tours in flat-bottomed motorboats to the canals where you can see many birds like tiger herons, northern jacanas, collared aracaris, Yellow-crowned night-herons, and Gray-necked wood-rail. You can also see many mammals like howler monkeys, three-toed sloths or neotropical river otters, and reptiles like basilisks and caimans.
If you wish to explore the park on foot, there is only one trail that starts at the north entrance of the park – which, during rainy times, could be flooded – and parallels the beach. Part of exploring the park by foot also means taking long hikes along the beach searching for turtle hatchlings, and at night watching giant adult sea turtles lay their eggs.
Tortuguero National Park is the most important nesting beach in the Western Hemisphere for the endangered green turtles. Scientists say 15,000 to 20,000 of them crawl ashore, from June to October, to nest each year. The turtle nesting season also includes other species of turtles, specifically giant leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles.
Keep in mind that the only way you can actually see a nesting turtle is by taking a night tour with the local association of guides, which works hand-by-hand with the national park to make sure that visitors don’t disrupt the highly delicate natural process. Specialized personnel patrol the beach at night spotting the turtles as they come out of the water. In the meantime, visitors wait in special stations with their turtle-expert guides who share valuable information with them. Guides will take the visitors to the turtle once it has reached a stage in the “nesting” process that is safe for people to approach it.
The park is open every day from 6 am to noon, and from 1 pm to 4 pm. Park fees are $15 for non-resident adults and $5 for non-resident children.
Tortuguero Town – What to do?
The very small village of Tortuguero is one of the best places for experiencing the laid back authentic Caribbean feel. The town also feels like it floats between the ocean and the river since it raises in the center of a natural sandbar that extends from the mouth of the Siquirres river to the Tortuguero river.
Take the time to explore by strolling around the different small alleys that connect the river with the beach. As you do, you might discover people leaving the church or enjoying their time at the park and the beach, children playing, boats in the harbor and on the river, etc. Make sure to wait for the sunset by sitting at the town’s park, so you can see it unfold behind the rainforest on the other side of the Tortuguero river.
One place you mustn’t miss is the offices of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC). Founded in 1959 to fight an established market of turtle meat that was seriously damaging the population of turtles in the area. The CCC and the Costa Rican government put their efforts together and founded the park in 1970, which was the last step to offer protection to the turtles.
Tortuguero Town – Where to eat?
In Tortuguero, the local restaurant scene offers a delicious blend of foreign, Tico and Afro-Caribbean flavors. Here are some great dining options to consider for your meals:
Miss Junie’s is probably Tortuguero’s oldest and most famous establishment. Founded in the 1940s by Miss Sibella, who opened her house and kitchen to workers from the now extinct sawmills and, later, to early sea turtle conservationists. Miss Sibella’s daughter, Miss Junie, continued her mother’s work and, today, her daughter, Miss Noly, has taken over the kitchen. The restaurant offers top-notch Afro-Caribbean inspired food, like coconut curry chicken or spiny lobster accompanied by traditional rice-and-beans. You can find it at the northern end of the village’s main pedestrian walkway. Once you reach a wooden gate with turtle carvings, you have arrived. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
This restaurant is also a long-established locale that was started by mother Miss Miriam and today is run by daughter Katty. A simple and relaxed eatery that offers some of the finest Caribbean rice-and-beans dishes. Located on the north side of the village’s northern soccer plaza. Miss Miriam’s is open daily for lunch and dinner.
Richard was the original owner, but it is Alejandra Guzmán who has brought a fresh spark to this funky little restaurant. If you are looking for reggae beats and a chill atmosphere, this is the place to go, where you can enjoy worldly dishes accompanied by a cold beer or glass of wine. It is located at the main pedestrian path, 200 meters north of the village’s main port, a perfect place to watch village life float by. Donde Richard is open daily for late lunch and dinner.
This chic and artsy restaurant is impossible to miss when in Tortuguero. Chilean owners Claudio Ortiz and Enrique Lopez have created a sophisticated array of Mediterranean dishes with a Caribbean twist. On a hot day, Buddha Café is the perfect place to lounge on their comfortable sofa-seats as you drink one of their tropical cocktails or coffee drinks. They serve thin crust brick oven pizza, tasty burgers and seafood dishes, among others. Located 100 meters (109 yards) north of the village’s main port on the riverside, and a perfect place to watch the sunset. The Buddha Café is open daily for lunch and dinner.
How to get to Tortuguero National Park
Getting to Tortuguero by Air:
Both local airlines, Nature Air and Sansa, have regular flights to Tortuguero’s airstrip from both international airports in San José. The views during this 30-minute flight are quite spectacular. Once you reach Tortuguero’s airstrip you can choose between walking 4 km (8.7 miles) south until you reach the town of Tortuguero, or you can take a water taxi to your accommodations or to town.
Getting to Tortuguero by Land and water vía La Pavona:
Travel down Highway 32 to the Atlantic lowlands, through Braulio Carrillo National Park. Get off the Highway 32 and enter the town of Guápiles. Once there, follow the signs for Cariari, on Route 247. After Cariari you will drive through banana plantations, crossing small towns, and always following the signs that read “Tortuguero”. The last section of the trip is a dirt road that will take you to La Pavona, where small covered motorboats serve as public boats down the Rio La Suerte to the village of Tortuguero. The boat ride can take between one and two hours, depending on the water levels of the river.
At La Pavona you can leave your car at a covered parking lot for a reasonable daily fee.
You can also reach La Pavona by public bus, first taking a bus from San José to Cariari and then from Cariari to La Pavona.
Boats leave from La Pavona at 7:30 am, 11 am, 1 pm and 4:30 pm, but they will always wait for the public bus coming from Cariari, so they could leave later.
Getting to Tortuguero by Land and water vía Moín:
Again, travel down Highway 32 to the Atlantic lowlands, through Braulio Carrillo National Park, but this time continue to the port of Moín, northwest of the city of Limon. Once at the port, there is also secure public parking. You can also reach the port by bus from the town of Limón.
This boat ride only happens once a day, at 10 am, and it is much longer and expensive than the one from La Pavona. It takes 3.5 hours to reach Tortuguero, boating north through man-made canals, but as you get closer to the park you will be able to see parts of the park that otherwise are not accessible.
Weather in Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero has an annual average rainfall of up to 240 inches (6,000mm), so you can say it is basically rainy all year long. August, September, and October are the least rainy months, also the best time of year to see nesting turtles. It is hot and humid with average temperatures of 26°C, 79°F.
Plan a Trip to Tortuguero, Costa Rica
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