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On my first visit to Costa Rica, Tortuguero National Park was the only place we chose to visit. We chose this destination for the wildlife and for the turtles!
We made the tough decision to only visit one destination in Costa Rica so we could save some money during our time in Central America. Compared to it’s neighbours Costa Rica is a little on the pricey side.
During a second trip to Playa Matapalo, Costa Rica I realised it wasn’t as expensive as my backpacking mind had convinced me.
Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Where is Tortuguero in Costa Rica?
We actually chose to visit Tortuguero over The Monteverde Cloud Forest in the north of Costa Rica because we were travelling south through Limon to Panama.
Tortuguero National Park is a protected area on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. It’s around a three hour drive or bus from San Jose.
It is accessible by both the North and South if you plan to visit from Limon or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, which is one of the more popular backpacker destinations in Costa Rica.
How to get to Tortuguero National Park
Although accessible from San Jose and Limon Province getting to Tortuguero National Park is a complex affair. You’ll want to listen very carefully to the below to work out how to get to Tortuguero.
- Leave San Jose early to take your first bus to Tortuguero. Make sure you head to the bus station has a terminal with busses heading to the Caribbean. Look out for the word Caribe which means Caribbean.
- The bus you’ll need to get is to a place called Cariari. This isn’t the final stop so make sure you are paying attention. San Jose to Cariari will cost you $3/$4.
- Once you take the bus from San Jose and reach your first stop Cariari from San Jose the trip begins. There isn’t much in Cariari for tourists but there’s an ATM. This is crucial as it’s the last ATM for hours!
- When in Cariari you will want to take the bus from the bus station (there is only one on the main street).
- A guide from the Tortuguero National Park will meet you at Cariari and accompany tourists to the main boat dock.
- Note you cannot get to Tortuguero by land you must go by boat or air.
- Once on the bus to the main Tortuguero boat dock, you’ll travel for what feels like a long time from Cariari to the boats, all the while you are travelling through the Costa Rican rainforest and small settlements.
- The busses to the boat dock from Cariari station are perfectly timed with the bus arrivals from San Jose. As one arrives from San Jose it is filled with tourists and sent to the main boat dock.
- The bus from Cariari drops you off at the boat docks that take tourists to Tortuguero. There’s just enough time to visit the restaurant in the middle of no where. A Central American theme.
- From this point you can board the boat and it is not uncommon that your baggage will be sent on a separate boat down the river to Tortuguero.
- You travel roughly for an hour by boat to get to Tortuguero.
- Once in Tortuguero the guide that met you in Cariari will help find you accommodation and book any trips/excursions with you.
The boat to Tortuguero
I’d go back to Tortuguero for the boat journey alone. It’s a total surreal experience being on a boat, deep in the overgrown river and deep in the beautiful Costa Rican rain forest.
During our boat ride we were always quietly aware of the lack of other human presence.
There’s no one around you for miles, you are completely alone with nature in the rain forest. Its very peaceful.
Sailing along slowly towards Tortuguero in complete silence is something you’ve seen on a documentary but never thought you’d find yourself doing.
The dense rainforest to your left and right along with the humidity and the silent hum of the boat engine carefully moving you along.
The landscape is everything you would hope to expect from a mixture of dense rainy rain forest and tropical Caribbean coastline. Without exaggerating we got to see plants and trees I’ve only ever seen on TV, we were engulfed by nature.
Arriving in Tortuguero, Costa Rica
When you arrive at the foot of the National Park it’s all go. Find a hostel and plan your activities.
The tourism board is keen to get you booked on as many excursions as possible, most will cost you between $50-$100.
Its island-like being surrounded by water and sand, but the ever present tranquility of the rain forest is always around you.
It’s wet in Tortuguero (actually wet is probably an understatement), but what do you expect from the rain forest in Costa Rica.
There’s so much wildlife it’s difficult not to get over excited visiting a protected area like the Tortuguero National Park. Nature lives so comfortably with the small human population here.
Why visit Tortguero?
Tortuguero, Costa Rica his home to a magnitude of different eco-systems and a whole host of wildlife including the turtles.
We chose Tortuguero over the popular Caribbean surf paradise of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca for the wildlife and nature.
I was teased with the idea of seeing turtles hatch too many times during my trip through Central America and that’s what led to my obsession with Tortuguero.
As a country Costa Rica is renowned for its luscious rain forests, national parks and diverse animal and plant life. We assumed Tortuguero would give us the chance to indulge in the real and pure version of Costa Rica and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Tortuguero is a natural breeding ground for turtles and the word ‘Tortuguero’ literally means Turtle Catcher in Spanish.
Tortuguero Turtle Tours
Like many people that reach the Tortuguero National Park we wanted to see some turtles in their natural habitat.
We booked our turtle tour in advanced for $20 a discounted price due to the low season status of our visit. We were aware that due to the time of our visit we’d be lucky to catch the end of the breeding season.
During our booking the guide gave us a welcome tour and told us when and where to meet and the items we would need to bring. A raincoat and a torch – this is the rain forest after all.
We met with our group that evening for the tour to start, just after dark. We headed out on to the beach which is a rough and vicious coastline with stormy shores and dangerous riptides.
It was a far cry from the Caribbean coast we’d experienced so far in Central America but still beautiful in a dangerous and raw way.
Quite quickly and unfortunately my Tortuguero dream came crashing down. The lack of turtles disappointed me and although due to seasonality there seemed to be another issue.
All the turtles we had found were dead!
We were bitterly disappointed when all that we found were empty nests of recently hatched turtles eaten by local dogs. I’m not just talking about or two nests but hundreds of them, some scattered with empty turtle shells and even the most gruesome half-eaten baby turtles.
During our first turtle tour in Tortuguero there was a buzz in the air. It felt like every single person in our small group was there for a reason.
Our whole purpose to be on this very turtle tour and watch these incredible late hatchers find their way to the ocean to begin their lives.
Now, I’m not saying this happens all year round but this was a disappointing end to my Tortuguero love affair. It’s also how we coined the phrase ‘not so Tortuguero’.
The best time to visit Tortuguero
Based on our experience arriving in late November/early December is too late to catch the turtles. If you want to have a better experience than we did, you’ll want to arrive during the peak breeding season.
Peak breeding season
The majority of what you read online will tell you that you can see turtles all year round.
This was not true of our experience in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. For the best time to visit to see the Hawksbill turtles and Green Sea turtles you’ll want to visit from July – October. With August and September being the peak tourist months.
The Leatherback turtle nests throughout February and up until April, so a visit between February – October is recommended.
Is Costa Rica budget friendly?
The cost of Costa Rica
I can only speak from my personal experience but Costa Rica isn’t your typical budget friendly Central American destination. For first timers visiting Costa Rica you’ll want to plan your budget well for a budget friendly backpacking trip.
Saying this, and since visiting Totuguero I have been back to Costa Rica as part of a shorter trip as opposed to a six month backpacking trip.
However, if you plan to visit Costa Rica as a single destination trip it is a budget friendly destination.
Tortuguero daily budget
The below daily budget is based on the off season.
The fun element includes turtle tours and other excursions around the Tortuguero National Park along with drinking. If you chose to only do a turtle tour for $20 your daily budget would be $65.
Costa Rica daily budget
Local prices for Costa Rica
|Local meal||Rice and beans (or meat option)||$5-$8|
|Local beer||Bottle of Imperial||$2-$5|
|Snacks||Crisps and street food||$2-$3|
The price of all your necessities are much higher in Costa Rica than Nicaragua.
Food, drinks including alcohol and even water prices area little higher but if you stick to a budget and eat and drink local you will see a difference.
Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Tortuguero is an intensely beautiful place. Costa Rica is an incredible country. The reality of what is happening in Tortuguero in the off season isn’t ideal and I hope that the locals will clean up the act of the dogs in future.
Obviously we were unlucky in our timing but I do fully recommend a trip to Tortuguero National Park in the peak season to have the full experience.
Tortuguero from everything I witnessed despite the obvious is an exceptional National Park filled with unique nature. The area is a total wonder from the unpaved streets to the small fence church to the parrots in each tree. The adventure to reach Tortuguero makes even the simplest of bus journeys an adventure.
I truly hope in the future this issue can be dealt with before it becomes out of hand and Tortuguero can always remain the Turtle Catcher.
A 20-something travel blogger based in Liverpool. Covering all things from Latin America to Liverpool local guides and everything in between.