Central America, Costa Rica

Not so Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Last Updated on by Bryony Clapperton

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.

Map of Costa Rica
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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. When in Cariari you will want to take the bus from the bus station (there is only one on the main street).
  5. A guide from the Tortuguero National Park will meet you at Cariari and accompany tourists to the main boat dock.
  6. Note you cannot get to Tortuguero by land you must go by boat or air.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.  
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. You travel roughly for an hour by boat to get to Tortuguero.
  12. Once in Tortuguero the guide that met you in Cariari will help find you accommodation and book any trips/excursions with you.
Tortuguero boat
The boat to Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica

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.

Costa Rica, Tortuguero
Boat dock Tortuguero National Park
One of the boat docks

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.

Tortuguero National Park
Costa Rica rain forest
Rain forest

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.

Beach of Toruguero, Costa Rica
Tortuguero beach
The raw coast line

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’.

Tortuguero National Park beach

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.

Beaches in Torutguero national park
Rain forest in Costa Rica
Rain forest in Costa Rica

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.

In summary, after spending time in Costa Rica’s budget friendly neighbours Honduras and Nicaragua I would say that Costa Rica is not as budget friendly.

However, if you plan to visit Costa Rica as a single destination trip it is a budget friendly destination.

Costa Rica, Tortuguero

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.

SleepingEatingTransportFunTotal
$25-$30$15-$20$0$20-150$150

Costa Rica daily budget

SleepingEatingTransportFunTotal
$10-$30$10-25$5-15$30$80-$100

Local prices for Costa Rica

ItemDescriptionCost
Local mealRice and beans (or meat option)$5-$8
Local beerBottle of Imperial $2-$5
SnacksCrisps 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.

Costa Rica

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.

Turtle statue
The only turtle I saw in Tortuguero

9 thoughts on “Not so Tortuguero, Costa Rica

  1. I understand your frustration with not seeing any turtles. I volunteered at a turtle hatchery program on the pacific coast for two weeks. The only time any babies hatched was 3 days out of these 2 weeks, and apart from once we only saw adult turtles under nightfall which meant no photos. The stray dogs are a major issue all over the country and its hard when the turtle eggs are their only real source of food. Once the dogs had finished eating the vultures would come over and finish it off. This meant a whole beach full of animals trying to find turtle eggs. Though, on that beach the locals also eat the eggs so who knows

  2. I spent a week in Costa Rica last summer and couldn't agree more about the prices. You could do everything in the neighboring countries for one third (sometimes even one fifth) of the price and I didn't feel like Costa Rica had anything more to give for tourists than the rest of the Central America. It was the least favorite Central American country for me and I doubt I'll be going back.

    I feel your pain about the turtles. I was also travelling during the shoulder season when it came to turtles but was told it would be possible to see turtle nesting in Guatemala. Well it wasn't – I spent three hours one night wandering across empty Guatemalan beaches with my guide and couldn't find a single sign about the turtles – not even the egss. To be fair I'm quite happy about not seeing anything after reading your story. I would have been so shocked to find parts of baby turtles laying around. Hope you managed to find turtles somewhere else in the end!

  3. Costa Rica is my most desired country to visit ever since I saw a documentary about it at the age if 10. This is where I imagine being proposed or going on honeymoon! Haha I told my boyfriend about this!

  4. Thanks for your comment. I think during this shoulder season the resorts and hostels are still trying to profit from tourists and our lack of understanding of the nesting season meant we truly believe you could catch them right up until Christmas. Looking back I don't think that was true at all. It wasn't a great experience especially after we'd missed out in so many Central America countries previously. I'm heading back to Costa Rica and Nicaragua on a holiday at beginning of November so I'm hoping to have more of a positive experience of Costa Rica. This time I'll be seeing the Pacific Coast rather than Caribbean!

  5. Its funny you say that because when I was in Costa Rica a lot of the plant life and wildlife reminded me of so many documentaries I've watched. I kept thinking to myself – this truly is so remote I felt like I was in a documentary when I was on a boat in the rainforest in the literal middle of nowhere. I hope you get to see Costa Rica soon.

  6. It was so frustrating for me especially because I had passed the opportunity so many times in Central America and this was really our sole purpose of visiting Costa Rica. I guess from what you've said that this is a much bigger issue that really should be dealt with by the tourism authorities.

  7. I know how you feel about the turtles! Every time I dive, I am the only one that doesn't see any! I definitley need to get to Costa Rica though, Still haven't been!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *