Tortuguero is the most famous and popular destination on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, in the province of Limon, and is the name of both the spectacular turtle reserve (the Tortuguero National Park) and its namesake base town (Tortuguero village). Although only 60-odd miles from the capital, San Jose, Tortuguero is still considered one of the country’s hidden treasures given it’s nestled in the heart of untarnished wilderness and getting there is a little time consuming than would normally be. Yet what makes reaching Tortuguero slightly more hassle is the primary reason it is such an exceptional place: lacking all the major mod-cons of more visited (and easier to reach) hubs like Manuel Antonio and Arenal, makes this a true nature lover’s paradise, clichéd as that may sound. There may not be much in terms of glitz and glamour here but, in return, you get unparalleled biodiversity, exquisite wildlife watching and a nature-enriched experience that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
Tortuguero’s most revered asset is its wilderness, made up of fertile wetlands, dense forests and wild beaches that attract nesting sea turtles. ‘The Place of Turtles’, as the name translates, is turtle watching haven and considered one of the world’s foremost nesting site for four distinct species, namely Leatherback, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and the endangered Green Sea turtles, for which Tortuguero represents the largest nesting site on the planet. Learn more about Turtle Spotting in Costa Rica if that’s your primary reason for visiting Tortuguero.
If all this bounty isn’t enough, there’s also the nifty bonus of Tortuguero enjoying its driest season when the rest of the country is deluged by rain. This is considered the best destination in all of Costa Rica during rain season.
Ready to get to know Tortuguero better? Here are the top things to do there!
- Take an early morning canoe trip through the canals
Want the highest chances of spotting wildlife in Tortuguero? Better be an early sloth! Enjoy an early morning guided canoe or kayak trip through the glorious canals and you’ll magically feel the stresses of life just slide right off your back. Spot (and hear) howler and spider monkeys, a cacophony of birds including colorful toucans, macaws, woodpeckers and owls, as well as caimans, river otters, turtles and tapirs and, if you’re exceptionally lucky, even Jesus Christ lizards (yes, the ones that walk on water), jaguars and manatees. The three main priorities here are to paddle yourself (motorized vessels scare off the wildlife), go with an experienced local guide (these guys can spot elusive animals where we see only foliage) and make sure you’re out there by sunrise, when most animals are at their most active. Being Tortuguero village lies a complex maze of canals through the lush wetlands. Tours last about three hours.
- Hike up to Cerro Tortuguero
The highest point in Tortuguero is 1,280 feet high and is the collapsed caldera of a now-dormant volcano, the one that has given the area its incredible biodiversity. It may seem like a ‘short stroll’ and in many ways it is, however, the hike can be steep and adrenaline-pumping nonetheless. The reward? All-encompassing and astonishing views across the wetlands and canals. The trail is called Sendero Cerro Tortuguero and is just a 10-minute canoe-ride from town center. It is well marked and you can expect to see plenty of birds and even larger wildlife. As always, you’ll get the most of your visit (and wildlife spotting) by taking a guide with you although it’s not strictly necessary. If you’re happy to enjoy some ‘me’ time and ‘see what you see’ then, by all means, go for it. Boat services are plentiful here as it’s the main mode of transport.
- Enjoy walking through the National Park
Walking isn’t really the best way to soak up the wonders of Tortuguero but the national park boasts some lovely trails if you’d love to stretch your legs nonetheless. All trails start from the Visitor Center, range in length and also water levels. Sometimes, you’ll have to wade through water that’s ankle or calf-deep so ask beforehand, especially if travelling with children. Do note that walking alone through this kind of rain-forest is not recommended, so if you don’t want to take a guide then buddy up with other visitors, perhaps from your lodge.
- Visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy Visitor Center
This amazing interpretation center is part of the Sea Turtle Conservation Program which studies and protects Tortuguero’s #1 guests. The passionate staff offers great information about the work that’s carried out here, as well as everything related to the nesting habits of the turtles. If visiting during nesting season, best to head here first and foremost. Entrance is just a few dollars and includes a small but information-packed museum and a really fascinating video.
- Go for a night-time guided walk to spot Green Turtles and other wildlife
Between the end of June and the first week of October, you’ll have the highest chances of spotting turtles nesting in Tortuguero, one of the most awe-inspiring experiences you can have in all of Costa Rica. Visitors aren’t allowed on the nesting beach past 6 pm during season so you’ll need (and will want) to go with a guide. Another very special spectacle is watching hatchlings zooming down the beach to reach the sea, which happens between seven and 10 weeks after nesting. Given that different species nest at different times, there are some occasions where nesting and hatching overlap. Nocturnal tours are very rewarding even outside nesting season, when you’ll see a multitude of snakes, frogs and other reptiles, as well as sloths and opossums.
- Hike in the Tortuguero National Park by day
A gorgeous activity reserved for the driest months, guided walks through Tortuguero are absolutely amazing and offer a different (and much slower) perspective on the local flora and fauna. What makes walking through the park special is the fact that it’s not something you can do all year long – the landscape is quite flat and prone to flooding after rains so it’s very much a dry-season highlight.
- Go Zip-lining in Tortuguero!
One of our four recommended lodges in Tortuguero, Aninga Lodge, boasts a super fun 1 km-long canopy trail that includes half a dozen cables, 11 platforms, several suspension bridges and one exhilarating Tarzan swing. It may not be as hard-core as some of the more famous zip-line sin the west but it is unique in the area and offers a wonderful 1.5 hr-long thrill
How to Get There
Follow our Airport Guide to Costa Rica to see the best entry into the country, whether you’re visiting Tortuguero first or last on your adventure vacation itinerary. No matter where you come from, however, you will need to take a combination of road and boat transport to reach the town and the national park. Getting here is definitely half the adventure!
Who is Best Suited to an Adventurous Tortuguero Experience? Things to Keep in Mind!
Tortuguero isn’t for everyone, as is the case with every destination, all over the world. Some people just don’t enjoy their adventure vacation without at least some glitzy comforts (which is totally understandable) and others automatically envisage idyllic beaches whenever they see any pin mapped on a stretch of Tico coast. But Tortuguero, in all its immense splendorous, doesn’t offer that kind of seaside experience. This ain’t THAT kind of beach. Due to strong tides, this is the least suitable stretch of coast for swimming so although the beach and coastline are magical to admire and photograph, don’t head here expecting an array of water-based sports, because there just aren’t any at all.
To better appreciate and enjoy your journey to Tortuguero, it helps to really understand the uniqueness of this place. If you’re an adventure seeker who doesn’t mind foregoing some creature comforts in order to really immerse yourself in pristine nature (something which isn’t a given everywhere, nowadays) then Tortuguero is for you. If you know that the Limon coast is volcanic and doesn’t boast the ‘dreamy blinding white sands’ of the Pacific, then you will also not be disappointed. Tortuguero isn’t for beach bumming, it’s for those looking for a truly immersive wilderness experience. If you’re a lover of raw wilderness and the excitement of never really knowing what wildlife you’ll see; if you love bird-watching and just want to get away from it all (modernity included) then Tortuguero will definitely tick all your boxes. Want to experience Costa Rican eco-tourism at its very best? Then Tortuguero it is!
Now, having said all that, don’t go imagining a torturous experience! There may not be many gorgeous eco-lodges in Tortuguero, but there are certainly enough to find the one that suits you best. We’ve homed in on the four best Tortuguero hotels that we think suit our clientele best and if you’re dreaming of an unforgettable adventure vacation in Costa Rica, be it for your honeymoon, family or solo trip, we know you’ll find your personal gem among these four excellent options.
Pack accordingly for Tortuguero
Boat travel to and through Tortuguero will greatly limit your luggage capacity so if you’re planning on this being a side trip in Costa Rica, you’ll have to organize luggage storage somewhere else, with the most convenient place being the capital given that’s probably where you’ll be arriving.
At Costa Rica Rios, we can help you plan a unique and memorable adventure vacation in Tortuguero and all over Costa Rica. We run award-winning multi-adventure tours for honeymooners, families and solo travelers. This is our home and our favorite playground and after decades om the business, we’ve perfected the art of planning tailor-made and group tours that soak up the very best this magnificent country has to offer.
So why not come discover Costa Rica with us? See our most popular adventure vacation packages and contact us to know more.