Located on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park is a wildlife lover’s dream. Cruising through the canals by boat surrounded by lush jungle and birds everywhere, Tortuguero is a real life “jungle cruise” experience and fulfilled my childhood water safari fantasies.
Whether you visit between July and October to witness the sea turtle nesting spectacle, or come to bird watch the unique species found in this area, a visit to Tortuguero is a must when traveling to Costa Rica.
When I was researching before my trip to Costa Rica, I was drawn to the phrase I kept reading about Tortuguero: “The Amazon of Central America”. I have been to the Amazon jungle twice - in Peru and Ecuador - and have loved the magical feeling of being out there in the middle of nowhere. So when I saw Costa Rica had a similar region to the Amazon (in geography and means of transportation - boats!) I knew I had to visit. I am surprised to say that I enjoyed my time in Tortuguero more than the actual Amazon because I saw much more wildlife in Costa Rica. Visiting the park takes a bit of research so here are the main things to know before visiting Tortuguero National Park.
HOW TO GET THERE
Getting to Tortuguero National Park is fairly easy, but it takes a bit of knowledge beforehand if you are figuring it out yourself. If you are going with a tour company and leaving from San Jose, you can probably ignore this section as they will be taking care of that part of the journey for you.
Since no roads lead to Tortuguero, the only ways into the park are by boat or by plane. You can fly in with Costa Rica’s domestic airline SANSA Airlines, which has several departures everyday. It’s a more expensive option but no doubt would be a wild experience.
The main method of transportation into the park is by taking a boat from La Pavona. This is what I did on my trip and would highly recommend doing so if you are visiting on your own. La Pavona has a big parking lot where you can leave your car overnight for a nightly fee of around $7 USD per night.
Upon pulling into the parking lot you are greeted by someone who will ask how many nights you are staying for. You will pay for parking - in cash, so bring Colones or USD - and then they will ask where you are going and if you’d like a public boat or a private boat.
My friend and I were headed to the Mawamba Lodge and opted to take the public boat for $6 USD each one way. They make you pay for the return trip in advance which has boats leaving every 2 hours (7am, 9am, 11am, etc). The public boat was nearly full, but since the boats are fairly small to begin with, it was still a great experience. The public boat drops you off in the town of Tortuguero. From there you can take a water taxi to your lodge, or walk to your accommodation if it is in Tortuguero town. We took a water taxi for about 4 minutes to our lodge at Mawamba. Taking the boat ride into Tortuguero is part of the experience itself as you get your first look into this beautiful habitat by cruising along the water.
Note: They will charge you extra for suitcases or bags they deem as “big bags”, so be prepared to pay a few more dollars in cash while loading onto the boat.
The private boat option was $18 USD each one way and would have dropped us off directly at Mawamba Lodge.
On our return trip we missed the 9am public boat back to La Pavona and didn’t want to wait until 11am for the next boat, so we decided to splurge and pay for a private boat back. The going rate was $60 USD for the two of us, one way. Since our public boat return tickets were already paid for, it was a bit of a pricey mistake. But we felt that it was worth it for us to save 90 minutes of our day since we had plans to drive to La Fortuna that afternoon.
Taking the private boat back was a highlight for us as we got to relax and gaze out over the beautiful scenery with a boat all to ourselves. The best moment came when our driver spotted a crocodile bathing on a log near the shore. He slowed down and took the boat very close to the crocodile so we could get some great photos. A magical way to end our stay in Tortuguero.
Tortuguero offers a variety of lodge-style accommodations that make for a very enjoyable jungle getaway. The town of Tortuguero has a few hostel and smaller hotel options, but my preference and suggestion would be to stay at one of the lodges. Some of the top lodges in Tortuguero are Laguna Lodge, Pachira Lodge, Mawamba Lodge, Evergreen Lodge, Aninga Lodge and the Tortuguero Lodge & Gardens. Most of these lodges will offer their own excursions and have their own restaurants for an all inclusive feel.
I stayed at Mawamba Lodge and really enjoyed my experience there. Mawamba Lodge offered the following excursions: boat tour, canoe tour, kayak tour, night walk, and Cerro Hill hike. I did the boat tour with Mawamba and had an incredible experience and saw a ton of wildlife.
The location of the lodge is great as you are right on the main canal, and you can also walk to the Caribbean beaches on the other side of the hotel. You can also walk a trail from the lodge all the way down to the town of Tortuguero in about 20 minutes.
Breakfast was included with our stay and we also ate all our meals, both lunches and dinners, at the lodge. The food was amazing and some of the best food I had in all of Costa Rica.
The campus of the lodge is beautiful, very well designed, and the rooms were in great shape. I’d highly recommend splurging a bit (it’s still not very expensive for the value!) and stay at the Mawamba Lodge, or one of the similar lodges in the area. These lodges will give you the most comfort while also still being surrounded by the jungle and ocean.
WHAT TO DO IN TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK
Tortuguero National Park is best experienced on the water. Several tour operators in Tortuguero offer excursions as do most of the lodges in the area. If you are staying at a lodge, it probably makes the most sense to organize a tour through them as I found the rates to be about the same as what was offered in town. That way you are also departing from your lodge and saving yourself a trip into the town.
National Park Entrance Tickets
Every time you enter the national park you will have to pay for an entrance fee for that day. The park is also split up into different areas, so make sure you are selecting the correct area before purchasing your ticket. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.sinac.go.cr/ and are about $16.50 USD per person.
My favorite way to explore Tortuguero was by canoe. Here you have a guide navigating the waters (and paddling for you) while also pointing out wildlife. A canoe might take longer to get around than a boat, but it is quieter and can get up closer to the wildlife. The canoe can also get into small waterway offshoots where you can become completely immersed in the jungle. Canoe tours are around $25-$30 USD per person and require a national park entrance fee.
Kayaking is another great way to explore the canals of Tortuguero as you can get right up next to the wildlife. Your guide will have their own kayak and you will be responsible for paddling your own kayak, so be prepared for a workout! I chose canoe over kayaking simply because I wanted to be able to focus on taking photos and videos rather than paddling around, but kayaking would definitely be a fun way to see Tortuguero. Kayaking prices are around $25-$30 USD per person and require a national park entrance fee.
Seeing Tortuguero by boat was one of my favorite things to do while visiting. I was fortunate to go in the late afternoon as part of the Mawamba Lodge tour, and there were only 4 other people on the boat with me. This felt like a private tour as we had a professional guide and a driver who were both pros at spotting wildlife. The advantage of touring by boat is that you can cover a lot of ground quickly. This played to our advantage as we were able to zip around whenever our guide spotted a new animal or bird. I saw a ton of wildlife on this boat tour, and even was able to get extremely close to lots of the wildlife since our driver was very skilled. Prices for boat tours are $30 USD per person and require a national park entrance fee.
Hike Cerro Hill
The best hike in Tortuguero is hiking up to the top of Cerro Hill. Take a short water taxi from Tortuguero, or organize a tour with your lodge or an operator in town if you prefer a guided experience. The trail is very easy to follow and is essentially a wide, winding staircase through the jungle to a viewing platform that overlooks the area. From the top, you can see the Caribbean Sea, the canals, and the town of Tortuguero. It’s also a decent spot for finding wildlife as I saw many monkeys, birds, and spiders. Guided tours are $30 USD per person or you can easily do this on your own for free. You will need the national park entrance fee reserved online in advance.
If you are visiting in the correct season, between July and October, you can be fortunate to witness one of nature’s most beautiful occurrences. Every year tons of sea turtles use Tortuguero as their nesting ground where they will swim up onto the shores and lay their eggs. Later in the season, the babies will hatch and crawl out to sea during the night. Tours are required to walk on the beach and watch this amazing wildlife show.
Explore the Town of Tortuguero
A free and unique activity is visiting the town of Tortuguero. The main port in the area, this Caribbean coast town has a small living population where you can see local schools, churches, and homes. Walk down the main road to see local shops, restaurants, hostels, and souvenir shops. There is a walkway that connects several of the lodges, including Mawamba Lodge, to Tortuguero which can serve for a nice afternoon of exploring the town. Tour operators can be found near the port area where water taxis are waiting to take you around. There is a land entrance to the national park at the edge of the town where you can access the Jaguar Trail.
Hike the Jaguar Trail
Located at the edge of the town of Tortuguero is an entrance to the national park. After showing your proof of ticket purchase, you walk onto a boardwalk that will take you to the start of the Jaguar Trail. The trail takes about 2 hours round trip and takes you through the jungle with a lot of side paths that lead to the beach on the Caribbean sea.
Night walks are always an exciting way to see the jungle. All the creepy crawlers come out at night so be prepared to see things from your nightmares like giant spiders, snakes, and wild looking insects. Then there’s always the exciting chance of seeing a two-toed sloth or the red eyed tree frog. Night walks prices were around $25-$35 USD per person.
For a list of my favorite activities, check out the Top 5 Things to Do in Tortuguero National Park.
The Tortuguero area was crawling with wildlife when I visited there for 2 days in late April. It was my first stop on my road trip around Costa Rica so I was extra excited with every animal that I saw. The first monkeys I saw in Costa Rica were a group of Howler Monkeys while hiking Cerro Hill. Shortly thereafter I saw spider monkeys on the same hike. Although I would go on to see a lot more monkeys on my trip, what really stood out to me in Tortuguero was the incredible amount of wildlife I saw while on the water.
The bird watching in Tortuguero from the water was next level and here are some of the birds I saw while in the area:
-Bare-Throated Tiger Herons
-Great Blue Herons
-Great Tailed Grackles
Other wildlife I saw while in Tortuguero:
-Black River Turtles
-Poison Dart Frog
-Golden Silk Orb Weaver Spiders
As you can see, in just 2 days I was able to see a ton of animals, birds, and reptiles. It may not be a little off the beaten path, but Tortuguero National Park is definitely worth a visit if you are looking for an authentic Costa Rica experience packed with wildlife sightings.