If you are visiting Tortuguero in the northeastern corner of Costa Rica, you will notice that the landscape is very flat and wet. Tortuguero, after all, is in the middle of the wetlands. But there is one place to dry your feet, catch a breeze, and get an amazing view. Cerro Tortuguero has a short hiking trail that leads to a gorgeous viewpoint and some awesome wildlife along the way. In this post, we’ll tell you everything you need to plan your visit.
Tortuguero is about a five-hour journey from San Jose. This includes ground transportation and a water taxi. Some travelers also choose to fly into the local airstrip, which takes about 40 minutes from San Jose.
About Cerro Tortuguero
Measuring just 390 feet (119 meters) tall, Cerro Tortuguero is the highest point along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. It was formed as a small volcano almost two million years ago. Now completely dormant, Cerro Tortuguero is covered in thick greenery.
The hill is part of the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado). This conservation area protects an impressive 200,592 acres (81,177 hectares) of wetland, mangrove, beach, and forest habitat.
The Cerro Tortuguero sector of Barra del Colorado also borders the neighboring and equally important Tortuguero National Park.
What makes Cerro Tortuguero so special for visitors is the view from the top. There is a sea of trees as far as the eye can see.
Visiting Cerro Tortuguero
Tortuguero has no roads so everyone gets around locally by boat, bicycle, or walking. Cerro Tortuguero is best accessed by boat. It is about a 10 minute boat ride from the village and nearby hotels.
We’ll cover more specifics about how to get to Cerro Tortuguero below.
The most important thing to know is that you need to get tickets to visit Cerro Tortuguero in advance. These are easily purchased through the national park system’s website. Unfortunately, you cannot pay at the ranger station. We have heard that visitors without tickets are turned away. We’ll cover how to buy tickets below.
Cerro Tortuguero Trail
From the ranger station, an elevated trail meanders through the steamy rainforest then up a large set of stairs to the viewpoint.
The trail is approximately 1.25 km (0.78 miles) each way or 2.5 km (1.5 miles) total there and back. Everything is flat except for the stairs.
Because the trail is raised off the ground, you don’t have to worry about navigating the swampy terrain below. This allows you to really enjoy the surrounding jungle and wildlife.
Plants & Wildlife
Along the trail, we saw massive canopy trees, spikey palms, fallen mossy logs, and a variety of unique flowers and bushes.
Some of the cool creatures we came across were a basilisk lizard, whiptail lizards, golden-orb spiders, hummingbirds, butterflies, beetles, and dozens of tiny blue-jean poison dart frogs.
In the trees above, we also saw three different types of monkeys. We were lucky enough to see a large family of spider monkeys up close (somewhat rare), and white-faced and howler monkeys farther away in the high branches.
One unique feature along the trail was a shallow cave on the side of the rocky hill. This had its own observation area where you can watch some small bats moving around within the cave. There was a large sign describing their behavior.
Costa Rica has over 100 different bat species, and although we couldn’t tell exactly what type these ones were, we think they were long-nosed bats.
The highlight of the Cerro Tortuguero hike is getting to the expansive viewpoint. To do this, you have to go up over 400 steps to the top. The stairway is very nice, with consistently sized steps, terraces, and sturdy metal handrails.
Making it to the summit is well worth the effort. From the top of Cerro Tortuguero, you can see to your left the long Caribbean coastline where turtles come to nest. Below is the calm lagoon/canal and tiny towns of Tortuguero and San Francisco.
But the most dramatic moment is looking to the south and seeing a complete sea of green trees. This gives a true sense of how remote and wild this area is.
Planning Your Visit to Cerro Tortuguero
Getting There – Entrances
It is important to know that Cerro Tortuguero has more than one entrance. The main entrance and ranger station is located on a narrow canal/river just northwest of the town of San Francisco de Tortuguero.
There is another entrance to the northeast of San Francisco along the wider Tortuguero Lagoon, which is closer to the airport and beach. This entrance does not have facilities, but you can still access the entire trail and visit the ranger station from the drop off point.
Which entrance you use depends on where your lodge is located.
Access From Tortuguero Village
If you are staying right in Tortuguero village, there is a public boat that leaves on a schedule between the main dock (Almond Dock) and the town of San Francisco de Tortuguero (very close to Cerro Tortuguero). This boat also will stop at the entrance to Cerro Tortuguero if you ask the captain. The cost is around 1,000 colones (less than $2) each way. Check at the dock for the latest schedule.
You also can take a boat taxi if the public boat schedule doesn’t work for you. Prices vary by operator but are generally $15-20 each way for a small group. You can tell the boat captain what time you’d like to be picked up.
If you take the boat from Tortuguero village, you’ll be dropped off at the main entrance to Cerro Tortuguero. Here, you’ll find a nice dock and short walkway to the ranger station.
Access from Lodges Outside Town
If you are staying at a lodge north of town, it may make more sense to visit the alternative entrance. Your hotel will help arrange this.
This is the way we accessed Cerro Tortuguero from the Tortuga Lodge, but you may also access it this way from hotels like Mawamba Lodge, Pachira Lodge, La Baula Lodge, Laguna Lodge, etc.
On this side, there is a drop off point near where the lagoon meets the sea. It is roughly halfway down the Cerro Tortuguero main trail, closer to the stairway going up to the top. There was no dock or ranger at this entrance when we visited. This was a little strange, but we figured out later when we came across the ranger station on the other end.
From this entrance, we hiked up to the lookout first, then came back down and explored the rest of the trail over to the ranger station. After, we hiked back to the drop off point on the lagoon to meet our boat.
If you access the trail from this entrance, just have your tickets ready and check in at the ranger station when you get to that point in the hike.
Tickets for Cerro Tortuguero must be purchased in advance through the SINAC (Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservacion de Costa Rica) government website.
First, you’ll need to create an account. There is a button to change the language to English.
After logging in, click Buy on the left, then select Online Reservation.
Next, find the correct national park. You will want to select Parque Nacional Tortuguero – Sector Cerro Tortuguero.
Choose your date and time of visit (under Sector/Schedule).
Select the number of people, adults and children.
On the last page, you will need to fill in everyone’s full names and passport numbers, then enter your credit card information to pay.
Finally, a confirmation document will be emailed to you. Take a screenshot in case you don’t have cell phone service at Cerro Tortuguero.
At the ranger station, you’ll need to show your confirmation.
Do You Need a Guide?
Although the SINAC government website says that a guide is required, one is actually not. We confirmed this with our lodge and checked in at the ranger station with only our tickets.
This is a hike that’s fine to do on your own as it’s well marked, but of course if you’d rather have a guide, one would help you see more wildlife and teach you about the area.
$2 per person foreigners (adults & children)
₡500 per person residents/citizens (adults & children)
Cerro Tortuguero is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The main trail and area around the ranger station may be suitable for those with some limited mobility. The concrete walkways are wide, flat, and even. The main trail does not have railings nor resting benches, however.
The stairway is extensive with over 400 steps. There is, however, a sturdy metal railing and good treads.
Keep in mind that some areas of the trail and stairway may become slippery from wet leaves and algae.
Those using a wheelchair would need to be lifted in and out of the boat, but could definitely use the flat trails.
Cerro Tortuguero is one of our favorite activities in Tortuguero. It was really nice to do a short hike after doing a lot of other tours that didn’t require much exercise. We especially loved the amazing wildlife along the trail. The view of complete green from the top was also memorable. If you are in Tortuguero, definitely make it a stop.
Have a question about visiting Cerro Tortuguero or want to share your experience? Leave us a comment below.
Looking for more information to plan your Tortuguero trip? Check out these posts:
Tortuguero Off the Resort – There are many package vacations that visit Tortuguero but this post will help you get a more local’s experience.
Tortuguero National Park: A Wildlife Hot Spot – From the waterway canals to the forested land trail, Tortuguero National Park stands out as one of Costa Rica’s wildlife gems.
Getting to Tortuguero – Traveling to such a remote spot can be confusing. This post will break down the options.