Last Updated: May 5, 2023
In our last post, Tortuguero Off the Resort, we shared some amazing things to do in Tortuguero and also suggested where to stay and eat. But if you’re planning a trip to this remote Costa Rican village, your biggest concern is probably how to get there. In this post, we’ll take the mystery out of getting to Tortuguero and lay out the two different options.
Tortuguero is no doubt a little hard to access. Sitting all by itself in the northeastern corner of the country and surrounded by swampy mangroves, the village is accessible only by small plane or boat. Although many of the hotel websites will have you believing that you need to book a package to get to Tortuguero, getting there on your own is actually quite easy and inexpensive. Here are your two options:
Option 1: Flying to Tortuguero
Good for: Visitors short on time
Downsides: Cost- this option is more expensive; Safety concerns (see below)
The fastest way to get to Tortuguero is to fly on one of Costa Rica’s domestic carriers. Sansa and Aerobell both make daily flights from the capital of San Jose that will get you to Tortuguero’s small landing strip in 30-60 minutes. From there, it is just a short boat ride to the village center or your lodge. Prices vary by carrier and the time of year, but expect to pay between $70 and $125 per person each way.
We previously really liked domestic flights in Costa Rica and flew on them ourselves. However, in the recent years, there have been some safety concerns about how the industry is regulated and a few tragic crashes. There has also been some reliability issues with some of the carriers. For these reasons, we aren’t currently recommending domestic flights as the best travel option.
Tip: At certain times of year, like during parts of the low season (May through November), only morning flights are available to Tortuguero. This may require you to stay overnight near the San Jose airport on your day of arrival. If you want to make the best out of your time in San Jose, check out our post, How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in San Jose.
Option 2: Tortuguero by Boat
Downside: If driving, your rental car will be unused while in Tortuguero.
A more popular way to travel to Tortuguero is by boat. Even the locals use this method. The boats are long and skinny and generally hold between 10 and 25 passengers. They snake their way from the mainland, going through rivers and canals, to reach Tortuguero. The ride is almost like a tour with breathtaking views of lush rainforest and birds and animals along the banks.
There are two towns on the mainland that provide boat service to Tortuguero, La Pavona and Moin. Which one you choose really depends on where you will be coming from. If you’re coming from San Jose or other inland destinations like La Fortuna, La Pavona is the best option. Moin, on the other hand, is a longer boat ride (3-4 hours), but more convenient for those traveling from Caribbean coast destinations like Cahuita or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
It’s important to note that there are both public and private boats at each location. Hotels and tour groups use the private boats as part of their packages and people who arrive on their own typically use the public boats which keep a set daily schedule.
Tip: Be prepared for rain if you’re taking the public boat taxi. Although they typically have a canopy overhead, you can still get wet if it is pouring, which it often is in this region. Luggage is generally wrapped in a tarp, but a large plastic bag for your suitcase and something watertight for your valuables is recommended. Dry bags like these ones are good for your phone, camera, and other electronics.
Tortuguero via the Boat from La Pavona
Best option if you’re coming from San Jose or inland destinations like La Fortuna
Besides the boat landing in La Pavona, there’s not much else in this small riverside town. The facility, in the middle of farm country, is nice though with a large building that includes an open-air restaurant, small store, bathrooms, and plenty of places to sit. There’s also ample parking at La Pavona if you have a car.
Schedule: Boats depart from La Pavona seven times per day (6:00 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., and 4:30 p.m.). These times are not exact as the boat will wait for the local bus to arrive from San Jose via Cariari before departing. It is best to arrive early to ensure you don’t miss the boat. The trip to Tortuguero takes around 1.5 hours or sometimes more depending on water levels.
Cost: ₡3,000 (around $6) per person, one way. Buy your tickets at the restaurant inside the main building once you arrive. Luggage goes in a separate boat, which follows along, and is paid for separately when you board. We paid ₡1000 (around $2) per bag.
Getting to La Pavona by Bus
Taking the public bus from San Jose is an inexpensive way to reach La Pavona. From the Gran Carib terminal in downtown San Jose, you take a direct bus to Cariari (about 2 hours). Once in Cariari, you can connect with the bus that leaves for La Pavona (about 1.5 hours). The La Pavona bus now leaves from the same station, previously you had to walk a few blocks. As we mentioned above, the boats wait for this bus so don’t worry about being late.
Taking a Shuttle to La Pavona
Private shuttles are one of the easiest ways to get to La Pavona. The cost for these shuttles varies depending on your starting location. As an example, a private shuttle from the San Jose area to La Pavona is around $215 (for up to 4 people). If you need to arrange a private shuttle to La Pavona, you can do so through our Shuttle Booking Page.
Shared shuttle companies don’t typically service the La Pavona Docks but there is one option that leaves San Jose at 5:30 a.m. for $68 per person.
Driving to La Pavona
Arriving to La Pavona by car is a good option if you’d like to keep your rental car for the rest of your time in Costa Rica. It’s an easy drive from San Jose and the cost of parking is reasonable.
Parking: $10 per day. The spaces are covered and the lot is guarded at night but don’t leave any valuables in the car, just in case.
Directions: From San Jose, take Route 32 towards the small city of Guapiles. Slightly east of Guapiles on Route 32, there is a large gas station called Service Centro Santa Clara. Turn left here and drive toward the town of Cariari (north on Route 247, not marked). In about 8 km (5 miles), turn left before the railroad tracks. Drive a few hundred meters/yards and then take a right, crossing the tracks. Continue through some small towns and banana plantations, following signs for Tortuguero. Around the town of Cuatro Esquinas, the road turns to dirt (bumpy but still flat, no 4×4 required). Continue until you see the large parking area and building.
Total drive time from Guapiles to La Pavona is about 1.25 hours.
If you plan to drive and need to rent a car, check out this special discount for our readers to save 10-25%.
Tortuguero via the Boat from Moin
Best option if you’re coming from Puerto Viejo or Cahuita on the Caribbean coast
An alternative to La Pavona are the docks at Moin, just northwest of the city of Limon. This way is more expensive and takes longer but might be more appealing to those traveling to or from the southern Caribbean coast. Moin is a port town and very industrialized, but once you get into the canals, the mangroves and rainforest are pristine. The Moin docks also have secure parking and are accessible by bus or taxi from nearby Limon.
Schedule: Boats generally leave the Moin docks at 10:00 a.m. and the ride through the canals takes about 3.5 hours. We recommend arriving at the docks well before 10:00 a.m. to secure your spot.
Cost: The cost is around $35-50/pp. You may have to negotiate the fare; the more people in your group, the better. Since this route is not as common for the independent traveler as La Pavona, we recommend speaking with your hotel in Tortuguero about booking transportation in advance.
Getting to Moin by Bus
From Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, or other Caribbean destinations, take the bus to Limon. From Limon, there is a local bus that goes to Moin about every half-hour, but we recommend a taxi to the docks (around $10), which is faster and easier.
Shuttles to Moin
Moin is not a common shuttle destination but tour operators and taxi drivers in Caribbean coastal destinations like Cahuita and Puerto Viejo will often be able to help.
Driving to Moin
Parking: Parking is available in the fenced-in lot next to the docks. There is a large gate and 24-hour security guards on duty. As far as we know, the price for parking is negotiable and typically around $5 per day.
Directions: About 7 km (4 miles) west of Limon, look for the exit off Route 32 going toward Moin. Take this road and drive through the industrial area (large oil tanks on your left). Continue about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) until you go under a railroad bridge. Take a left after the railroad bridge and keep straight, passing the main road on your left. Next, take a left on a gravel road leading to a warehouse-like building (if you go over a bridge with water under it, you have gone too far). Go through the gate to access the boat docks. The security guards will show you where to park.
Which route to Tortuguero did you take? Have any updates or experiences to share? Leave us a comment below.
Looking for more information to plan your trip? Check out these articles:
- Packing List: For a general list of what other clothing you should bring as well as essential gear, check out our packing list.
- Money Matters: Wondering what to budget for your trip? Read our Money post for information on how much things costs, currency exchange, and tipping.
- Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before You Go – If you are still on the fence about renting a car, read this for basic driving info.
Last Updated: May 5, 2023