Last Updated: February 14, 2024
In the swampy northeastern corner of Costa Rica is the village of Tortuguero. Named by locals long ago as the place where turtles go, this incredible wildlife destination is one of the most important turtle nesting sites in the world. But as much as Tortuguero is about sea turtles, there is more to this small Caribbean town. Surrounding mangroves, canals, and jungle host an amazing diversity of other wildlife. Combine this with a vibrant local culture that is eager to share Tortuguero’s story, and you have the makings for a completely authentic experience. There are many vacation packages available to visit Tortuguero, but in this post, we focus on helping you create your own unique experience.
Tortuguero village is a community of only about 1,200 people. This small town sits on a skinny peninsula in northeastern Costa Rica with the Caribbean Sea on one side and a wide, jungle-backed canal on the other.
Although technically a beach town, not many people venture into the churning ocean due to frequent riptides. Much more appealing are the tranquil brackish waters on the inland side of town. These canals and rivers weave through the rainforest and connect the village to the mainland by boat.
The village of Tortuguero has one main walkway on the canal side that is paved but with no cars. The only traffic you’ll see are the many bicycles and occasional coconut carts.
Small hotels and restaurants are spread out along the peninsula with many located along the paved walkway and boat landing. Others are set off sandy walking paths that weave around homes, the town playground and soccer field, or the beach. Some lodges are also a short boat ride away, built into the forested banks of the canals.
Tip: Bring a little cash for your trip. While some businesses accept credit cards, many restaurants and some hotels are cash only. Tortuguero does have an ATM machine now, but it’s a good idea to have a small stash as a backup.
Getting to Tortuguero
Since Tortuguero is so remote, it is somewhat difficult to access. That being said, it’s totally worth the effort and you don’t need to sign up for a vacation package to get there.
There are two ways that travelers arrive to the village.
One is by domestic flight on a small plane from San Jose. We aren’t currently recommending small plane flights in Costa Rica due to the unreliability of local airlines. Hopefully more companies will enter the market soon and make this a viable option once again.
But don’t worry, there’s another way to arrive that makes for a very scenic travel day – taking a boat. Boats leave from the towns of La Pavona, Cano Blanco, and Moin. These boats meander along rivers and canals, giving you a chance to see the rainforest and mangroves close up.
Since getting to Tortuguero can be a bit intimidating, we’ve written a separate post. Check out Getting to Tortuguero for all the specifics on flights, boat schedules, directions, parking, etc.
Activities in Tortuguero
Most activities in Tortuguero are focused on seeing the abundant wildlife. In between excursions, though, make sure to spend some time walking around town, meeting the local people, and getting a feel for this tight-knit community.
We actually really enjoy just hanging out on one of the many park benches, eating an ice cream cone, and watching the people come and go in their daily routines.
In addition to immersing yourself in the culture, here are some other popular things to do.
Tortuguero National Park
The main attraction in Tortuguero is the national park. It encompasses both the beach where turtles nest and the rainforest and mangroves where so many other animals can be seen.
There are two main ways to explore the park.
On land, there is a ranger station located at the southern end of town (admission $15), which lets you access the park’s few muddy trails. By boat, you can access four waterway trails, which are basically rivers. Hire a guide to take you or go on your own by renting a kayak. All you have to do is stop by the ranger station dock to pay the entrance fee.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can do both the land and water trails the same day, using the same entrance ticket.
Read our post, Tortuguero National Park: A Wildlife Hot Spot, for more information about planning your visit.
Tip: If this is your first time in Costa Rica, we recommend hiring a guide for the canals. Monkeys, sloths, birds, caiman, lizards, and other intriguing creatures are often hidden in the thick rainforest or camouflaged in the mangroves.
Sea Turtle Watching
Four species of endangered sea turtles instinctively return to the beaches of Tortuguero to lay their eggs. With a 22-mile (35 km) stretch of pristine gray sand, it is the perfect setting for these mysterious creatures.
Turtle watching must be done with a registered guide and tours take place at night when the turtles typically nest (around $20 pp). Some turtle species have such few numbers that on any given night only a handful might come to shore. Since the beach is so long, at slower nesting times it can be difficult to witness these events.
The most abundant nesters are the Atlantic Green Sea Turtles, which arrive between July and October, so visit then for the best chance. More rare are the Leatherback Turtles, giant creatures that can reach up to six feet long and nest in much smaller numbers from March to May.
You also can walk the beach on your own in the early morning hours to see if there are any hatchlings.
For more information on turtle nesting tours, read about our experience in our post, Tortuguero Sea Turtle Nesting Tour.
For a bird’s eye view of the entire area, you can do the short hike up to Cerro Tortuguero. This is a separate national park located a short boat ride away from town.
The boardwalk trail raises you slightly above the ground and meanders through dense, lush rainforest. When we visited, we saw tons of tiny poison dart frogs along this trail as well as spider monkeys. A set of steep steps leads up to the incredible viewpoint.
Getting a boat from town to Cerro Tortuguero is easy. And this activity only takes a couple of hours, making it a great add on one day.
For more information on visiting, including how to get tickets, read our post Cerro Tortuguero: Hike and Viewpoint.
Sea Turtle Conservancy Museum and Visitors Center
Even if you don’t get to see a nesting turtle, you can still learn all about the amazing lifecycle of these creatures.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy, a global conservation organization, has a small but nicely done visitors center ($2.50 entrance) on the northern end of town.
The museum and short video do a good job explaining how turtles live and breed and tell more about the Conservancy’s efforts. They teach visitors why Tortuguero Beach is so important to turtle survival. If you’re looking for a meaningful keepsake, they also have a small gift shop. The center is an ideal activity for both adults and kids.
For more information about visiting the Sea Turtle Conservancy visitor center, read our separate post.
Tip: Plan to spend 2-3 days in Tortuguero. This will allow you to hit all the highlights and get a taste of the local culture without getting bored.
Hotels and Lodges in Tortuguero
There are many different options for lodging in Tortuguero. You can stay either on the peninsula (near or in the village) or at one of the all-inclusive lodges along the canal.
Some guidebooks make it seem like staying in the village is only for backpackers, but we have really enjoyed it in the past and saw many other couples and families there as well.
There are some great restaurants and plenty of local culture in town, which you might miss if all your activities and meals are already planned through a lodge. Of course, there is nothing wrong with an all-inclusive package, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the options for smaller hotels and B&Bs.
Tortuguero Adventures Guesthouse
Tortuguero Adventures Guesthouse is a small hotel located in town near the national park entrance. The rooms are simple, but clean and comfortable and look out to the river. There is a small shared kitchen. The hotel also has a tour business, which makes setting up activities easy. Rooms have a private bathroom and A/C. $80-95/night (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
This popular B&B is located right in the heart of the village. Rooms are simple, but bright, clean, and comfortable. Casa Marbella is a good option for families, with some rooms holding up to five people. Breakfast is served daily on the patio overlooking the river. $40-65/night (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
Cabinas Tortuguero Natural
This is a small bed and breakfast just a short walk from the beach and town. Rooms are basic, yet spacious. The biggest draw of Cabinas Tortuguero Natural is the friendly, welcoming manager who is always willing to help. Private rooms with hot water and fans are around $40-50/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel El Icaco Tortuguero
We have stayed at Hotel El Icaco and enjoyed it. It was in the perfect location, right on the Caribbean Sea and just a short five minute walk to town. Our room was spacious and clean, with a private bath, hot water, and a nice deck. The management took a lot of care in the hotel, with fresh paint all around and clean linens every day of our stay. The small restaurant on-site is a great option for breakfast when you don’t want to venture into town. Hammocks overlooking the sea offer a nice place to relax. Most rooms have A/C. $50-90/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Aracari Garden Hostel
For the shoestring traveler, there’s the popular Aracari Garden. Guests love the fully equipped kitchen, comfy beds, and welcoming atmosphere. This small hostel is just a two minute walk to town and the beach. Dorm beds, $13. Private rooms, $35-50. They also have one Family Apartment with two bedrooms, $95. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Restaurants in Tortuguero
If you’re staying in the village and not at one of the all-inclusive lodges, chances are you will be on your own for most meals. The village is small so of course there aren’t a ton of restaurants, but don’t fret, there are some great options.
Restaurante Mi Nino
One of the most popular restaurants in Tortuguero is Restaurante Mi Nino. This simple restaurant serves traditional Costa Rican food. You’ll find things like casados (traditional lunch plates with a protein, rice and beans, and sides), rice dishes, and patacones, but also Caribbean specialties. The staff is friendly and helpful.
Budda Café has an amazing location right along the canal. It’s a good place to go for drinks to take in the view. For food, they have pasta dishes, tasty pizza, burgers, sandwiches, and homemade crepes.
We ate at this simple typical soda (Costa Rican restaurant) for breakfast a couple of times on one of our visits and loved not only the food, but most of all the hospitality. After graciously agreeing to make us vegetarian omelets, we watched the little boy help mom by walking to the market around the corner to get a tomato and some peppers. A few minutes later and we had delicious veggie omelets made especially for us.
With Tortuguero’s abundant wildlife and friendly locals, it is no wonder that this remote village has become one of Costa Rica’s top ecotourism destinations. Although it may appear easier to just book an all-inclusive package, we hope this post has shown that you can easily plan your own adventure.
Last Updated: February 14, 2024
Have you been to Tortuguero? What did you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments below.
Looking for more information to plan your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Caribbean Cool in Costa Rica – Getting to the beautiful beaches of the southern Caribbean coast is fairly easy from Tortuguero. Our destination guide has lots of tips for visiting.
La Fortuna: What to Expect – La Fortuna/Arenal is a great stop after Tortuguero. Check out our post for recommended lodging and activities.
Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials – Tortuguero is a remote destination so it’s important to bring everything you’ll need with you. Our packing post has all the details.