Last Updated: August 22, 2019
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 play host to an amazing diversity of other wildlife. Combine this with a vibrant local culture that is eager to share Tortuguero’s story, beauty, and hope for the future, and you have the makings for a completely authentic experience. There are many vacation packages available to visit Tortuguero, but in this post, we’ll 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. Hotels and restaurants are spread out along the peninsula with a healthy concentration surrounding the paved walkway and nearby boat landing. Others are located off sandy walking paths that weave around homes, the town playground and soccer field, or along 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 recently did get an ATM machine, 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 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 enjoyed 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 since 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 the park’s 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 like we were, you can do both the land and water trails in 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, 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.
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 entrance) on the northern end of town. The museum and short video do a wonderful job explaining how turtles live and breed and tell more about the Conservancy’s efforts. They also teach visitors why Tortuguero Beach is so important to turtle survival and have a small gift shop if you’re looking for a meaningful keepsake. The Center is an ideal activity for both adults and kids.
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 really enjoyed it 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 out on 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.
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. $40-55/night (double occupancy). Check Rates and Availability Here.
La Casona de Tortuguero
This small hostel near the soccer field has 10 simple, but fresh and comfortable rooms. With rooms starting at $25 (double occupancy), La Casona is a great value for the area. Each room comes equipped with hot water and a fan to keep you cool. Most have private baths. Good location in between the main area of town and beach. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Tortuguero Natural B&B
This is another small bed and breakfast just a short walk from the beach and town. Rooms are basic, yet spacious. The biggest draw of Tortuguero Natural is the friendly, welcoming manager who is always willing to help. Private rooms with hot water and fans are around $55/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Cabinas Icaco Tortuguero
We really enjoyed our stay at Cabinas Icaco. For us, it was in the perfect location, right on the Caribbean Sea and just a short 5 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. Some rooms have A/C. $35-50/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Aracari Garden Hostel and Suites
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 2 minute walk to town and the beach. Private rooms $40-50. Dorm beds $13. 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.
If we didn’t have to check out other restaurants, we might have ended up back at Budda Café multiple times. We ate here on our first night in town and the setting along the canal was really tranquil. Everyone, including kids, is sure to find something on the menu, which consists mostly of fresh pasta dishes, tasty pizza, and homemade crepes. Located next to ICE (the electric company) right on the main strip.
Tutti’s is a casual, open-air spot that is best known for its pizza and calzones. It also offers a few typical Costa Rican dishes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). Tutti’s is a good option for a hot day because it gets a nice ocean breeze. The service was very friendly and we saw a lot of locals picking up takeout orders—always a good sign. Located just off the main strip, look for the sign.
We ate at this simple typical soda (Costa Rican restaurant) for breakfast a couple of times 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. Located in a blue building behind the grocery store directly across from the boat landing.
* * *
With Tortuguero’s abundant wildlife and friendly locals, it’s no wonder that this remote village has become one of Costa Rica’s top eco-tourism 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: August 22, 2019
Have you been to Tortuguero? What did you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments below.