- The Best of Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Top Spots for WIldlife
- Costa Rica’s Most Beautiful Beaches
- Costa Rica’s Best Beaches for Wildlife
- Best Surfing Beaches in Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Unique Retreats & Resorts
- Surf’s Up in Costa Rica
- Off-The-Beaten-Path Eco-Adventures
- Costa Rica Family-Friendly Adventures
- Adrenaline Rush
Somnolent, funky Tortuguero Village (pop. 550), on the northern boundary of Tortuguero National Park, sprawls over a thin strip of land at the northern end of the Canal de Tortuguero and the southern end of Laguna del Tortuguero, at the junction with Laguna Penitencia, a canal that leads to Barra del Colorado.
Laguna del Tortuguero extends north six kilometers to the ocean, where the tannin-stained freshwater pours into the Caribbean; it is lined with nature lodges.
It’s an 80-kilometer, three-hour journey along the Canal de Tortuguero from Moín by high-powered water taxi; by small plane from San José, it’s a 30-minute flight that sets you down on a thin strip of land with the ocean crashing on one side and the lagoon and the jungle on the other (the ocean here is not safe for swimming because of rip currents and the large number of sharks).
The higgledy-piggledy village comprises a warren of narrow sandy trails (there are no roads) lined by rickety wooden houses and, increasingly, more substantial buildings spawned by the tourism boom. The south end of the village is best avoided after dark.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy’s John H. Phipps Biological Field Station (tel. 506/2709-8125, www.conserveturtles.org), about 500 meters north of the village, can be accessed by a trail behind the beach. It features a must-see Natural History Visitor’s Center (tel. 506/2709-8091, 10 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 2–5 p.m. Sun., $1) with turtle exhibits and educational presentations on rainforest ecology, including a video about turtle ecology, and life-size models of turtles hatching and another of a female laying eggs.
The Tortuguero Festival (early Nov.) is a fun-filled, carnival-style event with boat floats.
Tour operators have boomed in recent years: There are now more than 20 small-scale operators, most offering a similar nature-focused menu of canal trips, turtle-watching trips, and rainforest hikes. My favorite is Karla Taylor Martínez, of Karla’s Travel Experience (tel. 506/2262-0383 or 8915-2386, junglegirl73 [at] hotmail [dot] com), for her knowledge, enthusiasm, and presentation.
Ross Ballard, a former field biologist, also specializes in interpretive tours with his Ballard Excursions (tel. 506/2709-8193 or 8320-5232, ballardross1 [at] gmail [dot] com); as does Mauricio Rodríguez Vargas, of Rainforest Life Tours (tel. 506/2763-4072, mauricr86 [at] yahoo [dot] es).
Eddie Brown Sportfishing (tel. 506/2252-4426 or 8834-2221, www.eddiesportfishing.com) operates from Tortuga Lodge using 26- and 28-foot boats with Bimini tops. Rates of $320–395 per fishing day include lodging, all meals, and open bar. He also offers fishing by the hour ($50). Caribbean Fishing (tel. 506/2709-82113) and Caribeño Fishing Tours (tel. 506/2709-8026) also arrange fishing trips.
Yes, even Tortuguero has a zip line! Aerial Trails Tortuguero Canopy (tel. 506/2257-7742), at Evergreen, has 11 platforms and 4 suspension bridges and offers zip-line tours at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily ($35, including transfers). You need to reserve 24 hours ahead.
You can rent hydrabikes (floating pedal-bikes) at Manatu Hotel (tel. 506/2709-8197, $10 for two hours).
Tortuguero Jungle Spa (tel. 506/2256-7080, www.pachiralodge.com), at Pachira Lodge, offers massage and a delectable chocolate body treatment ($95).
Getting to Tortuguero Village
By Air: Both Nature Air and SANSA operate scheduled daily flights between San José and the landing strip four kilometers north of Tortuguero village. SANSA offers a boat transfer to the village.
Costa Rica Expeditions (tel. 506/2257-0766, www.costaricaexpeditions.com) and other tour operators with lodges in Tortuguero operate private charter service; tour members get priority, but you may be able to get a spare seat (about $75 one-way). You can arrange charter flights for about $500 per four- or six-passenger plane, one-way.
By Boat: Locals prefer to use public lanchas (tel./fax 506/2709-8005 in Tortuguero) that leave from La Pavona. To get there, take the 9 a.m. or 10:30 a.m. Empresario Guápileño (tel. 506/2222-2727 or 2710-7780, $2.50) bus to Cariari (15 km northeast of Guápiles) from San José’s Gran Caribe bus terminal (tel. 506/2221-2596). Buses also depart at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m., but won’t get you there in time for the boat; buy your ticket in the Guápiles booth.
Two bus-and-boat companies compete and touts are known to direct you to specific businesses for commission; their information cannot be trusted!
Coopetraca buses leave Cariari for La Pavona from the “old” bus station, five blocks north of the San José terminal, at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. arriving at La Pavona (29 km from Cariari) in time for the early-afternoon boat departures. Buy your boat ticket at La Pavona dock (which has secure parking, $10 nightly) rather than prepaid at the bus station.
Clic Clic competes and is the most trustworthy boat company: Its buses leave from the “new” bus station at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m.; its boats leave at 8 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. daily ($10 pp each way for bus-and-boat).
Return boats depart Tortuguero for La Pavona at 6 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 3 p.m. The route follows the Río Suerte through Tortuguero National Park and can be impassable in extreme high and low waters—you might even have to get out and help push the boat over sandbars, a good reason to choose the least full boat at La Pavona. The quickest way back to San José is to take the early boat, then a direct bus to Guápiles, then a bus to San José.
Public water-taxis and private boats for package-tour groups serve Tortuguero from Caño Blanco Marina (tel. 506/2710-1299, in San José tel. 506/2206-5138), near Barra de Matina Sur. Tour operators in San José will accept reservations for these boat transfers on a space-available basis. A private skipper willing to take individuals without pre-booked group boat transfers can usually also be found here; a private charter to Tortuguero costs about $100 one-way, $180 round-trip per couple. Public water-taxis depart about 10 minutes after the buses arrive.
To get to the marina from San José, take a 9 a.m. bus (buses run 5 a.m.–7 p.m.) from San José’s Gran Caribe bus terminal and get off at Siquirres, from where Hermanos Caño Aguilar (tel. 506/2768-8172) buses depart for Caño Blanco Marina at 4:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Monday–Friday and at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (return buses depart Caño Blanco at 7 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri. and 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sat.–Sun.). Caño Blanco Marina has secure parking, 10 simple cabins with fans ($25 s/d with fan, $30 s/d with a/c), and a restaurant.
Lanchas operated by Empresarios de Transportes Acuático Tortuguero (tel. 506/2709-8005, www.tortuguero-costarica.com), the boatmen’s cooperative, depart Geest for Tortuguero at 3 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; return boats depart Tortuguero at 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. ($10 pp).
Private water-taxis also serve Tortuguero from the JAPDEVA dock in Moín (tel. 506/2795-0066), including Rubén Viajes Bananero (tel. 506/2709-8005, viajesbananero [at] yahoo [dot] com, $35 each way), departing Moín at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. (return departures from Tortuguero at 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.). Francesca and Modesto Watson offer tour packages from Moín aboard the Riverboat Francesca (tel. 506/2226-0986, www.tortuguerocanals.com). Prices for the boat-only transfer are negotiable: Expect to pay $60–80 per person for four people round-trip ($220 for 1–2 people). Its one-night/two-day package is bargain priced ($200 pp including transfers from/to San José, the boat trip, and overnight at Laguna Lodge).
Warning: Touts will flag you down as you approach the JAPDEVA dock. Some touts and boat captains steer visitors toward specific lodgings and guides. Most cannot be relied upon.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition