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Named for the turtles who lay their eggs on its beaches each year, Tortuguero is a magnificent spot for wildlife watching in Costa Rica. Make the most of 24 hours here by exploring Tortuguero National Park and spotting birds and reptiles on a canoe trip through the rainforest.
Located on a sand bar island that lies between the Caribbean Sea and Tortuguero River, Tortuguero National Park is known as the Amazon of Costa Rica, as its unique location, tropical climate and 11 different habitat types give it an astonishing diversity of wildlife.
The village located within the national park is inaccessible by land, meaning the journey to Tortuguero alone is a spectacular experience. The majority of visitors reach the village by boat, traveling through the jungle on the waterways from La Pavona, 20mi (32km) or around an hour’s boat ride away, or Moín, which takes 3.5 hours. Surrounded by the sounds of birds, frogs and other wildlife, this is a particularly atmospheric – and cheaper – way to travel and provides the perfect introduction to the village, especially if you arrive after sunset. Otherwise, flights run from the Costa Rican capital, San José, flying over the region’s mountains, volcanoes and lush landscapes and landing directly on the sand bar.
To really get the best out of a trip to Tortuguero, stay at least two nights to experience its incredible biodiversity by day and night.
Spot wildlife on a canoe cruise through the rainforest
Start the day early with a canoe excursion along the canals that run through the rainforest around Tortuguero. It’s also possible to take kayaks out by yourself, but joining a canoe tour will mean a local guide comes along with you, who can help with identifying wildlife. To support the area’s ecotourism efforts, go for a canoe without a motor, which is quieter and won’t pollute the water.
Some of the wildlife you’re likely to see include caimans and crocodiles floating in the water, green and great blue kingfishers at the water’s edge, cormorants drying their wings, black river turtles relaxing on mangrove branches and iguanas lazing on tree trunks. Your guide will be able to point out species of birds and reptiles and will steer the canoe up close to the animals without disturbing them.
You’ll need to book your tour the night before, either via your accommodation or from one of the many tourism outlets around town. Alternatively, reserve your place in advance via a local company such as Tortuguero Adventures. It’s best to pick up breakfast the night before to enjoy when you wake up – the small shops around town sell fresh tropical fruit.
Pro tip: It rains regularly in Tortuguero, but usually only in short (if heavy) bursts. Most canoe tour companies will provide ponchos for the journey, but it’s worth bringing one with you just in case.
Back on dry land, stop at Donde Richard for a Caribbean lunch
Not far from the ferry terminal, just a short walk along Tortuguero’s main strip, is Caribbean restaurant Donde Richard. It’s housed in a single-story hut painted in green, yellow and red, and wooden bars nailed to a palm tree declare some of the restaurant’s specialties, including rice and beans, whole fish and ceviche. Shelter from the midday sun, and try the grilled fish with plantain, fresh lime and salsa, or Caribbean-style shrimp with pineapple rice. There’s also a list of refreshing drinks.
Fueled up for the afternoon, walk to the Tortuguero National Park
Take the short walk back towards the ferry terminal to the entrance of the Tortuguero National Park. It’s open daily from 8am to 6pm (last entry 4pm) and costs $15 to enter. Hiking trails lead the way through the rainforest, where you can spot a huge variety of wildlife. Look out for sloths slowly making their way along the branches of trees, the brightly colored poison dart frogs hiding out in the undergrowth, or basilisk lizards basking in the sun. There are also three types of monkeys: howler, white-headed capuchins and spider monkeys. Be prepared for the tropical environment by bringing sun protection, a raincoat, mosquito repellent and water. It’s also advisable to wear closed shoes, as the ground can be muddy.
You can easily organize a guided tour of the rainforest in person through tourist operators around town, such as Tortuguero Tours. The density of wildlife is so rich in Tortuguero that even if you walk the trails without a guide, you’re likely to spot an impressive array of creatures. Indeed, there are 60 species of mammals, 111 reptiles and more than 300 types of birds. And even if you don’t, the trees and colorful plants and flowers of the tropical rainforest are worth the walk alone.
Visit the sea turtle conservancy center
Once you’ve completed your loop of the national park, you’ll find yourself back at the entrance, near the Sea Turtle Conservancy Tortuguero Visitor Center, which has been working to help protect the turtles around the area since 1959. Here, you can learn about the lifespan of sea turtles and the routes they follow as they migrate through the seas and oceans throughout the year. Most importantly, the small center details the various threats that sea turtles and their ecosystems face. Although you might not time your visit to coincide with hatching season (from February to April and July to October), turtles can still be seen in the water around Tortuguero year-round.
Stop for dinner with a view
The wooden jetty at Budda Café, with its tiled roof and open sides lined with lantern-style lights, is the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the water. Outside, a blackboard reads, “Don’t worry, don’t stress. You’re on vacation take it easy,” and the laid-back vibe rings true – even in a country known for its relaxed attitude. The menu features largely European-style dishes, all of which are stylishly presented. Choose from garlic prawns, seafood pasta, Greek salad, thin-crust pizzas and more, paired with cold beers and cocktails. Gluten-free and vegetarian options are available.
Spot sea turtles hatching along the nearby beach
Hawksbill and green sea turtles nest on the beaches of Tortuguero between July and October each year, with leatherback turtles nesting between February and April (although these are incredibly rare). During this time, no one is allowed on the beaches alone after 6pm, in order to help protect the endangered species. However, you can book a guide to accompany you to see the turtles for yourself, which is easily organized through your accommodation or a tourism booth in the village.
In the light of the starry sky, watching the female turtles wiggling up the beach before digging a hole to lay eggs is a truly remarkable experience. If you happen to be there on the right date, you might even have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the eggs hatch and the babies scurrying down the sand for their first dip in the sea.
Alternatively, if you arrive outside hatching season, join a night-time safari
If you haven’t seen enough wildlife already, round off your day in Tortuguero with a night-time nature tour. On this walking tour, you’ll have the chance to see the nocturnal creatures that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to spot during daylight hours, as well as sleeping birds, monkeys, sloths, snakes, frogs and insects. Wandering through the rainforest at night provides a completely different perspective, as your group moves in silence, with only the sounds of leaves rustling to accompany your footsteps. Book your tour through an operator in the village, or via your accommodation.
Pro tip: Wear closed shoes while walking in the rainforest at night, and long sleeves and trousers are encouraged to fend off mosquitos. Check whether your tour company provides flashlights; otherwise, you may want to bring your own. Pack a raincoat just in case of showers.