The Tortuguero National Park is located in the Costa Rican village of Tortuguero on the northern Caribbean coast. It is home to thousands of miles of protected waterways and land that can be accessed by canoe or kayak tours as well as by hiking. This area is also a protected area for green sea turtle nesting.
Continue reading for complete details on how to plan your visit!
Tortuguero National Park Background Info
Starting in the 1920’s the main business in this area was turtle consumption. Turtles were used for their meat, eggs, and even their shells were used to make various wares.
This all changed in the early 1950’s when a zoologist named Dr. Archie Carr from the University of Florida in the United States came to Tortuguero to research the green sea turtles.
Dr. Carr was able to educate the people of Tortuguero on the importance of sea turtle conservation and helped to establish this area as a tourist destination. He convinced the locals that if they protected the turtles and led tours here they could make far more money and do something good for the environment.
The national park was founded in September 1970 and since then it has been modified three times to increase its area.
Personally, I find this all very interesting. If you would like to learn more about how Dr. Carr and subsequent researchers with the help of the local population were able to transform this area, I highly suggest visiting the Sea Turtle Conservancy Center while in Tortuguero.
The area is believed to be home to over 400 species of trees and over 2,000 species of other plants.
Some of the featured species that you may see here include; Green sea turtle, Green Macaw, Caiman, and Black turtles. If you are very lucky you may even spot a jaguar!
The park consists of over 77,000 acres of waterway and land. Of that, 99% is completely protected and only 1% is accessible to visitors.
The area serves as protected nesting beaches for four species of sea turtles: Green, Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Big-headed.
Manatees also find protection here. They are one of the most threatened animals in Costa Rica so their conservation is really important.
The park also serves to protect the jaguar. Tortuguero has one of the largest populations in Costa Rica.
Tortuguero National Park Waterways Tour
Taking a Tortuguero river tour is a must do activity in this area. It is the perfect way to see tons of flora and fauna with an experienced guide.
These tours usually start at 6:00am and last about two hours.
Yes, I know this is super early in the morning. But, this is when the wildlife is the most active. Plus, if you are a light sleeper like I am you will be up at 5:30 anyway when the birds start loudly chirping.
A waterway tour can be done by kayak or canoe. We usually opt for the canoe option if we want to take a lot of photos and the kayak option if we are more interested in enjoying the paddle.
Your tour will be conducted by an experienced local guide. These guides know where all the wildlife hang out (literally “hang out” because you’ll most likely see monkeys). Your guide will take you down several waterways and try to get as close as possible to unique flora and fauna so you can take a lot of pictures.
Some animals your guide may point out to you are river turtles, monkeys, freshwater fish, various species of birds, caimans, river otter, and egrets.
It is a really fun experience!
Booking Your Tour
Tortuguero doesn’t usually get overly full so it is always possible to book your tour last minute through the hotel you are staying at. However, if you would like some reassurance that your tour is set, you can pre-book below.
Keep in mind that most tours do not include the national park admission. You will need to purchase the admission yourself when you enter the park on the morning of your tour. The admission is valid for the entire day, so you can hike on the land portion of the park in the afternoon.
Hiking in the Park
If you opt to do a canoe or kayak trip through the river waterways in the morning it is a good idea to hike in the national park in the afternoon.
As I stated above, you will need to purchase a national park ticket when you go on your morning ride, so it makes sense to do the hike on the same day and get the most out of the ticket you purchased.
Usually, we like to get breakfast after our canoe ride, take a short nap back at our hotel, and then hike through the park.
The hike is flat and manageable for almost all physical levels. The path is mostly well maintained but you might find a few roots sticking up here and there.
The path is technically a loop (or actually more like a square), but every time we have visited the second half of the trail has been closed due to extreme mud.
The first part of the trail is spent walking in from the park entrance in the direction of the beach. Keep in mind that this trail can get very muddy.
You will often see people renting rubber boots near the park entrance. If you are concerned about your footwear or there have been heavy rains recently, we strongly suggest renting a pair.
The second part of the trail runs parallel to the beach and has several small trails leading to the white sand beach.
Keep in mind that this is a turtle nesting beach, so please keep an eye out on where you step. Occasionally you might spot little baby turtles hatching and making their first journey to the water.
From here, the trail loops back to the beginning (if it is not closed due to mud). In total, you can expect to spend about three hours walking and checking out the beach area.
Evening Turtle Tour
If you visit Tortuguero during peak green sea turtle nesting time (July to late September), we definitely suggest taking an evening turtle tour. These tours depart after sunset and are spent on the beach with an experienced guide.
During your tour, your guide will tell you about the history of turtle conservation in Tortuguero and tell you plenty of fun facts about turtles.
Hopefully, you will have the chance to see a few big mom turtles making their way from the ocean up the beach before they dig a hole to deposit their eggs.
Keep in mind that you are not allowed to take pictures or get too close to the turtles. Also, wear comfortable footwear because it will be very dark. Your guide will have a red light flashlight (this doesn’t disturb the turtles) but all other lights are not allowed.
It is usually possible to book your tour at your hotel, but during peak season the tours can book out. If you would like to pre-book, you can do that below.
Practical Information for Tortuguero National Park
The park is open daily from 6:00am until 4:00pm
Costa Rica Nationals and resident adults: ¢1.000
Costa Rica National and resident children: ¢500
Foreign non-resident adults: $15
Foreign non-resident children: $5
Dollars, colones, and credit cards are accepted forms of payment
Next to the ranger station, there is a bathroom, drinking water (but we suggest drinking bottled water here), and an info kiosk.
What to Bring
For the canoe or kayak ride we suggest; a bottle of water, your phone or camera, a waterproof case for your phone or camera (just in case).
For the hike we suggest; at least one bottle of water, a snack, sunscreen, bug spray, your camera, pocket binoculars for spotting wildlife.
What to Wear
For the canoe ride, I suggest wearing a long sleeve shirt over a t-shirt. It can be cool in the morning but warms up fast.
It’s nice to have layers because the sun can be really strong while you are out in the canoe.
If I feel like I’m getting burned I like to have a long sleeve shirt to throw on top.
We usually opt for sports shorts and flip-flops. You won’t likely get wet, but you never know.
Also, wear a hat to protect you from the sun.
For the hike, we suggest having some kind of footwear you do not mind getting wet (like Keen’s). At the beginning of the trail, there is sometimes a lot of mud if there have been heavy rains recently.
We suggest wearing some kind of sports shorts, a t-shirt, and a sun-blocking hat.
Don’t forget your swimsuit if you plan on cooling off in the ocean after!
You first need to get to Tortuguero. This is always a bit of an adventure because the village is only accessible by boat from the village of La Pavona on the mainland.
You can read our complete guide to Tortuguero for more info.
Once you are in Tortuguero, just walk to the most southern part of Tortuguero along the main road through the village and you will come to the entrance point of the national park.
Best Time of Year to Visit
The prime to visit this area is between July and late September. This is when the weather will be dry and hot.
It is also a great time to visit because it is the time of year when the green sea turtles lay their eggs.
Tips for Visiting
– You are not allowed on the beach after 6 pm (when the green sea turtles come to lay their eggs) without a guide and before 6 am.
– Don’t forget to check out our Tortuguero Destination Guide for all the tips on the best hotels, great restaurants. transportation info, and more!
– You should not swim in the river. Locals do, but there are caimans (small crocodiles). I wouldn’t mess with them.
– Keep in mind that the beach is a protected area. Please don’t leave any trash and look out when walking. You don’t want to accidentally step on turtle eggs or a little baby making its way into the ocean.
– We always like to bring a small trash bag and pick up any trash we find during our walk. It is a nice way to help keep the area clear and safe for the turtles.
– If you love turtles and would like to participate in turtle research in Tortuguero, check out the Sea Turtle Conservancy website. Here you can find info about internships and research programs.
– If visiting Tortuguero seems like a lot to plan, it is always possible to organize a vacation package with transportation from San Jose. I have included a few great options below.
What to Do After
Visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy Center
There is a small Sea Turtle Conservancy Visitors Center located in Tortuguero. I strongly suggest visiting.
It is really interesting to read all about the change that the village went through from a place that poached the sea turtle eggs to a village that prides itself in conservation. You can also learn all about the green turtles and their life cycles.
Relax on the Beach
The beaches in Tortuguero are not the nicest in the country, but it is still a nice spot to lounge in the sun and enjoy the lapping water. You can also walk for miles if that is more your speed.
Spend the Afternoon Lounging at Budda Cafe
Budda Cafe is our favorite restaurant in Tortuguero. Most of the tables are set up on the dock with a nice view of the river. It is a great place to get a few cocktails and enjoy some excellent food.
Do you still have some questions about planning your visit to Tortuguero National Park? Leave them in the comment section below and we will help you out as best as we can!