Costa Rica’s Tortuguero is a bit of a strange brew. Like straight black coffee short of sugar or milk, it is either loved by many for its distinctiveness or merely put up with by others. Just as those who appreciate coffee for its natural flavour loathe the idea of tainting its origins with sweet and creamy add-ins, and others who can’t stand the bitterness of java need something more to enjoy the treat, travellers who include Tortuguero on their trip itinerary tend to fall into one of two very different groups: the appreciative adorers or the uninterested tolerant.
Ricky and I fall into the first category. This comes as no surprise to most I’m sure, as our love for nature is more than obvious throughout our writings on our Costa Rica Travel Blog. We realize that we too are a strange brew ourselves, in that the details we search the country for and get excited about are more often than not those that the majority of travellers would be less than impressed by. For this reason, we have come to understand Tortuguero as a place that can offer a lot… to a particular kind of traveller.
OUR TORTUGUERO EXPERIENCE
Our most recent visit to Tortuguero was guided by Exploradores Outdoors – an outfitter we are proud to call our business partners and friends. We have referred to them on our blog before (see Our Costa Rican Hotel, Tour Operator, And Transportation Service Provider Partners Are Awesome. Here’s Why We Think So…We’re Sure You’ll Agree, Rafting & Kayaking In Costa Rica – Pacuare River Tour, and/or The Most Time And Cost Efficient Way To Visit Tortuguero And Raft The Pacuare River During Your Time In Costa Rica – Part 1 for more information) and combined, Ricky and I have over 12 years experience collaborating with them for work in a variety of ways. Their owners are members of a humble family, which is incredibly important to us given that we aim to support individuals and corporations with admirable attitudes, work ethics, and ideas regarding customer service. Our official tour guide Vivi (Viviana) was friendly and knowledgeable. Much like the “river guide camaraderie” that we explained exists in and around the Tres Equis region of Costa Rica in our blog post The Pacuare River Family, it is no surprise that our Tortuguero guide demonstrated similar qualities and an equal amount of pride in her work given that she grew up not far from Tres Equis herself. Throw in the fact that Ricky has known her for years, and not only was I reminded of the small world we all live in, but I am convinced that Ricky knows each and every Tico in this country because that we cannot go anywhere without him recognizing an old acquaintance or vice versa. 🙂
Our visit to Tortuguero included accommodations at La Baula Lodge, all meals, ground and boat transportation into and out of Tortuguero (via Cano Blanco), guided canal tours, free time to explore Tortuguero village, and a walking tour of the Tortuguero National Park (for more information regarding the official tour description, see the 2-Day / 1-Night Tortuguero Tour). Beyond the tour operator’s official tour description, here’s what we experienced:
- Breakfast at the Exploradores Outdoors’ Exploration Center in Siquirres [approximately 8:30am-9:30am]
- Ground Transportation from Siquirres to Cano Blanco (Exploradores Outdoors also offers complimentary pick-up services in La Fortuna/Arenal, Sarapiqui, San Jose, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo – given that we live in the Turrialba region of the country, we opted to drive ourselves to their base in Siquirres) [approximately 9:30am-11:30am, including a stop at the Del Monte Banana Plant partway for approximately 20-30 minutes to rest, stretch, and take photos]
- A bathroom break (time to rest, stretch, and/or buy a snack) at a small restaurant/bar in Cano Blanco [approximately 11:30am-12:00pm]
- Boat transportation (in a covered, flat-bottom, speedboat) from Cano Blanco to La Baula Lodge (including a canal tour along the way) [approximately 12:00pm-1:15pm]
- Buffet lunch at La Baula Lodge [approximately 1:15pm-2:00pm]
- Check-in at La Baula Lodge and free time to unpack/settle into our rooms (La Baula Lodge offers basic but clean, safe, and affordable accommodations) [approximately 2:00pm-3:55pm]
- Boat transportation from La Baula Lodge to Tortuguero Village [approximately 3:55pm-4:00pm]
- A brief tour of the Tortuguero Village (including a visit to the Sea Turtle Conservatory and beach) and free time to walk the main strip of town, shop, etc. [approximately 4:00pm-5:30pm]
- Boat transportation from Tortuguero Village to La Baula Lodge [approximately 5:30pm-5:35pm]
- Free time to relax, swim at the hotel’s pool, or take advantage of Happy Hour at the hotel’s bar [approximately 5:35pm-7:00pm]
- Buffer dinner at La Baula Lodge [approximately 7:00pm-7:45pm]
- Free evening to be spent on-site at the hotel’s property (or to participate in a turtle nesting tour, depending on the season) and overnight stay
- Early morning optional/free canal tour (the early morning start time is ideal for wildlife-spotting) [5:40am-7:00am]
- Buffet breakfast at La Baula Lodge [approximately 7:00am-7:45am]
- Free time to relax and/or prepare for the day’s activities [approximately 7:45am-8:30am]
- Tortuguero National Park hiking/walking tour [approximately 8:30am-10:00am]
- Free time to relax and/or swim at the hotel’s pool [approximately 10:00am-11:00am]
- Check-out at La Baula Lodge and boat transportation (in a covered, flat-bottom, speedboat) from La Baula Lodge to Cano Blanco [approximately 11:00am-12:15pm]
- Brief bathroom break (stretch and/or buy a snack) at a small restaurant/bar in Cano Blanco [approximately 12:15pm-12:30pm]
- Ground Transportation from Siquirres to Cano Blanco [approximately 12:30pm-2:00pm]
- Lunch at the Exploradores Outdoors’ Exploration Center in Siquirres [approximately 2:00pm-2:45pm]
- Ground Transportation from Siquirres to final destination (Exploradores Outdoors offers complimentary drop-off services in La Fortuna/Arenal, Sarapiqui, San Jose, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo)
Note: Tortuguero’s National Park can be accessed on foot (via the entrance at the end of the main road in Tortuguero Village) or by boat (via the entrance at the canal ranger station). In the event of significant rain, the guided hiking/walking tour of the Tortuguero National Park may be changed to a guided boat canal tour of the Tortuguero National Park (this is because the Tortuguero region is flat and can flood easily, including the pathway through the national park). When it is not possible (or advised) to tour the national park on foot, the hiking/walking tour is removed from the above itinerary and instead the early morning optional/free canal tour is lengthened by an extra hour to account for the additional time required to tour the canals located inside the national park. The morning section of the above itinerary would then change to the following:
- Early morning optional/free canal tour (the early morning start time is ideal for wildlife-spotting) [5:40am-8:00am] *extra hour added to tour the national park via boat*
- Buffet breakfast at La Baula Lodge [approximately 8:00am-8:45am]
- Free time to relax and/or swim at the hotel’s pool [approximately 8:45am-11:00am]
Exploradores Outdoors’ Tortuguero tour option aside, the majority of other tour operators and Tortuguero hotels provide similar itineraries that offer transportation (ground and boat) to/from Tortuguero and Cano Blanco (or La Pavona, an alternative dock sometimes used), hotel accommodation, meals, and canal tours. Since the majority of transportation services and tour experiences are the same, variety in Tortuguero is found in its accommodations (which range in quality from economy to superior). In envisioning the area, imagine two thin stretches of land parallel to one another. Some hotels (including Laguna Lodge and Mawamba Lodge to name a few) are located on the outside strip of land that borders the Caribbean Sea and the Tortuguero Canal. Other hotels (including La Baula Lodge, as described above) are located on the inside strip of land that borders Tortuguero canals on either side. Do either stretches of land offer an advantage or a disadvantage to travellers? Not really, as breathtaking views (either of the sea or the canals), sunrises, and sunsets can be seen from either side. Some travellers will argue that choosing a hotel located on the outside strip is best as you can walk to the Tortuguero Village and are situated on the beach. Others (including myself) do not see this as an advantage (nor a disadvantage) at all. The Tortuguero Village is small, not overly clean, and doesn’t offer too much to travellers beyond a handful of small supermarkets, restaurants, bars, and shops that serve its town residents. Unlike other coastal areas of Costa Rica where we understand a traveller’s interest in selecting an accommodation within walking distance to a town’s center for convenience and exploration purposes, with respect to Tortuguero, we wouldn’t count a hotel’s close proximity to the village as a reason to choose it over any other (most Tortuguero guests visit the village once during their time in the region as part of their hotel/tour operator’s organized village tour and spend the rest of their time on-site at their hotel’s property or else touring the canals/national park). As for the beach, Tortuguero is not a typical coastal destination calling on travellers to swim and sunbathe. There is water and sand, yes, but also sharks and crocodiles. The beach itself is less than paradise-looking (the sand is black given the area’s nearby underwater volcanoes) and the sea is rough. We do not recommend swimming in the water or even staying on the beach for a long period of time (short of making a quick visit to take photos and cross it off your bucket list). This being said, given what attracts travellers to Tortuguero is its waterway system of canals, natural landscape, and wildlife, any traveller who opts to visit Tortuguero for these reasons likely wouldn’t leave the region disappointed by the beach as they wouldn’t have travelled to the area of the country for that experience in the first place. 🙂
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN VISITING TORTUGUERO
Note: some of the below points may appear on both the positive and negative considerations list. Remember that many people see the glass as half full, just as others see the glass as half empty. How do you see it?
The following are what the majority of travellers consider to be positive considerations:
- Tortuguero’s closeness to nature and variety of flora
- Tortuguero’s wildlife-spotting opportunities
- The variety of transportation types used to get to and from Tortuguero (ground transportation and boat transportation – some people like the experience of travelling by boat)
- The multiple opportunities to relax that Tortuguero tours offer (some people love the “down time”)
- The low level of activity/walking required by the majority of Tortuguero tours
- The slow pace of trip itinerary
The following are what the majority of travellers consider to be negative considerations:
- The variety of transportation types used to get to and from Tortuguero (ground transportation and boat transportation – some people hate the experience of travelling by boat)
- Travel duration to and from Tortuguero (Tortuguero is an approximate 4.5 hour one-way combined ground/boat transportation service from San Jose and/or Puerto Viejo, and an approximate 5.5 hour combined ground/boat transportation service from La Fortuna/Arenal)
- Often bumpy/uncomfortable road conditions for part of the ground transportation route (primarily the section of road between Siquirres and Cano Blanco)
- Early morning departures (to and from Tortuguero) and early morning tour start times (once in Tortuguero)
- The multiple opportunities to relax that Tortuguero tours offer (some people hate the “down time” and would prefer a more active itinerary including thrilling adventure activities)
- The traveller’s inability to do and see a lot in a relatively short period of time
IS TORTUGUERO WORTH A VISIT?
Before considering whether or not Tortuguero is worth a visit, outline your priorities. Be honest about what is most important to you. Tortuguero visits require long travel days, moderately uncomfortable ground transportation (sections on bumpy roads), early morning departures/tour starts, and hot temperatures. It is also not an overly developed tourist area (in that there is not an abundance of things to do in the region) despite being a popular tourist destination, so “down time” is as much a part of the Tortuguero experience as adrenaline-inducing activities are to the La Fortuna/Arenal experience or beach-hopping is to the Guanacaste experience. This being said, if it is not adventure activities or sunbathing that you are looking for, rather a slow-paced, nature-fueled visit to one of Costa Rica’s most unique areas (where some of its most precious species of wildlife and birds can be seen), than not only would Tortuguero be a great place for you to visit, but it would likely be our best recommendation.
Without attempting to define and therefore limit the ideal Tortuguero visitor too much, the following is our breakdown of who should visit Tortuguero versus who may prefer to spend their vacation time exploring other areas of the country.
WHO SHOULD VISIT TORTUGUERO
We would recommend you plan to add Tortuguero to your Costa Rica trip itinerary if…
- You love nature! Simply put, Tortuguero is one of the best places in Costa Rica to not only experience a different type of ecosystem than those offered in other areas of the country, but to literally immerse yourself in it (by floating down a narrow canal with forest all around you)
- You are most interested in spotting wildlife, but also understand that this can never be guaranteed (ie. you will enjoy the spotting process despite not being able to see a particular species of wildlife that interests you the day of your visit)
- You are interested in birdwatching
- You are interested in turtle nesting (and plan to visit during Tortuguero’s turtle nesting season) or sea turtles in general (information about sea turtles in Tortuguero is available year-round)
- You do not require a high degree of stimulation, action, adventure, or movement to stay interested (ie. you do not bore easily and/or feel nature is exciting enough!)
- You wouldn’t mind the transportation (4.5+ hours each way) to and from the area as your interest in Tortuguero (including its natural landscape and wildlife-spotting potential) is well worth the trip
- You are looking to visit an area that is not overly developed, is slow-paced, and offers a tour experience that includes lots of “down time”
- You are looking to visit an area that includes tours that do not require a lot of physical activity (including strength, endurance, and/or mobility)
WHO SHOULD SKIP TORTUGUERO IN FAVOUR OF OTHER AREAS OF THE COUNTRY
We would recommend you focus your attention on other popular Costa Rica destinations (skipping Tortuguero) if…
- You can’t stand to be in a transport vehicle for longer than 4.5+ hours each way (note: the transportation is not non-stop as a break and a meal are provided partway)
- You have a fear of (or you simply don’t like) boats
- You have a limited amount of vacation time and are looking to fill your mornings, afternoons, and evenings with as much as you can to make the most of your time in the country
- You are most interested in active, adrenaline-inducing adventure activities/tours (or you require such to stay interested and not get bored)
- You are not overly interested in nature (ie. floating through waterway canals, taking in the surrounding forest landscape, and/or listening to your guide talk about the flora/fauna in the area would bore you)
- You are only interested in seeing wildlife and require this to be guaranteed in order to be satisfied (this can never be guaranteed, so for those who are only interested in visiting Tortuguero for its wildlife, if you feel you would be disappointed by the trip if/when particular wildlife is not seen, we would recommend skipping the trip to Tortuguero and instead participating in a safari float tour, mangrove boat tour, or wildlife refuge boat tour in another area of the country)
- You are not interested in birdwatching
- You are not interested in turtle nesting or sea turtles in general, OR you are interested in Tortuguero only for the turtle nesting but plan to visit during the off-season (when turtles/eggs are not visible)
IS TORTUGUERO WORTH A VISIT WHEN THERE AREN’T ANY TURTLES?
If you are asking yourself the above question, you are not alone. Virtually every traveller we hear from (who is considering adding Tortuguero to their trip itinerary during the off-turtle season) asks us the same thing: “Is Tortuguero worth a visit when there aren’t any turtles?” Our answer to this question is the same as that we offer to travellers who ask us if the area of Tortuguero in general is worth a visit. As we outline above, there are many factors that attract (and deter) travellers from visiting Tortuguero, and these factors remain the same year-round. For those who have a particular interest in sea turtles, we recommend visiting Tortuguero as it is one of the best areas in the country offering arribadas (turtles nesting sessions), so long as you plan to visit during a time of year when female turtles lay their eggs (this varies across turtle species). If you are not able to visit at such a time, then we invite you to familiarize yourself with our recommendations above under the headings: Who Should Visit Tortuguero and Who Should Skip Tortuguero In Favour Of Other Areas Of The Country. When viewing the sea turtles is not an option given your travel dates (or doing so simply does not interest you), than the decision must be made according to different criteria, such as that we outline above. If you determine that you fit neatly into the Who Should Visit Tortuguero category, then you will likely enjoy your time in Tortuguero regardless of whether any turtles or their eggs can be seen. Alternatively, if the Who Should Skip Tortuguero In Favour Of Other Areas Of The Country section of this post describes you best, then Tortuguero, with or without the turtles, may not be your smartest destination choice.
TIPS FOR THOSE ALREADY PLANNING TO VISIT TORTUGUERO
Have you already added Tortuguero to your trip itinerary great? Regardless of which company you booked your tour through or which hotel you plan to stay at, familiarize yourself with our general recommendations below:
- Bring sunscreen. Tortuguero is hot!
- Bring repellent. The mosquitoes can be horrendous, depending on the traveller (some seem to get bitten often while others are never bothered). It is better to be safe than sorry. We applied our repellent the moment we got to the dock in Cano Blanco so we wouldn’t have a problem during the boat ride in to Tortuguero.
- Bring plenty of snacks. Meals tend to be scheduled by the hotels at particular times of day, and given that Tortuguero visits typically include a lot of down time, if you get hungry outside of the hotel’s serving hours you’ll be out of luck. Pack plenty of snacks for the ground and boat transfers into and out of Tortuguero, as well as for your free time at the hotel.
- Bring only a small bag with your Tortuguero necessities with you (ie. clothing and toiletries for your time in Tortuguero, sunscreen, insect repellent, hat, bathing suit, money, identification, camera, binoculars, and any medication you will need). Most boats travelling to/from Tortuguero will only allow each traveller to board with a maximum of 25lbs of luggage (the equivalent of a carry-on suitcase). You will not be able to bring all of your Costa Rica luggage with you if your have multiple suitcases (or one large one). Depending on the tour operator you booked through, they may offer lockers or a method of securing your supplementary luggage for you while you are in Tortuguero.
- Bring all of the money you will need with you to Tortuguero (banks and ATMs are not available in Tortuguero directly).
- Don’t go anywhere alone or walk without a trusted guide after dark.
- Don’t swim in the Caribbean sea or sunbathe on the beach (as noted above, the waters are rough and sharks/crocodiles are a reality).
- Don’t opt to drive yourself to/from Tortuguero. There are no cars in Tortuguero given that the only mode of transportation into and out of the region is boat. All rental vehicles must be left at the dock. Neither the Cano Blanco or La Pavona dock areas are overly safe and we do not recommend leaving a rental vehicle in either of these unattended and insecure areas. In addition, travelling between the dock and Tortuguero on your own (via a hired boat taxi) is not advised. There have been reports of armed robberies (both of ground transportation vehicles and boat taxis) to/from Tortuguero, primarily via the La Pavona route. If/when you need to travel to/from Tortuguero on your own via a rental car, please make arrangements to follow behind a tour operator’s transport vehicle both to and from Tortuguero so you are not making either trip by yourself. From our experience, we have learned that the few travellers we have come across who have opted to use their own rental vehicle to get to/from the dock (and then hire a water taxi to get to/from Tortuguero) do so with the intention of saving money. In our opinion given the risk, the cost of organized tour packages put forth by reputable tour operators and hotels is well worth the minimization of encountering problems en route (in addition to other amenities and benefits). Your safety is never worth sacrificing, no matter the difference in cost.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you been to Tortuguero? What did you think/see/do?