Time Lost in Tortuguero
The wooden motorboat chugged along the muddy river through mangrove forest.
I listened to passengers speak in their island dialect
watched the crocodiles laze on the banks
and saw tropical birds fly by.
We were in the Caribbean but I felt deeper in the jungle, like I was in the Amazon.
Our boat docked in a small town beside crates piled with watermelons and green coconuts.
Souvenir shops and guesthouses geared to tourists lined the main street.
I found myself in a bizarre Caribbean Disneyland.
Time to get back into nature, I thought and continued to the National Park.
In my canoe paddling through the canals I entered another world.
Gone were the tourists and motorboats and out came the cicadas humming in the trees.
Surrounding the narrow canals was dense swampland with few wooden houses.
I could hear the sound of their televisions, a strange layer in a place that otherwise seemed to escape time.
Shrieks rang above me as gangs of white faced monkeys, some toting babies on their backs, swung across hanging limbs.
I stopped and watched them joyously continue their marvelous dance, remembering that once upon a time we too were that free.
Back in town I walked to the beach and met a man in a tiger hat selling “Coco Loco” (young coconut with rum inside) to tourists from a cart.
“I make over $1,000 a week selling these,” he said.
Beside him stood a fluffy white husky, looking comically out of place in the Caribbean.
I walked through the town and arrived at what appeared to be a nightclub.
Inside they played melodramatic tunes in Spanish and a few locals danced under the disco ball.
Seeking a different kind of nightlife, I changed into all black and slid on my rubber snake boots.
Feeling much like Catwoman, I followed my guide into the darkness.
He spoke of the evening when a jaguar came onto the beach and killed a turtle as it nested.
I listened, desperately hoping I might see a jaguar, the keeper of the secrets of the universe.
We arrived at the shore and my gaze ascended to the millions of stars.
It was the evening before the new moon and the only light I could see bled across a small corner on the horizon.
My eyes adjusted and I burrowed myself in the sand as alien mounds emerged from the tide.
They crawled toward the jungle, dug holes on the beach, and began to release their perfect white eggs in the nest they had just created.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I observed this ancient animal return from its life at sea and enact its timeless tradition.
Within hours it would leave again, accepting that it would never know what the eggs would come to be.
It would never know if the eggs would be stolen by poachers or eaten by vultures.
It would never know if the eggs would hatch and manage the journey to sea.
It would never know if the tortoise swimming beside it in the ocean was actually one of those eggs.
And even though it would never know, the turtle continued to direct all of its energy towards this miracle of creation.
When it had finished, I watched the turtle swim out to sea.
Out into the vast expansive ocean, with its home on its back.
How to Get to Tortuguero
Reaching Tortuguero is an adventure in its own right. With canals on one side and Caribbean sea on the other, the only way to get into Tortuguero is by boat or plane. There are no cars which enhances the peaceful, natural atmosphere.
$70-$150 each way
The fastest way to get to Tortuguero is to fly from San Jose. Nature Air flies daily at 5:50am and arrives 30 minutes later.
Bus – Boat
Most travelers will take the bus and boat journey either starting in San Jose or the South Caribbean. From San Jose, catch the direct bus from the Gran Caribe terminal to Cariari at 9am (2 hours, $3.50). When you get off in Cariari, walk north to the “old station” and take the 11:30am bus to La Pavona (1 hour, $2). When the bus arrives a boat will be waiting to take passengers on a scenic ride to Tortuguero (1-2 hours, $ 3.20). If you’re coming from the South Caribbean, you will need to take the bus to Limon ($5, departs at least every hour, takes around 2 hours) then catch the boat from the Moin dock (11am and 3pm, $35) to Tortuguero.
Shuttle – Boat
For added convenience and safety, consider spending a bit more and taking Caribe Shuttle from San Jose ($51, 6 hours) or Puerto Viejo ($49, 6 hours) to Tortuguero. They will organize the pick up from your hotel and the boat transfer.
Where to Sleep and Eat in Tortuguero
Tortuguero may be remote, but so many tourists come to see the turtles nesting on the beach that there are plenty of lodging and food options. Most of the eco resorts are outside of the town, a short water taxi away, while guesthouses tend to be in the small, walkable village. You can find some of the least expensive lodging in Costa Rica here with rooms starting as low as $8, unheard of in most tourist destinations in the country. The lodges serve their own food, typically included in the price of the room, and there are some yummy local and international restaurants in town.
Miss Junie’s Lodge
Rooms start at $45 including breakfast
This sweet locally run wooden lodge is right in town and a great value. The rooms are clean and cozy and the onsite restaurant serves a great variety of Caribbean food.
Cabinas Balcon del Mar
Rooms start at $8 per person
Like the name suggests, these basic cabinas have ocean views and are right across from the beach. The local staff is very friendly and the price couldn’t be better.
The Pacuare Nature Reserve
$105 – $120/night per person for private house includes 3 meals per day, $30 per day for volunteers
To experience Tortuguero up close and personal, consider staying at The Pacuare Nature Reserve or volunteering to help them protect the national park’s wildlife and habitat. Visitors will be able to explore the surrounding reserve and join tours in Tortuguero. Volunteers will have the priceless experience of educating local children on the importance of turtle conservation and assisting the night patrol during turtle hatchings.
Packages start at $588 per person for 3 day/2 night all inclusive package
This beautiful lodge sits on the river a short walk from town and is surrounded by incredible wildlife and gardens. Most packages include transport to and from Tortuguero, meals, and tour options.
$7 for appetizers, $20 for mains
With some of the most innovative cuisine in the country, it’s no wonder Wild Ginger is the most popular restaurant for tourists in Tortuguero. Make sure to stop in and try the lobster with ginger sauce and the special hummus made from local pejibaje, a special protein rich Costa Rican fruit. Pop into their bakery on the river for a smoothie or a sweet treat.
Soda Dona Maria
$5 local plates
Have an authentic local experience and take a seat at this teeny restaurant connected to an old Caribbean house. Order the typical Caribbean plate and you won’t be disappointed.
$7-20 for lunch and dinner
When you need a break from rice and beans, head to Buddha Cafe for Mediterranean dishes like carpaccio and pizza. The location is prime with views right along the river.
What to Do in Tortuguero
See the Turtles
The main attraction for most travelers coming to Tortuguero is to see the turtles nesting or hatching. Nesting season runs from April through October, hatching season from November until early January. You must go with a guide and you can book a tour through most hotels. Tours run in the evening, either at 8pm or 10pm and last two hours. Cameras are prohibited and you must wear dark clothing.
A great way to see wildlife is on a boat tour of the national park through the canals. Your tour guide will point out many species of birds, monkeys, caymans, and if you’re lucky crocodiles and wild cats. For a real treat, go on a canal tour at night to see nocturnal wildlife.
Rent a Kayak
Many lodges have free kayaks for guests and in the town you will find tour operators renting them. Kayaking is a great way to explore the canals and look for wildlife at your own pace.
In the national park you can take the Gavilan Trail that loops in less than two miles without a guide. Be sure to bring rubber boots since there may be snakes. Another great hiking option is to climb to the tallest point in the Caribbean, Tortuguero Hill. The hike takes around 2 hours and has sweeping views of the national park. To reach the entrance you will need to take a 10 minute boat ride from Tortuguero. The trails can be difficult to find so you may want to hire a guide in town or just pick one up at the trailhead.
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Want to create your own magical trip to Costa Rica? Check out my eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica!