This is one of the few Costa Rican National Parks where walking quietly isn’t necessarily the best way to see things. The marked trail along the beach is used mostly for observing turtle nesting, but the best way to see most of the park is from a boat. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a workout while nature watching; there are plenty of places to rent canoes and kayaks (cayucas or botes).
The area protected by Tortuguero (turtle catcher) National Park was an archipelago of volcanic islands until alluvial sediments from the interior mountains filled in the spaces and formed a network of marshy islands.
Sand piled up where the river deposited land met the sea, and the turtle nesting beaches of Tortuguero formed.
The exceptionally high rainfall, and rich environment where the freshwater meets the sea makes the beaches, canals, lagoons and wetlands of Tortuguero areas of exceptional biodiversity and opportunity for nature lovers.
The Sea Turtles of Tortuguero
The main attraction of Tortuguero National Park is the turtles. Green Sea Turtles (tortuga Verde, Chelonia mydas mydas ), leatherback (tortuga Baula, Dermochelys coriacea), and Hawksbill (tortuga Carey, Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles nest on the beaches here. Green Sea Turtles neared extinction due to hunting of the adults for meat (they are easy prey when they mass to nest) for turtle soup, and poaching of eggs for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities.
Dr. Archie Carr of the University of Florida formed the Caribbean Conservation Corporation in 1959 to study and protect sea turtles, and the turtle-tagging program he began at Tortuguero in 1955 continues today.
It’s possible to see stragglers laying eggs during the day, but the majority of the arrivals occur at night. You will need a guide to visit the beaches at night (no one is allowed on the beach unaccompanied after 6:00 pm). For independent travelers, this can be arranged through the kiosk in the middle of Tortuguero village or through your hotel.
When you and your guide walk out onto the beach under the starlight to watch the turtles struggle up the beach, dig their nests and lay their eggs, think about their future.
If you are exceptionally lucky, you might chance to see an even more spectacular event, the newly hatched turtles race to the sea. There is some overlap of the nesting and hatching seasons for the different varieties of turtles. The eggs incubate in the warm sand for 7 to 10 weeks before the babies hatch, dig their way to the surface and make the long dark scuttle from the nest well above the high tide mark, across the beach to the surf.
The Canals, Lagoon and Rivers
Sue in a canoe on a Tortuguero sendero acuatico
The extensive network of freshwater creeks and lagoons behind the beaches of Tortuguero are home to seven species of river turtles, Spectacled Caiman, Southern River Otters, a number of crustaceans, and over 50 species of freshwater fish.
If you take a trip on a tour boat, or paddle a canoe through the freshwater canals you are also likely to see Spider, Howler and Capuchin Monkeys and dozens of species of birds. If you are lucky you might spot an endangered West Indian Manatee.
Atlantic Snook and Tarpon are just two of the species that attract anglers from all over the world to this region (no fishing in the park, but the rest of the area is great). A good friend of ours has taken several trips to the Río Parismina Lodge south of the park and counts them among the best experiences of his life.
Getting to Tortuguero
Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge: This Refuge lies just north of Tortuguero National Park and has similar attractions.
The hopping off point for Tortuguero National Park is Tortuguero village where you will find lodging, restaurants, and tour operators. There are no roads to Tortuguero. Access is by boat from Moín near Puerto Limon, or by small plane.
Even if you are an independent traveler you should consider visiting Tortuguero on a tour because of the difficulties associated with making your own arrangements, and limits on the total numbers of night-time beach visitors. It’s also possible that the combined costs of independent arrangements will exceed the cost of a tour.
When to visit
The Green Sea and Hawksbill turtle’s nesting season runs from July to October with the peak in August, and the Leatherback turtles nest from February to April. It is possible to see individual turtles at any time of the year.
The weather in Tortuguero National Park should not be much of a consideration when deciding when to visit.
It rains here all the time, and the peak nesting season is in the rainy season when Caribbean rains can blow in on a north wind and stay for weeks. This is one of the rainiest areas of Costa Rica, and even in the dry season afternoon showers are common.
Use the drop down menu to see weather patterns and other seasonal information for the month you are thinking about visiting the National Park.
In the Region
Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge: Although Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge is quite far inland, it is possible to travel by boat up the San Juan river to the Río Frío and onward to Caño Negro.
The Dr. Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge is named after the father of turtle conservation in Costa Rica and protects a strip of beach north of Tortuguero village near the landing strip.
Quick Facts Tortuguero National Park
The National Park protects 19,000 hectares with elevations from 0 to 390 meters (0 to 1280 feet) at the top of Cerro Tortuguero. The habitats represented here are beach, estuary, marine, freshwater riverine, and tropical lowland rainforest.
Tortuguero was protected as a nesting sanctuary in 1963 and declared a National Park in 1970 largely due to the efforts of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and a turtle biologist named Archie Carr.
Nearly 20 feet (6,000 mm) of rain falls on Tortuguero yearly. Expect rain at any time of the year, but the three wettest months are December, June, and July, and the three driest are February, March and September. Yearly average temperature of 79 °F (26 °C)
The average high and low temperatures for each month in Tortuguero are shown on the left. Average monthly rainfalls for Barra del Colorado (dark blue) and Tortuguero (light blue) are show above right.
Size ~47,000 acres (~19,000 hectares) plus ~129,000 Maritime acres (~ 52,265 hectares)
Common animals – River turtles, Spectacled Caiman, Southern River Otters, a number of crustaceans, over 50 species of freshwater fish, Spider, Howler and Capuchin Monkeys. Hundreds of birds including the endangered Green Macaw, Amazon Kingfishers, Egrets, Herons, Oropendolas, Violet Sabrewings, Toucans, Northern Jacanas, and Sunbitterns.
Common trees – Crabwood, Banak, Santa Baria, Bully tree, Mangroves, Ceiba, and Passion Fruit trees.
Common plants – Aquatic Lilies, Monkey Ladders, Liriums, Heliconias, and wild plantain.
Hawksbill turtles have a natural defense against ending up in turtle soup. Their flesh and skin are highly toxic and no antidote exists.
Green turtles are named for the color of their flesh rather than their shell.
Heliconias are common in Tortuguero. Their flowers look like clusters of lobster claws and are pollinated by hummingbirds.
Ceiba tree’s seeds are encased in fibers called kapok, which is traditionally used to make furniture, cushions.
The number of tourists visiting Tortuguero annually grew from 226 in 1980, to 2,400 in 1987, over 47,000 in 1993 and is expected to be at least double that in the 2004-2005 season.