You can drive nearly to the southern park boundary at Caño Blanco Dock, but if you want to visit the main station of Tortuguero National Park and the turtle nesting beaches you’ll arrive by boat or air.
Getting to Tortuguero Beach and National Park
There are four options for arriving by water as shown by the blue launcha routes on the map below (see other boat routes in Costa Rica).
La Pavona – Lodges & Tours, Public Bus & Rental Vehicle Access
Access road shown in green on the map above. If you’re headed to Tortuguero from San José by public transportation this is your best bet. From the Carribeno terminal a direct bus to Guápiles takes about an hour (plus traffic delays of 1-2 hours). From there you can get the local bus to Cariari where you change to a bus that serves the dock at Rancho La Pavona. The total fare for all three buses is about $12.
The public boat is currently ¢1,600 per person ($2.90). There is a separate charge for each piece of luggage
- small hand bag ¢500
- carry on size bag ¢1,000
- standard size suitcase or backpack ¢1,500
- oversize ¢2,000
Collectivio boats to/from Tortuguero are scheduled to reach port the same time as the bus.
|Depart Pavona||Depart Tortuguero|
|7:30 am||5:30 am|
|11:00 am||9:00 am|
|1:00 pm||11:00 am|
|4:30 pm||3:00 pm|
La Pavona is the boat of choice if you’ve rented a four wheel drive. There’s covered parking (~$8 per day) and a restaurant at the dock. There’s absolutely nothing else around, so unless you want to sleep under the shed roof in your car don’t plan on arriving late and taking the boat the next day.
NOTE -Silt accumulation at the mouth of the Río Parismina has made crossing extremely difficult, especially at low tide. This has severely limited access from Caño Blanco and Moín and shifted the commercial traffic to La Pavona as the main route.
Moín – Lodges & Tours, Public Bus & Rental Vehicle Access
Access road shown in purple on the map above. There are a number of private boats for hire here. This is the only dock that can be reached on a paved road (shown in purple on the map above) and enclosed parking is available for $10-$20 per day. Do not leave anything of value in your rental car.
The public bus from San José stops in downtown Limón and you’ll have to catch a cab to the muelle Moín (about $8).
Private boats vary widely in cost and due to the difficulties crossing the Boca Parismina most captains are reluctant to attempt the trip to Tortuguero. The price has increased accordingly from around $150 in 2012 to over $300 at the end of 2016. You can still do a tour of the canals south of the park for around $150 for three hours.
Access road shown in light blue on the map above. Before 2015 this dock was the main one used by lodges and day trips. Silt accumulation at the mouth of the Río Parismina shifted the commercial traffic to La Pavona. Caño Blanco is quiet now serving a few local routes and the leftover infrastructure – cabinas, restaurant and parking – resembles a ghost town.
Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui – Adventurers Only!
Access road shown in black on the map above. This is an epic adventure in transportation and you should probably plan at least two or three days to attempt it.
From Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí there are public water taxis (collectivos) to Trinidad where the Sarapiquí empties into the Río San Juan along the border with Nicaragua. From here the San Juan flows eastward to the Caño Bravo and Barra del Colorado where you can hire private boat to Tortuguero. The schedules are unpredictable in part because of tension along the border (both Costa Rica and Nicaragua have claimed the river as their territory) and in part because this area is really remote and there’s not much demand.
Check locally in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí at the community dock (just drive north/east on the main road through town until it dead ends into the river) where they should be able to give you the latest information on which boats are running when before you set out.
Flying In to Tortuguero
Nature air has daily direct flights from SJO International Airport and in the high season (December through August) operates a connecting flight to Arenal. SANSA has two flights daily from SJO to Tortuguero.
Ticket prices range from $30 (low season economy fare) to $300 (high season “flex” fare) per person one way. Each plane holds between 8 and 18 passengers so a charter flight may be easier and cheaper than finding tickets for a group of 6 or more.
Sea Turtles in Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero is of course best known for the Sea Turtles. Atlantic Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) nest there from June through November and their massive Leatherback cousins (Dermochelys coriacea) nest February through July.
Advance reservations and a certified guide are required to be on the beach inside the National Park (basically anywhere south of the village) after dusk or before dawn during nesting season. Check with your travel service or lodge for tours.
Tortuguero is a beachcombers paradise. You can walk the smooth tan sand literally for miles. In fact, heading south the only things that interrupt fifty miles of playa on the northern Caribbean shore of Costa Rica are river mouths.
Swimming is not recommended at Tortuguero beach. The waves close out near the shore slamming down with battering force and rip currents are ubiquitous and strong.
Wildlife of the Canals and Rivers of Tortuguero
The beach is where the sea turtles are but behind the beach a wildlife mecca awaits. Small motor launches are available from local lodges, but our favorite way to explore the unique senderos aquatico (aquatic trails) of the National Park is by paddling a canoe or kayak.
However you choose to explore the canals and rivers it’s easily the best wildlife viewing in Costa Rica.
You’re nearly guaranteed to see at least one of the three monkey species that inhabit the park and it’s not unusual to spot all of them. Dozens of bird species feed, roost and even nest in the gallery forests overhanging the water trails and we’ve rounded a corner to see a Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycitcorax nycitcorax, Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias and Green-backed Heron, Butorides virescens all in the same stretch. Cattle egrets can be seen individually or by the dozens in roosting trees.
Other sure bets are caimen and jesus christ lizards – at least clinging to overhanging branches if not actually walking on water – and keep your eyes peeled for sloths.
If you have the time we recommend a couple of outings on the canals. First take a tour with a professional guide. You’ll see way more than you ever could on your own, and the guides are trained naturalist who’ll relate the natural history of the plants and animals you see revealing the fascinating interconnections habits of the inhabitants of the tropical lowland wet forests. Once you’ve got your bearings borrow a canoe or kayak from your lodge (or rent one in the village if you’re staying in a hostel or cabinas) and spend a few hours on your own exploring.
Every time you go out you’ll see something different.