Out of all the places I visited in Costa Rica, Tortuguero was by far my favourite. Don’t get me wrong. I loved relaxing on a beach, and I also enjoyed hiking through the cloud forest of Monteverde, but none of those places had the same charm as Tortuguero. This small town, which you can only reach by boat or by plane, was by far the most relaxed place we visited. Also, we saw lots of animals here, which made our stay even more fun.

I think you can easily spend two or three days here, looking for turtles and chasing butterflies. No matter how much time you have, here are the best things to do in Tortuguero.

#1 Canoe tour through Tortuguero National Park

Basilisk lizard in the jungle of Costa Rica
A green basilisk, one of the many animals we saw from the canoe

If you can only do one thing in Tortuguero, you have to go on a canoe tour. As Tortuguero sits on a peninsula behind a network of rivers and canals, your best bet of getting around is by boat. And canoes are so much more fun than any other boats. Go with a guide, and you’ll be guaranteed to see lots of animals.

I think we were extremely lucky as we managed to spot an anteater up in a tree! And of course, we saw sloths, monkeys and lots of iguanas along the way. Throughout my time in Central America, I have come to appreciate the in-depth knowledge of guides and their insane ability to spot animals. Most of the time, even when they pointed directly towards the sloth or iguana, I couldn’t see the animal at all. It’s a skill that takes a lot of training, so you will always profit from having a guide.

You can also rent canoes to go out by yourself, but the experience is very different. You will have more time and freedom. But unless you have some superpower that allows you to spot animals, you will see far less of them.

So basically, get a guide. And then you’ll have an amazing time taking pictures of sloths!


#2 Go for a jungle hike

Hiking trail in the Tortuguero National Park

As we already mentioned, most of Tortuguero is surrounded by water. That’s why it’s best to go around by canoe. If you want to go on your own, though, your best bet is to go on a jungle hike through the Tortuguero National Park. Take the Galivan trail that is almost two kilometres long. On your way, you have the chance of seeing monkeys and lots of jungle scenery. In theory, you can also spot sloths and anteaters. One of the people we met on the trail said they’d seen some, but we were unable to find them.

Looking back, I’m sure they were right next to the trail, laughing at our inability to spot them.

But anyway. Besides mammals, you can also see lots of birds along the trail. Keep your eyes open, and you might even be lucky and spot a toucan! And at the end, you’ll reach a beach where sea turtles nest.

Even if it’s not long, the Galivan trail is a good opportunity to get into the jungle. Just make sure to rent rubber boots at the beginning of the trail. The weather can change very quickly, and the path gets insanely muddy when it rains.


#3 Visit the Mariposario

Butterfly in a Mariposario in Costa Rica

A mariposario is a butterfly garden, and you can find one behind Mawamba Lodge. Costa Rica is known for its colourful butterflies, and here, you will get the chance to see many of them for yourself.

The most impressive and well-known butterfly is the Blue Morpho. You should also watch out for the Owl Butterfly. The Blue Morpho is most impressive when it flies, and you can see its bright blue wings. The Owl Butterfly, on the other hand, is pretty cool when it rests still, and you get to see the many eyes underneath its wings.

We spent what felt like hours in the mariposario, discovering more and more butterflies and taking hundreds of pictures. Most of them ended up blurry because those insects move too quickly. But it was still a fun experience.

1/2 – 1h

#4 Visit the Ranario

Blue Jeans Frogs, Costa Rica

Talking about animals. Did you know that Costa Rica is known for its red-eyed tree frog? With its bright red eyes, this frog is stunning. But it’s not the only frog you can find in Costa Rica, which is why you should visit the ranario – a frog garden.

You can find it behind Mawamba Lodge, close to the butterfly houses.

When you enter the frog house, it’ll take you a while to find any animals. Those frogs, even if they’re bright blue or red, are surprisingly good at hiding. That’s how they survive in the jungle! But take some time and look around carefully and you’ll eventually spot some frogs. We saw some bright red ones, so colourful that it almost seemed as if they were glowing. We also finally found some light green ones with black dots that are masters at hiding.

Oh, and that red-eyed tree frog? We didn’t see it in the ranario, but an amazing nature guide finally found one for us in La Fortuna.


#5 Visit the Turtle Conservation Centre

Turtle Conservation Visitor Centre, Tortuguero

Tortuguero is, as the name already indicated, known for its sea turtles. We came at the wrong time of the year, so there were no turtles to be seen. But if you’re lucky and you visit from July to October, you have a chance of spotting them. No matter what time of the year you visit, you should stop by the Turtle Conservation Centre. This centre is part of the John H. Phipps Biological Station, which I dedicated to researching and conserving sea turtles.

Here, you can learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about turtles and the effort done by the centre to preserve their natural habitat. Tortuguero is one of the most important nesting areas for green turtles. Unfortunately, those turtles are easy prey when nesting and have been hunted almost to extinction. By protecting the beaches from poachers, the biological station is helping to bring the numbers of green turtles up again.

Go and pay a visit, to understand the importance of their work.

1/2 – 1h

#6 Walk along the beach

Tortuguero Beach

As Tortuguero is located on a thin peninsula, you are never far away from the beach. If you’re visiting outside the nesting season, you should take this chance and go for a walk along the beach. The surf is powerful, so we don’t recommend swimming. Instead, walk along the dark beach, underneath the palm trees, and enjoy the sound of waves crashing on the shore.

If you’re visiting during nesting and hatching season, you can take a night tour to see the turtles. You will need to hire a guide, so ask at the information stand in town or at your hotel. They’ll be able to organize a turtle watching tour.

Also, even if it’s outside nesting season, you have a chance of spotting turtles. Remember to keep a distance and not to disturb them. Most turtles are endangered, so it’s vital to help protect them.

1/2h or longer if you take a turtle tour

#7 Watch sunset in the lagoon

Sunset in Tortuguero

In Tortuguero, the sun sets in the lagoon. If you book a hostel located next to the water, you can sit down on your terrace and watch the sunset. The sky turned all shades of purple and pink when we stayed there, and it was beautiful to watch. Grab a cold drink, sit back and relax.

Best time to visit Tortuguero

As mentioned above, if you want to see turtles, the best time to visit Tortuguero is between July and October. That’s when you can see Green Turtles nest on the beach.

In theory, from March to May, you will be able to see Leatherback Turtles. But when we visited in April, in the middle of the nesting season, we did not see a single one. Tortuguero is home to many more Green Turtles than Leatherback Turtles, so we weren’t surprised.

Even if you visit outside the season, you might be lucky. I heard of some people seeing baby turtles in November, after the nesting season. And as you can see from our post, Tortuguero is a fantastic place to see wildlife all year long.

Iguana in Tortuguero, Costa Rica
We found this iguana on a stroll through the village.

Getting to Tortuguero

Since Tortuguero is surrounded by water, you can only get here by boat or by plane. We recommend the boat, as it is the more sustainable way of travelling.

When researching how to get to Tortuguero, we were surprised that we could barely find any information online. Tourist shuttles can take you here, but they cost a small fortune and are not necessary. You can easily travel by public transport.

The boat leaves from La Pavona. To get here, catch a bus to Cariari first and then to La Pavona. If you’re coming from San Jose, you can take a bus directly to Cariari, which takes about two hours.

If you’re coming from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, check out our guide for getting to Tortuguero by public transport.

Last, if you have a rental car, you can leave it at the parking lot in La Pavona for about 10$ a day.

Getting around

Tortuguero is so small that you can walk everywhere – as long as it is on land. If you want to explore the national park, as we already mentioned, you should go on a canoe tour or maybe even rent a kayak yourself.

As Tortuguero lives off tourism, you will find plenty of options when it comes to lodging and food. These range from budget to high-end. The same goes for tours, so take a look at a few offers before you decide on one.

We hope you now have an overview of what to do in Tortuguero and will enjoy your stay here. Leave us a comment if you enjoyed the village as much as we did. We’re always happy to hear from you!

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Ilona is a world traveller passionate about sharing her experiences and giving advice to fellow travellers. Having visited over 70 countries, she is always excited about her next trip.

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