Parque Nacional Tortuguero

Tortuguero National Park is one of the great treasures of Costa Rica. The 31,187-ha area is made up of a network of
flooded waterways that twist and meander
through the vast alluvial plain created by rivers flowing off the Central Highlands' eastern slopes. By the time the rivers reach the coast they have slowed almost to a standstill and with high rainfall, the dense tropical forest is often flooded. Essentially flat, the landscape is bursting with vegetation and trees which crowd up to
the edge of waterways, only occasional gaps providing a glimpse of the world within.

The main focus for visitors to the park is the small town of Tortuguero which lives, as it has for centuries, in co-existence with the turtles that nest on its beaches. According to guides, the community made a living selling turtles, a self-preserving, stay-fresh source of meat, to mariners that sailed the Caribbean. And indeed, Tortuguero - meaning 'turtle seller' in
Spanish - still makes a living from its turtles.
Conservationist Archie Carr, one of the park's main proponents, set out to encourage the local community to take a long-term view of the nesting turtles: that the welfare of the turtles will always be directly related to that of the community.

Best time to visit

With an average temperature of 26°C and rainfall between 4.5 and 6 m a year, Tortuguero is one of the wettest spots in the country. While there is slightly less rain in February and March, there is a high chance of getting wet throughout the year. According to the information centre, July to October is the best time to see green turtles nesting. The leatherback or
nests between March and June.


Tortuguero is one of the country's most diverse national parks and home to over half the bird and reptile species found in the country. It also just so happens to be the most important nesting site of the green turtle in the western Caribbean. The looping flight of the keel-billed toucan crossing the open waterways is a common site as are northern jacanas, oropendolas and herons. Less commonly spotted is the endangered green macaw which also resides in the park. Needless to say, wildlife viewing in the area is spectacular and best seen from a boat moving silently through the myriad channels. Mammals are also numerous, you'll find that howler monkeys and sloths a common sight, while hidden within the undergrowth the tracks of jaguar, ocelot and tapir go unseen by most, as does the endangered manatee that explores and grazes to beds of the watery channels. If you're particularly lucky you may see the fishing bulldog bat, a large bat with a 60-cm wingspan that hunts on the waters of the canals. Reptiles and amphibians are also on the scene, and in large numbers - you will very probably see crocodiles, and, if you are lucky, glass and poison-dart frogs and the bug-eyed gaudy leaf frog.

But the main reason for travelling to Tortuguero is to see nesting
. The green turtle uses the beaches in significant numbers, and there are also visits from leatherback, hawksbill and occasionally loggerhead turtles as well. As with much of Costa Rica, getting the timing right to see this natural phenomenon is essential. The green turtles lay their eggs at night between June and October, with the hatchlings emerging from the depths of their sandy nests until November at the latest. Leatherbacks can be seen between March and June. While access to the beaches is unrestricted, trips to look for nesting turtles are carefully monitored and you must be accompanied by a licensed guide at all times.

Tortuguero town

The small town of Tortuguero on the southern tip of a sandy spit with a few hundred resident
and no cars, is the main focus of the area. At the confluence of the Río Tortuguero and the coastal canal, the town pulsates to a distinctly Caribbean beat. Spread around the network of sandy paths and lush vegetation, the town itself has a creaking old church, a general store, football pitch, a couple of gift shops and half a dozen accommodation options .

Flowing north from the town is the
Laguna de Tortuguero
which leads for 5 km to the Caribbean. On either side of the narrow waterway - and on the canal running parallel further inland to the west - comfortable, all-inclusive lodges have spread out along the river banks.

Turtle watching

The Caribbean beaches of Tortuguero National Park protect the nesting sites of the green turtle and also, in smaller numbers, the hawksbill, loggerhead and the huge leatherback turtles. To see one of these magnificent creatures emerge from the ocean surf, haul itself up the beach and dig a nest in which to store its precious cargo is an unforgettable experience. Likewise, seeing the tiny, dazed hatchlings emerge from their sandy place of birth, before heading frantically for the ocean like wind-up mechanical toys is truly memorable. The palm-fringed beach, struggling under growths of icacao and sea grape and with nest craters everywhere and driftwood scattered around, looks more like a bomb-site than a sensitive nesting area.

The understanding of the beach and its importance to the green turtle began with
the work of Archie Carr - a prominent figures in the Costa Rican conservation movement.
The work and study that began with The Brotherhood of the Green Turtle continued with the creation of the
Caribbean Conservation Corporation
(CCC), Carr's work and energy were crucial in the creation of Tortuguero National Park. Today the Corporation has a small exhibition centre to the north of town and continues tagging work, the tagged turtles being monitored by satellite (they can be seen on the CCC website).

Strict rules govern the tours which are only carried out by authorized local guides. You must be accompanied at night. Torches, cameras, video cameras and smoking are prohibited. Tours last for a couple of hours (the elderly may find trudging blindly along the beach difficult after a while) and you are advised to wear dark clothes and closed shoes. This is designed to limit disturbance to any turtles. Naturally, being quiet is also advised.

Touring the waterways

From the Tortuguero Lagoon a network of smaller channels are accessible by launch. Two recommended canals are
Caño Mora
, both of which you can investigate on your own or with a guide. There are maps of the canals at the national park office. Kayaks and canoes are also available for rent around town, try Miss Junie's (page). You will of course be likely to see much more if you are accompanied by a guide, but expeditions on your own can also be fun, so take advantage of the opportunity and do both. Exploring these channels gives a window on the rainforest and if you travel in silence and with a good guide, you are certain to see much wildlife. Most tours leave early in the morning when birdlife is most in evidence and the chance of seeing mammals is higher.

Tours with lodges are normally included in the price. If you organize your own tour you have a slightly greater variety - the secret to a good tour is being quiet. On some self-organized tours you can take a guide that uses paddle power.

Other tours

At the mouth of Tortuga Lagoon,
Cerro Tortuguero
rises to 119 m. While its height is not staggering, in an area that is overwhelmingly flat, the views from the top are spectacular. Walks up the hill can be arranged through lodges and local guides.

Less rarely visited, the
Lomas de Sierpe
lie to the west of Tortuguero - it's a good day trip for those wanting a more challenging trek. Tortuguero also has a zip wire canopy tour.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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