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According to existing records, sea turtles have frequented Tortuguero National Park since at least 1592, largely due to its extreme isolation. Over the years, turtles were captured and their eggs were harvested by local settlers; by the 1950s, this practice became so widespread that turtles faced extinction. Regulations controlling this mini-industry were passed in 1963, and in 1970 Tortuguero National Park was established.

Today, four different species of sea turtles nest here: the green turtle, the hawksbill, the loggerhead, and the giant leatherback. The park’s beaches are excellent places to watch sea turtles nest, especially at night. As appealingly long and deserted as they are, however, the beaches are not appropriate for swimming. The surf is usually very rough, and the river mouths attract sharks that feed on the turtle hatchlings and many fish that live here.

Green turtles are the most common turtle found in Tortuguero, so you’re more likely to see one of them than any other species if you visit during the prime nesting season from July to mid-October (Aug–Sept are peak months). Loggerheads are very rare, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see one. The giant leatherback is perhaps the most spectacular sea turtle to watch laying eggs. The largest of all turtle species, the leatherback can grow to 2m (6 1/2 ft.) long and weigh well over 1,000 pounds. It nests from late February to June, predominantly in the southern part of the park.

You can explore the park’s rainforest, either by foot or by boat, and look for some of the incredible varieties of wildlife that live here: jaguars, anteaters, howler monkeys, collared and white-lipped peccaries, some 350 species of birds, and countless butterflies, among others. Some of the more colorful and common bird species you might see in this area include the rufescent and tiger herons, keel-billed toucan, northern jacana, red lored parrot, and ringed kingfisher. Boat tours are far and away the most popular way to visit this park, although one frequently very muddy trail starts at the park entrance and runs for about 2km (1.25 miles) through the coastal rainforest and along the beach.

Although it's a perfect habitat, West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus) are rare and threatened in the canals, rivers, and lagoons of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. Hunting and propeller injuries are the prime culprits. Your chances of seeing one of these gentle aquatic mammals is extremely remote.

Turtle Tips

  • Visitors to the beach at night must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Tours generally last between 2 and 4 hours.
  • Sometimes you must walk quite a bit to encounter a nesting turtle. Wear sneakers or walking shoes rather than sandals. The beach is very dark at night, and it’s easy to trip or step on driftwood or other detritus.
  • Wear dark clothes. White T-shirts are not permitted.
  • Flashlights, flash cameras, and lighted video cameras are prohibited on turtle tours.
  • Smoking is prohibited on the beach at night.

Entry Point, Fees & Regulations
The Tortuguero National Park entrance and ranger station are at the south end of Tortuguero Village. The ranger station is inside a landlocked old patrol boat, and a small, informative open-air kiosk explains a bit about the park and its environs. Admission to the park is $17. However, most people visit Tortuguero as part of a package tour. Be sure to confirm whether the park entrance is included in the price. Moreover, only certain canals and trails leaving from the park station are actually within the park. Many hotels and private guides take their tours to a series of canals that border the park and are very similar in terms of flora and fauna but don’t require a park entrance. When the turtles are nesting, arrange a night tour in advance with either your hotel or one of the private guides working in town. These guided tours generally run between $15 and $25. Flashlights and flash cameras are not permitted on the beach at night because the lights discourage the turtles from nesting.

Organized Tours
All of the lodges listed below, with the exception of the most inexpensive accommodations in Tortuguero Village, offer package tours that include various hikes and river tours; this is generally the best way to visit the area.

In addition, several San José–based tour companies offer budget 2-day/1-night excursions to Tortuguero, including transportation, all meals, and limited tours around the region. Prices for these trips range between $200 and $350 per person, and—depending on the price—guests are lodged either in one of the basic hotels in Tortuguero Village or one of the nicer lodges listed below. Reputable companies include Exploradores Outdoors ★ (www.exploradoresoutdoors.com; tel. 646/205-0828 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2222-6262 in Costa Rica), Jungle Tom Safaris (tel. www.jungletomsafaris.com; 2221-7878), and Iguana Verde Tours (www.iguanaverdetours.com; tel. 2231-6803). Some operators offer 1-day trips in which tourists spend almost all their time coming and going but that do allow for a quick tour of the canals and lunch in Tortuguero. These trips generally run $125 to $150 per person. However, if you really want to experience Tortuguero, I recommend staying for at least two nights.

Alternatively, you could go with Riverboat Francesca ★ (www.tortuguerocanals.com; tel. 2226-0986), run by two pioneering guides in this region who operate a fleet of their own boats. The couple offers a range of overnight and multiday packages to Tortuguero, with lodging options at most of the major lodges here.

Boat Canal Tours
Aside from watching turtles nest, the unique thing to do in Tortuguero is tour the canals by boat, spying tropical birds and native wildlife. Most lodges can arrange a canal tour, but you can also arrange a tour through one of the independent operators in the village of Tortuguero, such as Riverboat Francesca, Victor Barrantes at the Tortuguero Info Center (tel. 8928-1169; tortuguero_info@racsa.co.cr), or Daryl Loth (http://casamarbella.tripod.com; tel. 8833-0827), who runs the Casa Marbella in the center of the village. Additionally, you can ask for a recommendation at the Sea Turtle Conservancy Visitors’ Center and Museum (tel. 2767-1576). Most guides charge $20 to $25 per person for a tour of the canals. If you travel through the park, you’ll also have to pay the park entrance fee of $15 per person.

Exploring Tortuguero Village
The most popular attraction in town is the small Sea Turtle Conservancy Visitors’ Center and Museum ★ (www.conserveturtles.org; tel. 2709-8091). The museum has info and exhibits on a whole range of native flora and fauna, but its primary focus is on the life and natural history of the sea turtles. Most visits to the museum include a short, informative video on the turtles. All the proceeds from the small gift shop go toward conservation and turtle protection. The museum is open daily from 10am to noon and 2 to 5pm. Admission is $2, but more generous donations are encouraged.

In the village, you can also rent dugout canoes, known in Costa Rica as cayucos or pangas. Be careful before renting and taking off in one of these; they tend to be heavy, slow, and hard to maneuver.

You’ll find a handful of souvenir shops spread around the center of the village. The Paraíso Tropical Gift Shop has the largest selection of gifts and souvenirs, while the Jungle Shop, which has a higher-end selection of wares and donates 10% of its profits to local schools.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.