Seeing the Turtles at Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas

Costa Rican beaches don’t come more beautiful than Playa Grande, a seemingly endless curve of sand, varying from coral-white to gray, immediately the north of Tamarindo and accessible by simply crossing the river estuary (or by driving via Matapalo).

The hamlet of Comunidad Playa Grande is on the main approach road, 600 meters (0.4 miles) inland from the beach. There’s guarded parking ($2) at the main beach entrance; elsewhere car break-ins are an everyday occurrence. Don’t leave anything in your vehicle.

Waves roll in over a flat expanse of beach at dusk.

The Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas guards the prime nesting site of the leatherback turtle on the Pacific coast. Photo © Fran Devinney, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

A beach trail to the north leads along the cape through dry forest and deposits you at Playa Ventanas, with tide pools for snorkeling and bathing. Several robberies had occurred here at the shrub-enclosed end of the dirt road. Surf pumps ashore at high tide. Surfing expert Mark Kelly rates Playa Grande as “maybe the best overall spot in the country.”

The sprawling woodsy community at the southern half of the beach is Palm Beach Estates. Inland of the southern half of the beach, a 400-hectare (988-acre) mangrove estuary is protected within Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Tamarindo (Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge, tel. 506/2296- 7074) and features crocodiles, anteaters, deer, ocelots, and monkeys. Waterbirds and raptors gather, especially in dry season. The refuge’s ranger station is about 500 meters (0.3 miles) upriver from the estuary.

Map of Playa Grande, Costa Rica

Playa Grande

The entire shoreline is protected within the 445-hectare (1,100-acre) Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, which guards the prime nesting site of the leatherback turtle on the Pacific coast, including 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) out to sea. The beach was incorporated into the national park system in 1990 after a 15-year battle between developers and conservationists. The park is the result of efforts by Louis Wilson, owner of Hotel Las Tortugas, and his former wife, Marianel Pastor. The government agreed to support the couple’s conservation efforts only if they could show that the site was economically viable as a tourist destination. The locals, who formerly harvested the turtles’ eggs (as did a cookie company), have taken over all guiding; each guide is certified through an accredited course. However, much of the land backing the beach has been developed with condos, homes, and hotels. MINAE officials contemplated tearing down some of these for violating environmental laws, while the Óscar Arias administration considered eliminating the park. Meanwhile, fishing boats continue to trawl illegally and unpoliced within the sanctuary with longlines, which snag turtles. Alas, environmentalists are fighting a rear-guard action against developers and the shrimping industry, which are elbowtwisting the government to downgrade the park’s status.

Turtle Viewing

Turtles call at Playa Grande year-round. The nesting season for the giant leatherback is October to March, when females come ashore every night at high tide. A decade ago, as many as 100 turtles might be seen in a single night; today, on a good night, a dozen might come ashore. Each female leatherback will nest as many as 12 times a season, every 10 days or so (usually at night to avoid dehydration). Most turtles prefer the center of the beach, just above the high-tide mark. Olive ridley turtles and Pacific green turtles can sometimes also be seen here May to August.

The beach is open to visitors by day at no cost, and by permit only with a guide at night in nesting season (6pm-6am, entrance $25, with guide; the fee is payable on leaving the beach if turtles have been seen); anyone found on the beach at night without a permit in nesting season faces a $1,000 fine (second offense; first offenders are escorted off the beach).

Guides from the local community roam the beach and lead groups to nesting turtles; other guides spot for turtles and call in the location via walkie-talkies. Visitors are not allowed to walk the beach after dusk unescorted. Groups cannot exceed 15 people, and only 60 people are allowed onto the beach at night at each of two entry points (four groups per gate, with a maximum of eight groups nightly): one where the road meets the beach by the Hotel Las Tortugas, and the second at the southern end, by Villas Baulas. Reservations are mandatory, although entry without a reservation is possible if there’s space in a group (don’t count on it, as demand usually exceeds supply). You can make reservations up to eight days in advance, or 8am-5pm for a same-day visit. At certain times the waiting time can be two hours before you are permitted onto the beach; each night differs.

Resist following the example of the many thoughtless visitors who get too close to the turtles, try to touch them, ride their backs, or otherwise display a lack of common sense and respect. Flashlights and camera flashes are not permitted (professional photographers can apply in advance for permission to use a flash). And watch your step: Newly hatched turtles are difficult to see at night as they scurry down to the sea. Many are inadvertently crushed under visitors’ feet.

The park headquarters (Centro Operaciones Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, tel. 506/2653-0470, 8am-noon and 1pm-5pm daily) is 100 meters (330 feet) east of Hotel Las Tortugas. It features an auditorium with a film on turtle ecology. Viewing the film is obligatory for everyone intending to witness the turtles nesting.

The Goldring Marine Biology Station (tel. 506/2653-0635), next to Hotel Las Tortugas, is funded by the Leatherback Trust. Earthwatch (tel. 800-776-0188) has 10-day trips for volunteers, who are based at the station.

Getting There

If driving from Flamingo, road access is via Matapalo, six kilometers (4 miles) east of Playa Grande (turn left at the soccer field in Matapalo). A rough dirt road also links Tamarindo and Playa Grande via Villareal. The Flamingo-bound buses from San José and Santa Cruz stop in Matapalo, where you can catch a taxi or the bus that departs Santa Cruz at 6am and 1pm daily; the return bus departs Playa Grande at 7:15am and 3:15pm daily.

Tamarindo Shuttle (tel. 506/2653-2727) charges $25 for door-to-door service from Liberia airport, and between Playa Grande and Tamarindo. A taxi from the airport will cost about $80.

The Asociación de Guías Locales (tel. 506/2653-1687, 7am-4pm daily) offers watertaxi service between Tamarindo and a dock on the estuary near the Hotel Bula Bula every two hours ($3).

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.

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  1. jamiegess says:

    Is this 25 per person or per group?

  2. m. ivey smakal says:

    Hello, Wondering if you need a reservation for the turtle tour. I will be there w my husband and 17 yo son March 1-8, 2015

  3. audrey shalom says:

    Do I need a guide to go snorkeling? And if I do, who do you recommend? Also, when is the best time to go?


    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Audrey,

      Christopher is currently in Cuba with limited access, but my understanding is that the beaches (and tidepools for snorkeling) in this area are open access during the day and only require a guide at night during nesting season.

      If you’re not sure when to go, Christopher also covers the best times of year to visit for different regions in his book, Moon Costa Rica, but he’s stated that in general his favorite time to visit Costa Rica is between May and early June when there are fewer crowds and the early rains have renewed the scenery.