Parque Nacional Tortuguero extends north along the coast for 22 kilometers (14 miles) from Jaloba, six kilometers (4 miles) north of Parismina, to Tortuguero village. The 19,000-hectare (47,000-acre) park is a mosaic of deltas on an alluvia plain nestled between the Caribbean coast on the east and low-lying volcanic hills to the west. The park protects the nesting beach of the green turtle, the offshore waters to a distance of 30 kilometers (19 miles), and the wetland forests extending inland for about 15 kilometers (9.5 miles).

Tortuguero’s fragile manatee population was thought to be extinct until a group of about 100 was found in remote lagoons a decade ago.The park—one of the most varied in Costa Rica—has 11 ecological habitats, from high rainforest to herbaceous marsh communities. Fronting the sea is the seemingly endless expanse of beach. Behind that is a narrow artificial canal, connected to the sea at one end and fed by a river at the other; it parallels the beach for its full 35-kilometer (22-mile) length. In back of the canal and the lagoon to its north is a coastal rainforest and swamp complex threaded by an infinite maze of serpentine channels and streams.

Tortuguero shelters more than 300 bird species, among them toucans, aracaris, oropendolas, herons, kingfishers, anhingas, jacanas, and the great green macaw; 57 species of amphibians and 111 of reptiles, including three species of marine turtles; and 60 mammal species, including jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, cougars, river otters, and manatees. Tortuguero’s fragile manatee population was thought to be extinct until a group of about 100 was found in remote lagoons a decade ago. Their numbers seem to be growing, as indicated by an increase in the number of collisions with boats. In 2005 several manatee sanctuaries were created, where boats are prohibited or velocity is restricted, although boat captains still whiz through these zones at high speed.

Spotting a green iguana in Tortuguero National Park. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Spotting a green iguana in Tortuguero National Park. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

The wide-open canals are superb for spotting crocodiles, giant iguanas, basilisk lizards, and caimans luxuriating on the fallen raffia palm branches. At night you might even spy bulldog bats skimming the water and scooping up fish. It’s an amazing sight.

The western half of the park is under great stress from logging and hunting, which have increased in recent years as roads intrude. The local community is battling a proposed highway sponsored by banana and logging interests. Rubbish disposal is a problem; leave no trash. The park is severely understaffed, and as a result, environmental abuses continue.

Planning Your Time

Rain falls year-round. The three wettest months are January, June, and July. The three driest are February, April, and November. Monsoon-type storms can lash the region at any time. The interior of the park is hot, humid, and windless. Take good rain gear, and note that it can be cool enough for a windbreaker or sweater while speeding upriver. Take insect repellent—the mosquitoes and no-see-ums can be fierce.

Turtle Viewing

The park protects the most important hatchery in the western Caribbean for green sea turtles, which find their way onto the brown-sand beaches every year June to October, with the greatest numbers arriving in September. Giant leatherback turtles arrive from mid-February to July, with greatest frequency in April and May, followed by female hawksbill turtles in July. Annually as many as 30,000 greens swim from their feeding grounds as far away as the Gulf of Mexico and Venezuela to lay their eggs on the beach. Each female arrives two to six times, at 10- to 14-day intervals, and waits two or three years before nesting again. The number of green turtles nesting has quadrupled during the last 25 years; that of leatherbacks continues to decline.

A sea turtle on the beach at the edge of a lapping wave.

A sea turtle returns to the ocean after laying her eggs. Photo © Jarno Gonzalez/123rf.

During the 1950s, the Tortuguero nesting colony came to the attention of biologist-writer Archie Carr, a lifelong student of sea turtles. His lobby—originally called the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle—worked with the Costa Rican government to establish Tortuguero as a sanctuary, established in 1963; the area was named a national park in 1970.

Local guides escort Turtle Walks (8pm-10pm and 10pm-midnight each evening in turtle-nesting season, $10, including guide; only guides can buy tickets to access the beach at night). No one is allowed on the 35-kilometer (22-mile) nesting sector without a guide after 6pm, and a maximum of 10 people per guide per night are allowed on the beach at night. Each of the five sectors has a guard post. No cameras or flashlights are permitted. Keep quiet—the slightest noise can send the turtle hurrying back to sea—and keep a discreet distance. You are asked to report any guide who digs up turtle hatchlings to show you: This is absolutely prohibited.

When hiring a guide, ensure that they have a formal accreditation sticker to give you prior to going to the beach. The cost of the sticker pays for turtle-spotters—rastreadores—who spot for nesting turtles and call in the position to guides. Unqualified guides without stickers ignore the accreditation process to offer cheaper guide services and undercut the competition.

Guides and Tours

If you want to see wildlife, you absolutely need a guide. Even in the darkest shadows, they can spot caimans, birds, crocodiles, and other animals you will most likely miss. The Asociación de Guía de Tortuguero (tel. 506/2767-0836, 5am-7pm daily) is a local is a local cooperative of 40 trained guides; its office is by the water-taxi dock.

More than a dozen small-scale tour operators in Tortuguero village offer a similar nature-focused menu of canal trips, turtle-watching trips, and rainforest hikes. By far the best guide is Karla Taylor Martínez, of Karla’s Travel Experience (tel. 506/2262-0383 or 506/8915-2386). She is a fluent English speaker who specializes in canoe trips and gives a sensational presentation. Descended from the very first settler of the village, when it was known as Turtle Bogue, Karla knows the lagoons and channels of this water-bound world like the back of her hand. What sets the “Karla Taylor Experience” apart from the others is her personal tale of why Tortuguero holds such importance to her, which grants you an entirely new appreciation for Tortuguero and for nature’s healing potential.

Ross Ballard, a former field biologist, also specializes in interpretive tours with his Ballard Excursions (tel. 506/2709-8193 or 506/8320-5232), as does Mauricio Rodríguez Vargas of Rainforest Life Tours (tel. 506/2763-4072).

You can also book guided trips at any of the lodges or through tour companies in San José. Costa Rica Expeditions (tel. 506/2257-0766) is recommended.

Information and Services

The park is open 6am-5:45pm daily; last entry is at 5pm. The $10 admission also includes access to Caño Palma, in the Barra del Colorado wildlife refuge. The fee is payable at the Cuatro Esquinas ranger station (tel./fax 506/2709-8086, 6am-noon and 1pm-5pm), at the southern end of Tortuguero village; at Estación Jalova, at the park’s southern end (45 minutes by boat from Tortuguero village); or at Aguas Frias (tel. 506/8394-0203), on the western limit of the park and accessed by driving north from the Guápiles highway via Cariari and Pococi. No fee applies if you’re in transit. Cuatro Esquinas has an excellent information center. You can camp ($2 pp) at Jalova, with outside showers and toilets. (Crocodiles are often seen sunning on the mud banks immediately south of Estación Jalova.)

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.