Tortuguero is a city in Costa Rica.
Tortuguero is one of the most remote places in Costa Rica and is only accessible by boat or plane. The major public road/river routes to get here are through Moín (close to Limón), La Pavona (north of Cariari) and Caño Blanco (accessible through Siquirres).
There is an inexpensive public bus/boat route that can be used to get from San Jose to Tortuguero. Take the 9:00AM direct bus from from San Jose to Cariari, which leaves from the Gran Caribe bus terminal. The bus arrives at the long distance bus terminal in Cariari around 11:00AM. Sometimes the bus to La Pavona/La Suerte meets you there, but otherwise walk 5 blocks north to the local bus terminal and buy a bus ticket to La Pavona/La Suerte. This bus leaves at 11:30AM and takes you to the river at La Pavona/La Suerte, where you transfer to a public boat that will reach Tortuguero around 3:00PM. Inside the restaurant is a ticket office where you must buy a ticket before boarding the boat. Use the restrooms here, as the boat trip can take up to 2 hours if the river is low.
To return, catch the 5:30AM, 11:00AM or 2:30PM public boat from Tortuguero and follow these directions in reverse. The total cost one-way should be around $8 -- $2.40 for the bus to Cariari, $2 for the bus to La Pavona/La Suerte and $5.20 for the boat to Tortuguero. Beware of touts selling packaged trips along the way, who will tell you that the boats aren't running, the hotels are full, the route isn't safe, and so on -- anything to get you to buy into their "deals". Touts also meet the water taxi in Tortuguero and will offer to "help" you find a hotel.
A quicker but more expensive option is to fly into Tortuguero. Nature Air offer daily flights from San José, out of Tobias Bolanos International Airport (SYQ) in Pavas at 6:15AM and arrives in Tortuguero at 6:45AM. The return flight arrives in Pavas at 7:20am.
If you choose to stay at one of the lodges, land/water transportation to and from Tortuguero is usually included in the package rates.
The lodges are located outside the village. You can reach the village of Tortuguero if you staying at the Mawamba Lodge (it is a 10min walk) and Laguna lodge (30 mins). If staying at the other lodges, a boat ride will be necessary. If the lodge does not offer transportation at the hour you want, you can have them call you a water taxi. One-way to the village will run about $2-$5 per person.
The village itself is small enough that you can easily walk anywhere.
There are no cars in Tortuguero.
When traveling on any public bus in a foreign country you should never leave any small bags with important things like cameras in the overhead storage bins. Keep them on your lap.
There have been a small number of robberies by armed bandits on the route between Cariari and La Pavona (about six times in the last ten years) but an increased presence of the police on motorcycles has put a stop to this. Some of the robberies, including the last robbery on December 23, 2012 were at the Banacol banana gate which blocks the road. The robberies occured when the driver got out to raise the gate, and then the armed robbers jumped out of their hiding place in the Banacol banana farm. No robberies have occurred since the police began escorting the buses and no private cars (i.e.rental cars) have ever been robbed. If you want to feel safer, travel with the caravan of hotel buses into and out of Tortuguero in the mornings, or if you follow this caravan of hotel buses in a private car, because the caravan has a police escort.
Tortuguero National Park
As is often the case, there is a range of prices and quality for tours in Tortuguero. To be sure that you are getting a qualified guide, ask to see his/her ICT certification card. As of 2012, only certified guides will be allowed to conduct turtle tours. Don't run the risk of getting kicked off the beach and losing your money!
The main reason why most people travel to Tortuguero is to see turtles lay eggs on the beach. Turtle watching tours are offered by nearly everyone (it seems) during the egg laying season, which spans April to May for leatherback turtles and July to October for green turtles. The tours leave in the evening and last 1-4 hours. Scouts find the turtles; you wait with your tour at the edge of the beach and are escorted to the right spot when a turtle is found along with all the other groups. This "turtle spotter program" is for the protection of the turtles themselves, and is 100% funded by sticker sales. Tourists are encouraged to buy a sticker for $4, and as you are required to use the spotters rather than walk the beach with your guide, not buying a sticker is basically cheating. Although the likelihood of seeing at least one turtle is extremely high in season (late July to mid September), there's no guarantee or refund. You must be accompanied by a local guide to see the turtles.
During September and October many local "guides" will offer tourists the opportunity to "help" turtle nests hatch. If you would like to see baby turtles, you can walk the beach in the very early hours, but digging up nests or touching hatchlings can be detrimental to their survival. Rather than pay someone who is making a living off of potentially harming endangered species, walk South along the beach into the national park, and stay along the vegetation. Your chances of finding hatchlings are high at the right time of year, and you won't have to pay anyone.
The canals of Tortuguero gave the town its nickname of "Costa Rica's Amazon", and are a fantastic opportunity to see wildlife. Many guided boat tours leave Tortuguero and the surrounding lodges at 6AM to see the wildlife, jungle, and canals. Most of the lodges offer tours which use large boats with big motors and cannot get very far into the canals. A better option is a canoe tour or a tour in a boat with a silent electric motor. Canoes are basically silent and can go where the motorboats can't, allowing you to get away from the seemingly countless motorboat tours and see more of nature. Several people in the village offer canoe tours -- ask around.
Cerro Tortuguero has been officially closed by the National Park service because the trail cannot be maintained to public use standards with their existing budget. Many local guides will still offer tours, but be warned that by taking these tours you are not only violating park regulations but damaging a fragile ecosystem. For hikers, Cerro Tortuguero is a small hill roughly 6 km north of the village, accessible only by boat. It's only 119 m high, but offers good views of the area. You can arrange a tour or charter a boat from the village, but it's also entirely feasible to go by yourself. The 11:00AM public boat will drop you off at a small community near the base of the hill on it's way to La Pavona, and will pick you up again around 2:30PM when it returns to Tortuguero. The path to the top of the hill is not marked, so you may need to ask for directions.
You may also walk along the straight jungle path within the national park (south of the village) that runs parallel to the beach, with or without a guide. Just remember that you are in the jungle and that it gets dark early!
There are no banks or cash machines in the village. Some stores and restaurants will take credit cards. Dollars and colones are easily interchangeable in the village. If you have travelers checks you should change them in a bank as very few businesses in the village accept them.
The area is not safe for swimming due to rough surf, strong currents, and sharks. The river is not safe for swimmin, either, as at least 2 people have been eaten by river crocodiles here in separate incidents. Go swim in a pool, instead. Fishing boats can flip over in the Tortuguero river mouth, and a woman drowned here in a fishing accident when her boat flipped over at the river mouth in February 2013.
There are several small grocery stores and one hardware store in the village. There are also many shops that sell tourist merchandise (such as some beautiful hand carved wood). There is an internet cafe near the large pink souvenir shop and one near the main boat dock; the current rate is ~$4 per hour. Prices in the village tend to be expensive due to the remote location.
As with the rest of Costa Rica, you will have lots of rice, chicken, and beans. Fresh fish may be available, ask around. For non-traditional food, your options are Wild Ginger or Budda Café.
There are two hotels outside of the village that offer luxury options, such as TV, air conditioning, a-la-carte dining, and room service.
There are several resorts located outside of the village that offer all-included packages including tours, transportation from San Jose and all meals. Boats must be used to travel between the village and all the lodges, except for Mawamba Lodge which is a 15-minute walk from the village. Bring a flashlight if you plan to stay out past 5:30pm. They include:
There are several smaller hotels and hostels in the village itself. Reservations are recommended during the turtle-watching season. Bring a flashlight if staying in the village because power outages are common. These include:
Travel to and from Tortuguero can be a challenge and there are many ways to do it: