Must-See: Tortuguero National Park

Must-See: Tortuguero National Park

By Steve English

Must-See: Tortuguero National Park

Tucked away on Costa Rica’s northern coast, this stunning protected landscape is a haven of biodiversity crisscrossed by canals and rivers.

Known for its rambling network of canals, abundant biodiversity and, of course, its nesting sea turtles, Costa Rica’s most remote national park is an all-natural wonderland on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. Despite its isolated location, Tortuguero National Park is the country’s third most-visited protected space and, as anyone who fortunate enough to visit will tell you, by far its most extraordinary.

For best results, begin in remote Tortuguero, a bustling Afro-Caribbean village situated within the 120-square-mile (about 311-square-kilometer) Parque Nacional Tortuguero that can only be reached by water or air. The Canales de Tortuguero, a network of channels built in 1974 to connect the isolated region to the outside world, is the perfect introduction to the park’s winding rivers and tranquil lagoons; their labyrinthine course through the jungle all but forces visitors to slow down and enjoy the ride.

While you can fly directly into Tortuguero itself, convenience comes at a substantial cost. Arriving slowly by boat is an experience in itself, and one that cannot (and should not) be hurried. The canal system is an Amazon in miniature; lined with banana plantations and thick tropical rainforests, the riverside teems with life. On a good day, you’re likely to spot macaws, toucans, howler and spider monkeys, and even three-toed sloths as you drift along.

The park’s name is derived from tortuga (Spanish: “tortoise”), Tortuguero’s beloved seasonal residents. As the most important breeding ground of the green sea turtle, Tortuguero has quickly become one of the world’s ecotourism hotspots. It wasn’t always this way, however; for centuries, locals harvested turtle eggs for food, a process that quickly became unsustainable as the community grew. (Not coincidentally, tortuguero is Spanish for “turtle catcher.”) Controls imposed by the Costa Rican government in 1963 and the formation of Tortuguero National Park as a protected space seven years later helped bring the green sea turtle back from the brink of extinction.

Four unique sea turtle species nest on Tortuguero’s long, empty beaches. In addition to green turtles, you may encounter hawksbills, loggerheads, and giant leatherbacks. The greens are by far the most common variety, nesting here from July to mid-October. (August and September are the busiest months, both for turtles and tourists.) Many savvy travelers skip the crush of green turtle season altogether and instead visit from February to June when the giant leatherbacks lay their eggs. The largest of Tortuguero’s reptilian residents, leatherbacks can grow to 6 feet 6 inches (2 meters) in length and often tip the scales at over 1,000 pounds (about 450 kilograms).

While the turtles are definitely Tortuguero’s main draw, the park’s wealth of exotic fauna lures visitors year-round. In addition to monkeys and sloths, the enveloping rainforests are also home to jaguars, peccaries, anteaters, and zillions of butterflies. Also, with more than 300 unique species of birds, the park is a wonderland for birders; keep an ear open for the throaty call of tiger herons, the frog-like chirrup of the keel-billed toucan, the red-lorred parrot’s squawk, and the ringed kingfisher’s distinctive chatter.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of Tortuguero National Park is the eponymous village contained within the park itself. If you’re out exploring on your own, you’ll want to stop in at the Sea Turtle Conservancy Visitors’ Center & Museum, home to a small but compelling collection of exhibits dedicated to the park’s plants and wildlife. Don’t forget to stop in at the gift shop on your way out; all proceeds benefit conservation efforts. You can also rent your own dugout canoe (known locally as cayucos or pangas) to explore the canal network on your own. However, perhaps the most underappreciated side benefit of having a town inside a national park is access to rain gear. The northern area of Tortuguero receives up to 236 inches (around 6,000 millimeters) of rain annually, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself in the middle of a surprise downpour. Lodges typically furnish guests with ponchos and rubber boots, but just in case…

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