Having dealt with a pretty fast and furious pace for a month while travelling through Colombia and Panama City, AJ and I were ready for some serious r’n’r before we tackled our final two months in Central America, during which we need to make our way to Mexico City whilst trying to see as much of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico’s Yucatan region. We did a little digging, and discovered the perfect place to hide away for a few days in the tiny beach town of Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Despite being frequently visited by tourists, Tortugeuro has managed to maintain the atmosphere of a sleepy little village with nothing much to do except relax and watch the world go by. In this article, I’ll go through the main things that anyone thinking of visiting Tortuguero needs to know, from how to get there, to a mini budget-breakdown.
How To Get There:
- Take a bus from the Gran Caribe Station in San Jose to Cariari (1,600₡). There’s usually someone there to help you sort your bags out and give you a map and some information about Tortuguero and the ferries to and from there.
- The bus to Cariari will drop you at the station where you need to wait for the bus to La Pavona. On this bus, you will pay for the bus and the ferry in one ticket – it’s 2,700₡ and then an extra 1,000₡ for every large bag that you have.
- The bus and ferry times match up so that when you get to La Pavona you can get straight onto the ferry to Tortuguero. Just be aware that there are several boats going and they will move bags between boats to get the weight and balance right, so you may end up arriving at Tortuguero before your bag, but you shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 – 20 minutes for the boat with your bag to turn up.
When you arrive at Tortuguero, if you’ve reserved a place at a hostel/hotel there will be someone to bring you to your accommodation and help you get checked in and let you know the options for activities in the area. If you haven’t booked anywhere head to the Information Centre by the dock. There are only a few hotels available so I would strongly recommend booking ahead of time, especially in high season.
What To Do:
The two biggest attractions in Tortuguero are the National Park and the beach. The town is really cute but really tiny so you wouldn’t spend more than a few hours wandering through it, and that would be if you were to browse through several of the gift and handcraft shops.
- The National Park
There are a few different activities that you can do in the National Park, the best one being a boat/canoe/kayak tour, as the park is 80-90% water. We chose to do the canoe tour as you have the benefit of being in a silent motor-less boat so you don’t scare the animals away, while it not being as expensive as the kayak tour. We payed $20 for the canoe tour, which doesn’t include the park entrance fee, which is $15. The tour runs three times a day, though the best time to go is early morning (6am) as that’s when the animals are waking up and getting active. The guides are bilingual and really knowledgeable about the environment, plants, and animals, and it’s amazing how quickly and easily they’re able to spot small hidden animals from far away. We managed to see a LOT of birds including a kingfisher, ibis and different herons, a tiny caiman, a sloth, spider monkeys and the ‘Jesus Christ’ lizard that can run on water. The tour in total lasts 2 – 3 hours and is definitely worth going on.
We also went on the walking tour in the National Park, which also costs $20 and doesn’t include the park entrance fee, so it’s recommended that you do the walking and canoe tours on the same day as the entrance fee that you pay in the morning will last all day. You can go into the national park on foot by yourself and walk around, but I would highly recommend going with a guide as you will see a LOT more than if you were on your own. We saw spider and howler monkeys, a macaw that was the EXACT same shade of green as the leaves around it so how our guide spotted it I will never know, a sloth, a tiny yellow snake and a bunch of spiders and insects. As we walked around he told us about all the different plants around us and what they were used for, and about the history of the park. It was a really fascinating tour and definitely worth taking.
- The Beach
After the excitement of the National Park, the rest of our time was spent on or near the beach, lying in hammocks reading, listening to music, and drinking the occasional beer. The weather was glorious, and it was absolute heaven to do nothing but relax in paradise for two days. If the thought of lazing about on a beach in the sunshine appeals to you, then Tortuguero is the place for you!
Where To Eat:
There are a good number of options for eating in Tortuguero. We were only there for four days and were trying to keep it as budget as possible, so didn’t go anywhere expensive or fancy, but we found a few places that did good food at a decent cost.
- Soda D’Leite:
This is a traditional Costa Rican restaurant that does tasty, filling and cheap food – we got an almuerzo of fried chicken, salad, rice, beans and chips for 3,000₡. It’s the perfect place for travellers on a budget, as well as those looking for something cheap and cheerful.
- Donde Richard:
This is a really cute small restaurant that has a variety of traditional Costa Rican dishes. My absolute favourite was the chifrijo – pork, rice, beans, avocado, tomato salsa and nachos – absolutely delicious and cost 4,500₡.
- Budda Café:
This is a cute mid-range café that does a variety of pizzas, pastas, Mediterranean, and European food. The dishes cost between 5,000₡ and 9,000₡, the pizzas are cooked in a wood-fired oven, the crepes are delicious, and you can sit in their outdoor area overlooking the river and enjoy the tranquillity of the environment.
- Taylor’s Place:
This is a cosy, out-of-the-way restaurant just off the main street. It’s a little hard to find but worth it for the food, service, and atmosphere, all of which are excellent. The food is a little expensive, averaging around 9,000₡, but really well prepared with a good balance of fresh ingredients.
- Wild Ginger:
This restaurant is the most expensive one in Tortuguero, but is also the restaurant with the most rave reviews for its Californian-Caribbean fusion style food. The food and cocktails are excellent, the staff and owners are really friendly, and all-in-all it’s a great dining experience. Dinner and drinks cost on average 15,000₡ per person.
How Much Money Should You Bring:
It’s very important to remember that there are NO ATMs in Tortuguero, and only a few places will accept payment by card. This means that you need to make sure you bring enough money to last you the entire time you’re there.
During our four-day stay, we spent 213,515₡, or $381.12, which averages at 53,378.75₡, or $95.28, a day. (Please note, all our prices are for two people) This broke down into:
- $135.60 / 75,968.09₡ for four nights in a double private room with ensuite in Hotel Tortuguero Beach. This was one of the cheapest hostels in the area; the rooms were basic but clean, although given its location there was no escaping the many insects that wanted to pop in and say hello. If you want to stay somewhere a bit less basic you’re looking at paying around $80 a night, there didn’t seem to be any mid-range hostels when we looked.
- $107.99 / 60,500₡ for the walking and canoe tours, and the park entrance fee on the day.
- $37.84 / 21,200₡ for transport to and from San Jose.
- $99.69 / 55,846.91₡ on food, snacks, water, and the occasional beer.
I would advise that you work out what activities you want to do and set aside money for them, the transport, and accommodation. Keep this separate from any other money you have.
Then work out how much you’ll probably spend on food each day – we tend to eat breakfast in the morning (~$8 / 4,500₡ per person), a couple of snacks throughout the day, and then one large meal late afternoon/early evening (~ $11 / 6,000₡ per person), and then factor in any other spending you’re likely to have; gift shopping, drinks, etc… When you work that out, add it all together and you have how much money you’re likely to spend. THEN, take extra emergency money – we made the mistake of miscalculating and not doing that and very nearly ran out of money before we left!
Tortuguero is definitely worth a visit; with its beautiful sandy beaches, warm ocean waters, extensive national park and a whole host of exciting wildlife waiting to be discovered, it is truly a little slice of secluded paradise, tucked away on the East coast of Costa Rica.