The National Parks of Costa Rica
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Destination content © Christopher P. Baker, used from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 5th edition.
Parque Nacional Tortuguero extends north along the coast for 22 km from Jaloba, six km north of Parismina, to Tortuguero village. The 19,000-hectare park is a mosaic of deltas on an alluvial plain nestled between the Caribbean coast on the east and the low-lying volcanic hills of Coronel, Caño Moreno, and 300-meter-high Las Lomas de Sierpe--the Sierpe Peaks--on the west. The park protects the nesting beach of the green turtle, the offshore waters to a distance of 30 km, and the wetland forests extending inland for about 15 kilometers.

The park--one of the most varied within the park system--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 lagoon, connected to the sea at one end and fed by a river at the other, which parallels the beach for its full 35-km length. Back of the lagoon is a coastal rainforest threaded by an infinite maze of serpentine channels and streams fed by rivers flowing from the central mountain ranges and by the torrential rains that fall in the area. On the periphery of the forest lies a complex of swamps.

Tortuguero shelters a fabulous array of wildlife, including more than 300 bird species, among them the great green macaw; 57 species of amphibians and 111 of reptiles, including three species of marine turtles; 60 mammal species, including 13 of Costa Rica's 16 endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, cougars, river otters, and manatees. Commonly seen birds include toucans, aricaris, oropendolas, swallow-tailed hawks, several species of herons, kingfishers, anhingas, parrots, and jacanas. The wide-open canals make viewing easier than at many other parks--superb for spotting crocodiles, giant iguanas, and basilisk lizards basking atop the branches, swallow-tailed hawks and vultures swooping over the treetops, and caimans luxuriating on the fallen raffia palm branches at the side of the river. One of my favorite pastimes is to watch bulldog bats skimming through the mist that rises from the water and scooping up a fish right on cue. Amazing! That hair-raising roar? A male howler monkey that has misjudged a leap and hit a tree with legs spread apart (this, at any rate, was the explanation given by one irrepressible guide).

The western half of the park is under great stress from logging and hunting, which have increased in recent years as roads are cut into the core of the rainforest from the west, north, and south. The local community and hotel and tour operators are battling a proposed highway sponsored by banana and logging interests into the region between Tortuguero and Barra del Colorado. The Tortuguero Conservation Area Project, Area de Conservación y Desarrollo Sostenible de las Llanuras del Tortuguero, Guápiles, works to protect the region and publishes literature on local ecology. Particularly threatened is the large mammal population.

About 50,000 tourists a year come here to explore the forests and swamps of Tortuguero National Park and to see any of four species of turtles that nest on the beach. The recent boom had spawned fears that the park was becoming overloaded with tourists (there were only 240 visitors in 1980). Help by carrying out anything you bring in. Rubbish disposal is a serious problem at Tortuguero: leave no trash.

Entrance, payable at the Cuatro Esquinas ranger station (park headquarters), at the southern end of Tortuguero village, or at Estación Jalova, at the park's southern end (45 minutes by boat from Tortuguero village). You can also buy a four-day pass that includes access to Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge. There's no fee to travel along the canals via the park en route to/from Tortuguero village.

Tortuguero's fragile manatee population is endangered and was thought to be extinct until a population was located in remote lagoons within Tortuguero. Traditionally they have been hunted for their flesh, reputedly tender and delicious, and for their very tough hides, but the greatest threat of late has been chemicals and sediments washing into the waterways from banana plantations. Ironically, ecotourism is taking a toll, with increasing boat traffic. Manatees have moved west toward more remote lagoons seeking quiet places to mate and are rarely seen. It is thought that perhaps about 100 manatees inhabit the lagoons of Tortuguero and Barra del Colorado. Alas, Dr. Bernie Nietschmann of the University of California, Berkeley, who ran a research program to count and study the manatees, died and his research program has since foundered.

The Manatee, Crocodile, and Caiman Conservation Research Project, accepts donations.

Other good resources include the Save the Manatee Club, 500 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland, FL 32751, email:, a not-for-profit member-based organization that promotes manatee education/awareness; and the Manatee Survival Foundation, P.O. Box 50005, Lighthouse Point, FL 33074, which promotes manatee awareness and collects sighting information for regulatory agencies.

The park protects a vital nesting ground for green sea turtles, which find their way onto the brown-sand beaches every year June-October (the greatest numbers arrive in September). Mid-February through July, giant leatherback turtles also arrive to lay their eggs (with greatest frequency April-May), followed, in July, by female hawksbill turtles. Tortuguero is the most important green-turtle hatchery in the western Caribbean. An estimated 30,000 turtles come ashore. Each female arrives two to six times, at 10- to 14-day intervals, and waits two or three years before nesting again.

During the 1950s, the Tortuguero nesting colony came to the attention of biologist-writer Archie Carr, a lifelong student of sea turtles. Carr enlisted sympathy through his eloquent writing, particularly The Windward Road (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1955). His lobby--originally called the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle--worked with the Costa Rican government to establish Tortuguero as a sanctuary where the endangered turtles could nest unmolested. The sanctuary was established in 1963 and the area was named a national park in 1970. The Brotherhood, now the Caribbean Conservation Corps, CCC, San Pedro, email:; email:,, maintains the John H. Phipps Biological Station and a Natural History Visitor's Center (locals still call it by its old name--Casa Verde), five minutes' walk north of the village. The CCC also publishes Velador, a quarterly update on turtle projects in the region.

Despite legislation, poachers from Barra and Limón still steal turtle eggs on the beaches, and cull turtles from the sea, often carried out by armed men with high-speed boats. Incidents have dropped from 1,700 reported cases in 1997 to less than 50 in 1999.

Turtle Walks: No one is allowed on the 22-mile nesting sector without a guide after 6 p.m. Only 400 people are allowed on the beach per night, apportioned by sector; 200 maximum every two hours. Local guides escort walks each evening in turtle-nesting season. Strict rules and guidelines are enforced for turtle watching: no cameras or flashlights are permitted (they'll be confiscated); keep quiet, as the slightest noise can send the turtle hurrying back to sea; and keep a discreet distance. That said, a conservationist ethic is still tenuous among the local population, and you still find turtle meat and eggs for sale. You are asked to report any guide who digs up turtle hatchlings to show you--this is absolutely prohibited. Turtles are endangered; respect them.

Volunteers: The CCC needs volunteers to assist in research, including during its twice-yearly turtle tagging and monitoring programs. See the Volunteer Programs to Save the Turtles chart, in the Introduction. You should be willing to patrol up to five miles of beach nightly for 8-15 nights. Programs are available for one, two or three weeks, staying in the CCC dormitory at the John H. Phipps Biological Field Station (private a/c rooms in the scientists' residence are sometimes available for an additional fee).

When To Go
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; rain invariably falls more heavily in the late afternoon and at night. August through November are best for turtle-watching. The interior of the park is hot, humid (very humid on sunny days), and windless. Bring good raingear; a heavy-duty poncho is ideal (the lodges provide these for guests). It can be cool enough for a windbreaker or sweater while speeding upriver under cloudy weather. Take insect repellent--the mosquitoes and no-see-ums (you'll need Avon's Skin-so-Soft for these) can be fierce.

Exploring Tortuguero Hiking: You can walk the entire length of the beach. Trails into the forests--frequently waterlogged--also begin at the park stations at both ends of the park. The 2-km-long El Gavilán Trail leads south from the Cuatro Esquinas ranger station south of Tortuguero village and takes in both beach and rainforest. A trail that begins north of Tortuga Lodge leads to Cerro Tortuguero (119 meters), two km north of Tortuga Lodge; from here--the highest point for miles around--you have a superb perspective over the swamps and coastline from the rusting WWII-era lookout tower at the top. Short hikes from Estación Jalova provide a satisfying adventure for those with only limited time.

Canoes And Boats: You can hire dugout canoes (cayucas or botes) in Tortuguero village. Give the canoe a good inspection before shaking hands on the deal: paddle around until you feel comfortable and have ascertained that there are no leaks and that the canoe is stable. Alternately, consider a panga, a flat-bottomed boat with outboard motor (be sure to rent one with a relatively non-polluting four-stroke motor), or a lancha (with inboard motor), which will cost more. It's also a good idea to check on local currents and directions, as the former can be quite strong and it's easy to lose your bearings amid the maze of waterways. And don't forget to pay your park entrance fee before entering Tortuguero National Park.

You can also rent kayaks through the Save the Manatee Foundation. All the funds go towards purchasing educational materials for the new village high school.

Guided Tours
If you want to see wildlife you absolutely need a guide, as otherwise you'll not see 10 percent of the wildlife you'll see in their company. The local guides--there are about 40 guides trained by the National Parks Service and organized into a local cooperative--have binocular eyes: in even the darkest shadows, they can spot caimans, birds, crocodiles, and other animals you will most likely miss. You can hire local guides in the village (tours usually last two or three hours). The best guides are employed by the local lodges and are well versed in wildlife lore

The guide will lead you deep into the narrow caños and chug up the side streams where the vegetation narrows down to a murky closeness and he is forced to cut the motor and pole to make headway. On a guided three-hour tour from Tortuga Lodge, I saw crocodiles, caimans, howler monkeys, sloths, green macaws, turtles, toucans, herons, a diminutive pygmy kingfisher, river otters playing tag alongside the boat, and dozens of other species. The succession of creatures--some virtually at arm's reach--seemed almost to have been installed for my benefit. I felt as if we were in a museum instead of a wilderness. Exploring at night is no longer permitted.

You can also book guided trips at any of the lodges or through tour companies in San José. The following companies offer guided tours:

Costa Rica Expeditions (see appendix) provides the best operation and offers a variety of quality tours with overnights at its Tortuga Lodge. It provides rain ponchos, plus lunches for day trips to Barra del Colorado. Three-day/two-night packages with private flight from San José to Tortuguero are also available; boat tours into the park are extra. It has the best guides in the area. Recommended!

Cotur, has a three-day/two-night package from San José, including a bus ride to Moín, then a journey to Tortuguero aboard either the Miss Caribe or the Miss América. A half-day tour of the park is included. Accommodations are at the Jungle Lodge. Departure on Friday, return Sunday. Ecole Travel (see appendix) has special trips during turtle-nesting season. The Mawamba Lodge, operates a launch--the Mawamba--twice weekly from Puerto Limón to Tortuguero.

Tortuguero Safaris, in Tortuguero village, also has trips (see the Tours and Activities section, in the Tortuguero section, below).

Willie Rankin of All Rankin' Tours, has trips from Moín, as does Caribbean Comfort. Most other hotels in Puerto Limón can arrange tours.

This is an small excerpt from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica. CentralAmerica.Com highly recommends that you enhance your vacation by taking a copy of Moon's comprehensive Handbook with you. For more information visit the Moon Handbooks page on this site.

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