Costa Rica Travel: Things to do in Tortuguero National Park
Tucked away in the northeastern part of Costa Rica, Tortuguero National Park (one of the key highlights of Costa Rica), and possibly one of the finest national parks of the country, is an ecological treasure-trove luring nature-seekers around the globe with its unadulterated elements and exotic wildlife. Named after the Spanish word Tortuga, which translates as turtles, Tortuguero National Park is in the mainstream for breeding the famed sea turtles on its shores. Best explored by boat down the canals of the park, amidst the howling of monkeys and chirping of birds, this ecotourism hub bestows nature-fanatics with that piece of jungle utopia they have been longing for.
Connect with Costa Rican travel experts, who will weave Tortuguero into a larger itinerary across Costa Rica.
Stretching north along the Caribbean coast up to the village of Tortuguero, the national park sprawls over 31,174 hectares and enjoys the prestige of being the third-most visited natural preserve in the country despite its remote location. Officially established in 1975, Tortuguero National Park recalls its creation back to 1955 when an American herpetologist, Archie Carr, encouraged the protection of endangered sea turtles and began the turtle-tagging program to preserve them, which is still prevalent today.
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Although an enormous variety of wildlife fills the park, this area primarily acts as an important nesting hub for the sea turtles, drawing thousands of visitors from all corners of the world. Earlier, Tortuguero National Park was an archipelago of volcanic islands until the alluvial slag from the mountains filled the spaces and turned it into rich, lush marshland. Given its extreme swampiness, Tortuguero can be best explored by a canoe or a kayak down its network of lagoons.
Considering its isolated location, Tortuguero National Park can be accessed by a flight or a 4WD. The shortest possible way is definitely by taking a domestic flight operating daily from San Jose’s Tobias Bolanos International Airport to Tortuguero. Budget-restricted travelers can benefit from the efficient public transportation without burning a hole in their pocket by taking a bus ride from San Jose’s Terminal Gran Caribe Bus Station to Cariari, then shifting to another bus to La Pavona, after which one can take a ferry ride to the national park, which lasts around an hour.
Important note: Entrance to the park costs $15 USD per adult and opens for visitors every day from 8 AM to 6 PM.
Things to do
Walk through Tortuguero National Park
Like most of the national parks prevailing in the region, Tortuguero does attract its guests with its pleasant walking trails, thereby allowing you to explore the park at your own pace. Blooming with rich biodiversity, the park’s various trails enchant visitors with several terrestrial and marine life species like jaguars, sloths, spider monkeys, kingfisher, toucans, alligators, manatees, frogs and caimans.
The sheer brilliance of the park is not restricted to its abundant wildlife; it is also an unrivaled intimacy with nature in its most primal form.
The main essence of Tortuguero National Park, which separates it from its fellow counterparts, lies in its commendable populations of sea turtles; hailed as one of Costa Rica's finest experiences and things to do, one cannot afford to miss the sight of these gentle and endangered animals while here. Head over in the months between July and October to catch a glimpse of Hawksbill and Green Sea turtles crawling onto the beach to lay clutches of eggs.
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Turtle tours usually commence at night with a guide who enlightens you about this spectacle of birth and regeneration, and the miracle of a mother turtle navigating her way around the world and returning to the very shores on which she was born. Stripped off all frills, the Turtle Tour is truly a phenomenal experience in itself, worth the price of a ticket alone.
Important note: Flash photography is strictly prohibited as it may disorient the mother at egg-laying time, and the baby turtles at hatching time.
Jungle Canopy Tour
As most of the animals in the park are arboreal i.e. they dwell amongst the trees without stepping onto the ground, it becomes difficult to sight them by simply walking along the trail. One can take a jungle canopy tour and discover the canopy through a network of hanging bridges, that serve as a magnificent vantage point for the hidden wildlife, and also the fresh green vista of the forest from over 100 feet above the ground.
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Those looking for some adrenaline-spiking moments in the midst of the jungle should indulge in zip-lining in which you swoop through the forest canopy cover, an activity that combines adventure and nature-viewing.
Visit the Turtle Museum at Caribbean Conservation Center (CCC)
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A unit of the Caribbean Conservation Center (CCC), the turtle museum is located just along the main street of the park and grants admission to its visitors for a nominal fee of $ 2 USD, whereby you can get access to a well-scripted documentary video, emphasizing the importance of saving the endangered turtles and find interesting information and posters depicting facts about other wildlife species. This museum is an eye-opener for visitors, making them aware of the various menaces that turtles face and how dangerously likely they are to become extinct if those wrong practices continue. Interestingly, the museum also has a shop, where one can even sponsor a turtle.
Unlike other national parks of Costa Rica, Tortuguero is a marshy landmass with an extensive network of canals, perfectly explored only by canoeing down its muddy lagoon.
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One of the added benefits of canoeing, compared to hiking, is it can help you reach the most secluded portions of the park. Nature enthusiasts can rent a canoe and embrace the serene experience of traveling to the innermost sections of its waterways, deep into the heart of the thick mangroves which are home to several amphibious species like manatees and caimans that would otherwise remain unseen.
Best time to visit
Since the turtles are the primary attractions of the park, the best time to visit would be from July to October, when the Hawksbill and the Green Sea Turtles come to nest on the beaches. The Leatherback turtles, however, nest from March to July. The peak nesting period of the turtles is considered to be in the rainy season and this is perhaps the best time to go, as opposed to other destinations in Costa Rica which are better visited in the dry months.