Tortuguero was the second stop on our Costa Rican journey and was a strange but magical place. We both love turtles, so it made sense for us to visit the most important nesting site for Green Sea Turtles in the western hemisphere. We stayed for a week, which is longer than most, and got to experience a lot of nature, a lot of rain, and a lot of magic. For us, accommodation and food were less important in Tortuguero (and food in always at the top of my list), as we were there for the experience.
Where to sleep
We stayed at Tortuguero Natural. It was in a great location between the town and the beach and like pretty much anywhere that you can stay in Tortuguero, everything was within walking distance. It was a basic hotel but good value for money with big rooms and a private bathroom. The staff were also really lovely and even gave us a gift when we left! Unless you are staying at a lodge, almost all the accommodation is in the town or very close to it.
Where to eat
The selection and value isn't the best in Tortuguero so we tended to stick to the places we liked.
Donde Richard - Probably the most popular restaurant in town! We visited twice and each time we were lucky to get a table. The food was really good quality and they were offering food that was a little bit different from the other restaurants in Tortuguero. Depending on what you order the portions can be small or large so it's worth double checking what the size of the meal is first if you are really hungry.
Sushi Samurai - This was another favourite that differed from the usual fried meats and rice and beans offered by almost everywhere else. The food was super fresh and the Maki sushi was really good. The prices were lower than average for the area which made us smile. Sushi Samarai is on the street behind the town, on the soccer/football field. You will see signs that lead you here.
The food in Tortuguero is expensive as it's such a small town. For lunches we generally picked something up from the supermarket or a smoothie. It's worth walking around and checking out prices, and taking a peak to see what other people are eating as sometimes the quality isn't great. Miss Junies and Miriams were recommended but we didn't try out either of these as the prices were high even by Tortuguero standards.
What to See
The actives in Tortuguero were definitely our favorite part. We went kayaking in the national park (we ordered a double kayak but ended up with two single kayaks and boy was kayaking for three hours from 6 am hard work!). We also hiked in the national park, and did a turtle nesting tour.
Kayaking the National Park: Tortuguero has no roads and no cars, the national park is made up of water ways which make you feel like you have just stepped into The Jungle Book. We were told that the best time to visit was from 6 am as this is when the wildlife is most active, so we set our alarms, got up very early and wandered down for our kayaking session. Originally we had asked for a double kayak but were given two single ones so off we kayaked through the national park for three hours. It took a large amount of the three hours to really learn how to control my kayak which wasn't easy but saw a multitude of birds, some caiman, two types of monkey, a river otter, some raccoons and a sloth!
Trailing the National Park: The day pass for the park doesn't come cheap (15 USD when we visited in 2018), so we decided to make the most of it, and follow the Jaguar trail which was the main walking trail through the park. It was very hot and humid and the bugs started to become a bit too much but fortunately there were lots of places to cut out onto the beach area in the National Park. I was so glad we did this as we timed it just right to see some baby Green Turtles heading to the sea from their nest to begin their journey!
Turtle Nesting Tour: We came to Tortuguero to see the turtles, so it made sense for us to do a turtle nesting tour. There are no tours to see the hatchings as this is much less predictable, usually happening in the early morning or afternoon when the sun is not so hot. The park is very good in regards to protecting the turtles that come to the beach to lay their eggs, so you have to take a guided tour and only so many people are allowed on the beach at once (as well as the beach being closed between 6pm and 6am). We chose the 10 pm - 12 am session, and we were lucky enough to see two turtles come to the shore, as well as another turtle laying her eggs. It was really incredible but we did feel a little creepy watching a mummy turtle give birth so after having a quick scan for other turtles we headed for our bed.
Wandering the beach: The beach is shut from 6 pm to 6 am ( from sunrise to sunset), in order to protect the laying turtles and the hatchlings making their way to the sea. We decided to make the most of our time in Tortuguero by heading out at 6 am each day and wandering down to the beach to look out for baby turtles. As we wandered along on one of our last days we saw two women digging up a turtle nest. After staring at them for a long time tying to figure out if they were legit or whether we needed to call the park police (unfortunately turtle egg poaching is still a problem) we were called over. It turns out they were researchers from the Sea Turtle Conservatory checking on one of the nests they had been monitoring. They pulled out a few very sleepy looking baby turtles and informed us they still needed a few days sleep before they were ready to take on the world (as this was still pre-7am I could fully understand). A little down the beach some locals were waving to the researchers that a dog was digging up a nest so they headed along and invited us. The researchers checked on the nest while we stood guard for dogs and birds and when they decided the turtles were ready they sent 80 or so little guys or girls down towards the sea. We had been lucky enough to see one or two other babies making the journey but this really was something that neither of us will ever forget.
The researchers were so nice and informative and it was so good that they were around. Our instinct would have been to pick the babies up but it's super important to make sure to keep your distance and to not touch the little guys as they need to get to the sea themselves so they know where to come back and nest.
Cleaning the beach of plastic: Single use plastic is partly banned in Tortuguero and the beach doesn't have a lot of plastic on it, but in my opinion it's still too much. I picked up plastic whenever we walked the beach to try and make a small difference to our little turtle friends. It's easy, free and will hopefully make a difference to our seas.
The cheapest thing in Tortuguero has to be the accommodation. Being a small strip of land only accessible by water and air means everything is more expensive. It was $25 each for our turtle tour, $40 each for the guided kayak tour, as well as another $15 each for National Park entry. Wandering the beach for baby turtles was free and was the most special experience for us but the money that we did spend really was worth it.