Tortuguero National Park
The Spanish name for the giant sea turtle is tortuga, and it’s the main reason that most people flock to this 77,000-acre coastal reserve on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. In fact, thanks to its isolation—it’s linked to the mainland only by a network of rivers and lagoons, plus some man-made canals that were created in 1969—turtles have been coming here since before 1600. And of the world’s eight species, four of them lay their eggs right on Tortuguero National Park's sandy beaches. But there’s much more to see than hatchlings. You might glimpse jaguars, three-toed sloths, manatees, and toucans among the park’s 2,200 plant species. Just remember to pack rain gear and waterproof shoes: It’s incredibly humid here, and rain comes down to the tune of almost 250 inches per year.
The best—and, really, only—way to see Tortuguero is by water. Skip the motorboat tours and sign up with one of the dozens of guides in Tortuguero Village. For recommendations, stop in at the Sea Turtle Conservancy's museum (tours of the canals are about $15 per person). If you’re feeling bold, buy a good map and rent your own canoe or kayak—many of the accommodations in town have them for rent, but look for those that have lighter fiberglass versions. The traditional Costa Rican pangas are heavy and hard to maneuver. You can also access the park from the south, in the town of Parismina. Rent from Iguana Verde—or hire the owner as a guide.
Within the park boundaries, the 1.2-mile El Gavilan Land Trail is the only option—it’s a well-marked, but usually muddy, route through jungle and past beach. Pick it up behind Cuatro Esquinas Ranger Station (and keep an eye out for green parrots). A few clicks north of Tortuguero Village, and accessible only by boat, is 390-foot-high Cerro Tortuguero; it’s the highest point around and has wonderful views of both beaches and canals. Stop by the Tortuguero Information Center for a guide (generally about $10–$15 per person).
The main attraction—eggs being laid, and baby turtles hatching, at night—peaks in late July through August, and you need a licensed guide to accompany you to the beach for tours that usually last between two and four hours ($10–$30 per person). Bring dark-colored clothing and leave the flashlights and camera flashes back at the hotel.
Pitching a tent in the park is not allowed, but you can camp at Jalova Station, down at the southern end of Tortuguero ($2 per person). Opt for higher ground in case it rains. At the northern end, just outside Tortuguero Village, Cuatro Esquinas Ranger Station has $2 camping as well—with drinking water and restrooms available.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication