If you say ‘Tortuguero’ 3 things will cross my mind immediately: ‘turtles’, ‘toucans’ and ‘tourists’.
Tortuguero is a beautiful place in Costa Rica. One of the best places to spot turtles, toucans and a lot of other animals. But unfortunately, Tortuguero is getting more touristic every year as well. Not worth going anymore? I wouldn’t say that. Just know that you’re not the only one who found this jewel on the Caribbean coast.
Tortuguero in 2009: leatherback turtles and unspoiled nature
The first time I visited Tortuguero was in 2009. It was April, the season wherein leatherback turtles lay eggs. People advised me not to go, because there was just a small chance to see them due to the fact that only a small population of leatherback turtles visit Tortugero to lay eggs. But I wanted to take a chance and I went.
Just getting to Tortuguero was already part of the fun. After taking a shuttle to La Pavona I had to take a boat ride of one and a half hour through small canals (once dug for the transportation of wood). And during that trip I already saw a lot of wildlife, including the Basilisk lizard or ‘Jezus Christ Lizard’. It has been given this name because it walks over water! Pretty cool!
I had no idea what to expect. We were not allowed to bring a flashlight or a camera, so we walked in the pitch dark on the beach. Sometimes I felt something cracking under my feet and I just hoped it wasn’t a turtle.
After two hours of walking, the guide found a turtle. We had to wait until she had dug a hole. If we would have disturbed her while digging, she would have returned to the ocean without laying any eggs. But when she started laying her eggs, we could join her, because at that point she was in a state of trance.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was not something that I could have crashed with my feet. This turtle was massive, at least 2 meters long! And she was dropping 100 slimy ping pong balls in the sand. A very special moment to experience. Alien. And then, after quite a while, she returned to the ocean. An emotional moment. Call me sentimental, but I know I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.
The next day I got up early and joined a guide with a rowing boat. The sun got up and we saw all kinds of early birds. Literally. And caimans, monkeys, and small poison frogs. This was a very ‘Zen’ moment. Just the sounds of animals waking up and the opportunity to take some pictures.
I spent the afternoon walking through the national park and on the beach. And that was all there was to do in Tortuguero in 2009.
Tortuguero in 2017: more tourists, but still turtles and an incredible amount of animals
Now, 8 years later, I went back. This time I took the boat from Moin, since I came from Puerto Viejo. I booked the transport with Caribe Shuttle. The drive from Puerto Viejo and the boat ride where included in the ticket, and according to Caribe Shuttle it was not just transportation, but should also be considered as a tour. The boat ride was beautiful again, and as promised the captain stopped to show us sloths, monkeys, birds and caimans.
When I arrived in Tortuguero Village it seemed nothing had changed. It was still a basic dusty road with some restaurants and accommodations. But, since the tourism has grown, I made sure to book my accommodation in advance and I noticed that there are more or less 3 options: very basic accommodations, high-end accommodations with packages and high-end accommodations without packages. Because I traveled with my parents and uncle, I chose the latter. We booked at Tortuga Lodge and Gardens; a beautiful place with a great restaurant and infinity (!) pool. We were welcomed with welcome drinks and everything was organized in a great way! The only disadvantage was that it was a boat ride away from the main dock, which meant that we were depending on the shuttle boat of the hotel (3 times a day) or taxi boats if we wanted to go off of the property of Tortuga Lodge and Gardens.
It was August, the season of the green turtle, which means a big chance to spot one. We booked a tour to see the turtles and at this point I found out how much had changed. They were selling 600 permits per night, in two shifts and divided into sectors. Which is actually a good thing, because this way they protect the turtles. But it also shows how touristy Tortuguero has become.
We were assigned to the last shift. A guide was still explaining us about the green turtles, when he was told that a turtle had already starting laying eggs close by. So, we rushed to the beach and saw a big green turtle, maybe 1,25-meter long. Like the leatherback turtle, she dropped about 100 eggs in the hole she just dug. Still a very special moment for me.
We spend the next day at the hotel. It was raining on and off, but when the sun was out, we were extremely happy with the pool. Swimming in the river or ocean is not recommended at all.
We walked a trail, relaxed at the pool, enjoyed the incredible food and saw a lot of wildlife. Toucans, enormous iguanas, a sloth, howler monkeys, red poison frogs and so on. Just from the hotel grounds. In the afternoon, we joined a free garden walk with a guide and spotted even more animals.
The last day we were supposed to leave very early on a rowing boat tour. But it was raining, thundering, and lightning. To dangerous be on an open boat. So, we had to wait until the weather improved and left around 11. Another trip with a lot of wildlife. The pictures speak for themselves.
So it was good to be back in Tortuguero
All in all, it was good to be back in Tortuguero. Still, one of the best places to spot turtles laying eggs, and a lot of other beautiful animals. But, Tortuguero has been commercialized too. And even though it’s nice to have some luxury every now and then, the unspoiled nature is what you come for when visiting Tortuguero. That’s why I recommend you to book a beautiful accommodation (preferable with a pool, to cool off), but to skip the organized packages (which don’t even include the turtle watching most of the times). Just book your tours yourself, and make sure you don’t end up in the big group or on the big boats. Enjoy Tortuguero!