Tortuguero, located in the northwest of Costa Rica and on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, is one of those places that every nature lover should visit at least once in their life. It is a remote corner, one of those that cannot be reached by car. A trip that, despite the arrival of tourism and its influence on society, maintains the essence of what it was in the past.
Tortuguero is also the best area in Costa Rica and one of the most advisable in the world to witness how, after swimming thousands of kilometers, the turtles reach the beach to lay their eggs. Apart from observing the spawning spectacle, Tortuguero deserves a visit in itself
The inhabitants of the place always lived on these animals. In fact, Tortuguero means turtle hunter. Today, despite the fact that they are protected and can no longer hunt, they continue to be the main source of income for the population thanks to the pull that sightings of spawning have for tourism.
If you are thinking of visiting Tortuguero, these are my experiences and some recommendations to organize your visit, watch the spawning and get the best out of an experience that will surely remain engraved on your retina for life.
What is the best time to travel?
Apart from observing the spawning spectacle, Tortuguero deserves a visit in itself. In any case, I advise you to pay close attention to the spawning season and make your trip coincide with them. The strongest periods are two: from April to June the leatherback turtles spawn, and from July to October the green turtles come to spawn. But, in reality, it is possible to observe spawning in a much broader time. Keep in mind that from May to October hawksbill turtles also come there, and from May to September it is the turn of the loggerhead turtles.
Another fact to take into account when organizing the trip to Tortuguero is the phase of the Moon. Observation of spawning is done at night and, of course, lanterns cannot be lit because they would scare away the turtles. Any slight noise or presence can scare them and their reaction is to go back to the water and not lay the eggs. That consequence, as is logical, would put this species in serious danger. Therefore, choosing dates close to the full moon will make the experience even more intense and will help the conservation of this precious chelonid.
How to get there
You can get to Tortuguero by plane, but I recommend going by land to take a dimension of the remoteness of the place, very far from civilization as most of us know it. In about two and a half hours you can get from San José to the Pavona jetty by road through large banana plantations and along a route in which it is not difficult to start making contact with the fauna and find sloths hanging on electric poles and cables.
At La Pavona there is a car park where you can leave your car during your stay in Tortuguero. Easier is the option to take advantage of the fact that many of Tortuguero’s larger hotels include bus transportation from San José. The final section, from La Pavona to Tortuguero, is done in boats through the pipes that advance in the jungle with a winding route. This tour is an experience in itself and serves as a disconnection from the mainland.
How to get the passes to sight the spawn
It is not possible to see the spawning by free, it is prohibited and the beach is guarded for 24 hours. The visit is done by buying the pass, always in organized groups and in the hands of an authorized guide. The normal thing is to request the pass through the hotel where you are staying, since they usually take care of making the request to the park. If your hotel does not do this for you, it is possible to buy tickets at the national park offices located at the entrance of the park, just at the end of the town.
Where to stay there
If everything is organized and you have the spawning pass reserved, it is not necessary to spend more than one night in the village. The ideal is to travel in the morning, get to the hotel, take a walk through the town and wait for the night. However, my recommendation is to spend at least two nights there to be able to enjoy the place calmly and do some other excursions that are very worthwhile.
There is a multitude of accommodation and for all tastes. In the town area you can find small hotels with few rooms in traditional buildings. Some of them are inexpensive and allow a greater contact with the essence of the place. From the town and along the stretch of land that separates the airport there are many large hotels or lodges. In general, they are paradisiacal places, integrated with the jungle in which they are located, with bungalows, swimming pools and restaurants that are sometimes semi-open and exposed to the jungle, where the iguanas can perfectly become breakfast companions.
Preparation of the watching
I recommend that you look at the expected temperature since it can drop and you would need some warm garment, if possible, by the way, dark in color to go as unnoticed as possible. You should also be prepared in case of rain forecast. It goes without saying that you can’t take photos, talk to mobiles, carry any kind of flashlight, or make noise. They are rules of conduct. For families traveling with children, I advise bringing them prepared. It is convenient that they go rested to stay awake if we have to see the spawning late, for this, it is recommended that they take a nap.
The place of observation is assigned by the Tortuguero
National Park organization by lottery and it was our turn in a sector quite far from the hotel and in the second shift, the one at ten o’clock at night. So we got in the boat and headed there. The guides watch at all times the movement of the turtles. The moment when the chelonium leaves the sea and creates the nest in the sand to lay the eggs cannot be seen, since they could be scared, so the trackers only give you the signal when it is about to spawn.
The turtles can carry out this spawning operation for 10 weeks, to lay a total of about a thousand eggs.
The night of spawning
And they gave us the signal. He estimates that the entire process takes about two hours. Everything was very fast and amazing. They warned us, we crossed the bushes and walked about 100 meters. We could see the shell in the distance. We get closer. The turtle was in a trance and, in that state, nothing can stop it. An egg falls, and another, and another, and so on until the hundred. It was an exciting twelve minutes, at intervals of two or three more or less, and every time I spawned my skin prickled. It was exciting. A miracle. Later, the animal carefully covered the nest, with great effort, throwing the sand backwards and, simultaneously, digging another false nest next to it to mislead the predators. Finally, exhausted, she crawled back to shore, slowly sinking into the water.
A miracle: 1 in 1,000
It is fascinating how turtles can perform this operation for 10 weeks, to lay a total of about a thousand eggs. That’s pure life! Of all of them, the first spawns are aimed at satiating their predators, which provides more opportunity for the next spawns. Still, few will survive the first few hours, as dangers still lurk in the water, and only 1 of those 1,000 will reach adulthood.
In Bocas del Toro, a few days later (the nesting period usually occurs between 45 and 70 days later), we were less than a thousand meters away from encountering a group of 100 hatchlings that were hatching and trying to reach the water. The bad luck is that we had separated from the group and had turned around a few meters before. You have to be very aware that these animals do not have a fixed schedule, nor a specific place to reproduce. You never know which beach they will decide on. Seeing them depends a bit on luck and you just have to open your eyes wide and enjoy this wild spectacle to the fullest.
The beach the next day
I recommend you also take a walk on the beach the next day. In the sand, the traces that the turtles have left the night before are clearly identified from the water to the point chosen for laying, which is usually at the limit where the sand ends and the vegetation begins. The drawing of the footprints is amazing. Also, with luck, it is possible to see the heads of the turtles poking out further inland, not far from the coast. On this walk it is not uncommon to see them accompanied by groups of pelicans and other birds flying near the beach.
Visit the national park by boat
My recommendation is to take advantage of the getaway not only to see the spawning, but also to get to know the Tortuguero National Park and enjoy the jungle and the fauna it houses. Created in 1975, this park located about 80 kilometers from the city of Limón, has an area of more than 26 thousand hectares and another 50,000 of marine area to protect the turtles.
With the spawning pass you can access the park on foot. The access is in the extreme south of the town. One option that I advise is to hire a boat excursion through the pipes. Again, the pass purchased for spawning will be used on this excursion. During the tour you will see a multitude of birds, turtles, crocodiles, howler monkeys, toucans, manatees, etc. The night tour is also interesting, although my experience is that these types of outings depend a bit on luck and, in general, they are better in the Monteverde area.
Tour the town
We must not forget to visit the town of Tortuguero itself. It is a pleasant place with a central street parallel to the coastline on one side and a large canal or pipe on the other. I recommend going for a walk (there is no asphalt on the streets), see some shops, eat a meal and at night go for a drink and listen to music at the only place that exists in this corner of the world.
Some cross streets overlook the pipe where we can take a taxi-boat to go to another part of the town or to the hotel. I was struck by the institutional concern for the care of the environment that is evident throughout the country and that is also present in Tortuguero.