Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Where > Planet Earth > the Americas > Costa Rica > Tortuguero

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Nature Travel Guide

Location 17: Tortuguero (Costa Rica)

"Forest and beach with herons, egrets, turtles, caimans."

I recommend the Wetland Explorer (premium link) activity.

My favourite places to walk were the trails at Tortuguero National Park and I also enjoyed the Canoe Trail.

I have often heard Tortuguero described on the backpacking circuit as a place to see crocodiles, herons and turtles. This location description is based on my visit in 2017 when I saw lots of wildlife, although I did not find crocodiles to be common and the turtles are only around from approximately July to October. If you do visit during turtle season, the local wardens ask for nesting turtles to be watched from a distance and say that turtles should be given "right of way" (so you must move aside if they want your patch of beach).

I enjoyed seeing the colourful kingfishers, egrets and herons in the wetlands. For keen birdwatchers there are also forests that are home to toucans, trogons, flycatchers, warblers, tanagers and other families of birds.

I found getting to Tortuguero from San Jose to be fairly easy. Your hotel, hostel or travel guide will obviously have advice on this. When I visited in 2017 there was a well-known route using public transport (from San Jose) starting with a bus to Cariari, then a bus to La Pavona and then a public ferry to Tortuguero. A one-way ticket cost me approximately $10. There were also tourist buses available which cost more but which some visitors prefer.

Coterc http://www.coterc.org is a conservation project at Tortuguero where you can volunteer, stay in a great place and have access to kayaks for exploring.

  • Tortuguero National Park (site 1) has trails heading south through the park. To reach the entrance stick to the western side of the village and head south. If you ask at the entry booth they are may tell you where you can and cannot go. Do stick to footpaths, but when I visited in 2017 I did not ask about how far they went: I later discovered that due to lack of signs I had gone slightly further than the official public trail and therefore got to see more wildlife. (GPS coords 10.5376N 83.5042W)
  • After getting a park permit from the entry booth (you can tie up the canoe on the park jetty), you can explore the Canoe Trail (site 2). The waterways have windows of time when you can use them: I overran my time as canoeing is a bit slower than the motorboats but nobody seemed to mind and it seems in the spirit of the national park to use this more environmentally-friendly transport. (GPS coords 10.5274N 83.5135W)
  • If you stick to the eastern side of the village you end up on the Beach Walk (site 3) heading north. There are good views into the trees and over the beach giving a variety of bird species. Some of the hotels have their own trails which they generally seem to be happy for non-resident birdwatchers to use. (GPS coords 10.5686N 83.5144W)
  • The Sea Turtle Conservancy (site 4) has a visitor centre that explains about the turtles that nest on the beach. There is a small entry fee.
  • The many species of heron and egret were my highlights from my list of birds seen in 3 days at Tortuguero in summer (premium link).

I photographed this Pale-vented Pigeon by the beach at Tortuguero.

Wildlife of Tortuguero

I saw leaf-cutter ant trails everywhere with ants carrying leaves to their colonies. There were lots of spiders in webs hanging in the trees. Common insects include dragonflies, pond-skaters and butterflies. Small lizards 11x1 (m1) were a common sight; some had bright-coloured tails which is a defence against predators which will be drawn to the tail, which the lizard can shed/drop meaning it can escape. I saw a basilisk lizard 1x1 (m1) running across the surface of the water. I also saw iguanas 2x1 (m1) in the trees: they can be very difficult to spot but I find the spines on their back often gives them away. I saw just one crocodile 1x1 (m1) which the public ferry stopped next to so that everyone could take photographs. Caiman 2x1 (m1) are similar to crocodiles but smaller and with thinner noses.

These are the mammals that I saw on a 3 day visit in January 2017:- (The Red Brocket Deer is chestnut/reddish brown with a small white tail and small tracks approximately the size of a peccary's.) (I saw Jaguar tracks that were identified by their large size and the difference in hind and fore track width.) (Rarer mammals I did not see included tapir and manatee.) Squirrel Monkey 2x3 (m3), White-fronted Capuchin Monkey 2x3 (m4), Howler Monkey 3x5 (m9), Spider Monkey 1x3 (m3), River Otter 1x2 (m2), Red Brocket Deer 1x1 (m1), squirrel 1x1 (m1), agouti 1x1 (m1).

On the same 3 day visit in January 2017 I saw a total of 59 species of birds with an average of 28 species per day. Highlights for me were the herons, egrets and kingfishers in the rivers and canals and the colourful flycatchers in and around the town.

The most common birds I saw were:- Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) 15x5 (m20), Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) 11x2 (m2), Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma) 8x5 (m10), Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 7x5 (m10), Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) 6x1 (m1), Bare-throated Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum) 5x2 (m2), Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) 5x2 (m2), Pale-vented Pigeon (Patagioenas cayennensis) 5x2 (m2), Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 4x17 (m50), Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 4x2 (m5), Great Green Macaw (Ara ambigua) 4x3 (m6), Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) 4x1 (m1), Blue-gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus) 4x2 (m2), Great Egret (Ardea alba) 3x1 (m1), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) 3x3 (m3), Green Heron (Butorides virescens) 3x1 (m1), Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) 3x2 (m2), Sungrebe (Heliornis fulica) 3x1 (m1), Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) 3x1 (m1), Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii) 3x2 (m2), Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) 3x1 (m1), White-ringed Flycatcher (Conopias albovittata) 3x2 (m3), Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis) 3x2 (m2), Chestnut-sided Warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica) 3x1 (m1).

I photographed this Bare-throated Tiger-Heron on a canoe trail in Tortuguero National Park.

This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on October 19th 2018.

Larger-scale information relating to this page include the Planet Earth, the Americas and Costa Rica articles.

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