COSTA RICA GET AROUND TO TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK

HOW TO GET TO TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK BY A RENTAL CAR OR BUS SERVICE.

The following is a summary of the options available to the independent traveller who wants to find his/her own way to Tortuguero village. These are not all of the ways and means to travel to Tortuguero National Park but are the ones that are generally considered free of package-oriented or commission-paying options.

Privately run companies provide practically all transport in Costa Rica. In the case of Tortuguero only the buses and planes provide a public service with prices regulated by the government. Since there are no roads to Tortuguero, most visitors arrive in expensive, all-inclusive packages that are very lucrative to the travel agencies who sell them. As a result, information about independent travel has unfortunately remained somewhat of a mystery and has been erroneously referred to as expensive and even dangerous. You will see below that travel can actually be rather inexpensive and as long as

one is responsible and respectful while remembering that they are travelling in a country which is probably less developed than their own, can be interesting, safe and adventurous.

This information contains some caveats based on a large amount of feedback received by the center over the years. It is updated constantly due to the inevitable changes and improvements to the infrastructure of this developing country. Many travellers have commented that they would have benefited from having known more about their options before coming to Tortuguero.

For those looking for TOURS while in Tortuguero, these can be arranged by asking around in the village (don’t be surprised if someone not-so-innocently tells you that a recommended guide is not available). Be persistent. There are several excellent local guides who speak English or even German and French. Some of the restaurants work on a commission basis so if you want to find a recommended guide ask in one of the souvenir shops or at the Tortuguero Information Center.

BASICALLY THERE ARE FIVE WAYS AN INDEPENDENT TRAVELLER CAN GET TO TORTUGUERO. HERE THEY ARE IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:

1. BY AIR:

Sansa (506) 221-9414, fax 255-2176 flysansa.com or info@flysansa.com
Nature Air (506) 220-3054, fax 296-2316 natureair.com

Note: Only Sansa offers a boat ride (US $3 pp.) to Tortuguero village (2 miles down the beach). Victor Barrantes, a bilingual local guide, is the Sansa representative in the village (709-8055). He can be found at the airport upon arrival of both Sansa and Nature Air flights if you need a ride to the village.

Both airlines fly in and out of Tortuguero once per day early in the morning. The one-way fare was recently $65 and $70 per person respectively. The rate depends on season. Please check the web sites for current prices.

2. BY LODGE/PRIVATE TRANSPORT BUS/BOAT (ONLY WHEN SPACE AVAILABLE):

Call one of the Tortuguero lodge or tour operators of your choice at 5:00 p.m. the night before you travel to Tortuguero. If there is space available you may be picked up at one of the San Jose hotels on their route the next morning between 6-7:00 a.m. Tell them you only need a ride to Tortuguero village.

Price ranges from US $45-$100 or more per person one-way including breakfast. This is not reliable unless buying a complete package as space is often unavailable. They try to send the smallest bus/boat to accommodate their full-package clients.

Fran and Modesto Watson offer complete packages via Moin but may provide transport only when they have space available. Call them at (506) 226-0986 or by email fvwatson@racsa.co.cr

3. VIA LIMON/MOIN:

a) By bus:

Take the 6:30 a.m. bus to Limon from the Gran Caribe bus terminal (221-2596) in San Jose (no later or you may miss the boat connection in Moin). Buy the ticket one day in advance during the high season or you may not find room on this bus!. Take a taxi (US $4 for 10 km) to the JAPDEVA boat docks in Moin for the Tortuguero canals. A bus is available to Moin but the taxi is cheap and fast.

The boat owners in Moin recently formed a co-operative and there is a loose rotation organised to give all the captains a chance to take people to Tortuguero. You will have to negotiate a price. There is bargaining power in groups so try to pair up with someone before arriving at the docks. Prices may run from $50-$70 per person and a chartered boat may cost US $200 or more return. These are water taxis and don’t have a fixed daily service. Make sure your boat has all the necessary safety equipment required by Costa Rican law: lifejackets for each passenger, paddle, bailer, fire extinguisher.

Alexis Soto and Sebastien Torres (beeper 900-296-2626) are partners in a reliable (virtually daily) boat service to and from Tortuguero. They only speak Spanish but their captains speak some English and have well-trained eyes to find animals along the way. They travel on most days and provide a covered boat and ponchos. You can reserve beforehand by calling them directly or (if you are uncomfortable speaking Spanish) by contacting the Tortuguero Information Center. Cost: about US $50 return or $30 one-way per person in a shared boat if you arrive on time for boat departure (10:00 a.m.). They will wait until 10:30 if they are expecting you after which time they will have to leave. Arrival in Tortuguero is around 2:00 PM. They are one of the most reliable operators and the most fair with putting travellers in touch with previously recommended guides in the village. Some of the other independent boat captains from Moin work only with specific guides in the village on a commission basis who may not speak English or may tell you that the guide you have been recommended no longer lives there or that they don’t know them. Insist if you have someone’s name. If you have no luck come to the information center in front of the catholic church in Tortuguero village and you will be put in touch with the guide you seek (or have suggested to you a good one that suits the tour, language and budget desired).

The return trip to Moin departs from Tortuguero at around 10:00 am. This allows you time for a second morning tour of the rivers (if staying in Tortuguero two nights and in case the first morning is rained out), and time for breakfast before leaving. You should be back in Moin before 1:00 p.m. This will give you plenty of time to get back to San Jose or down to the southern Caribbean coast during daylight hours.

Note: If you are planning on travelling only one-way along the inland waterway between Tortuguero and Moin it is more interesting to go to Tortuguero via Moin rather than the other way. This is because the boat makes more wildlife viewing stops on the way to Tortuguero than when leaving.

b) To Moin by rental car:

Take Braulio Carrillo highway towards Limon leaving no later than 6:30 a.m. To get to the Moin docks leave the San Jose-Limon highway a few miles before you get to Limon. You will see the exit to Moin on the highway and on any good map. You will exit to the left after passing a gas station on your right (signposted). Go past the oil refinery and under the only train bridge and you will immediately see an entrance on your left to a gravel road that leads to the JAPDEVA docks for TORTUGUERO. This is BEFORE you get to the huge international freight loading docks. DO NOT cross over a bridge (you will have gone too far). Just ask around once in the area and someone will tell you how to get there (JAPDEVA is pronounced “hap-DAY-vuh”). You will have to pass through a security gate. Just mention the word “Tortuguero” to the guards and they will direct you to the dock where the boats leave. The boat captains and touts who are always there will tell you where to park the car. You’ll see from the security gate that the compound is safe with 24-hour guards. You will need to pay the guards a couple of dollars per night spent in Tortuguero upon your return. See above for boat information.

More detailed driving instructions are available.

4. VIA RENTAL CAR TO THE CANO BLANCO MARINA:

This is the route all the big lodges use to get to Tortuguero. Although there can be many boats here, most of the captains and guides are under strict orders not to take on any passengers that aren’t part of the package tour.

It’s best not to get stuck here without first having confirmed your water transport. There are usually independent captains waiting here for people who get stranded by the second (and last) bus to Siquirres for the day or those who arrive here in a rental car having followed the enigmatic “Parque Nacional Tortuguero” street signs located on the main highway. They will either offer to take you to Tortuguero for an amount similar to the Moin boats that travel much further or will take you to the town of Parismina a few miles south of the southern end of the Tortuguero National Park. They can take you into the National Park from Parismina which is pleasant enough but it is 25 miles from Tortuguero village and is not quite as good for viewing wildlife or the Green sea turtles during the nesting season. It is however a better location for observing Leatherback turtles during their nesting season between March and May.

Take the Limon highway as far as the town of Siquirres. Take the exit to the left before the overhead bridge into the center of town. Cross the train tracks and follow the signs to Tortuguero National Park. Drive the 37 km past the towns of El Carmen, Maryland and keep following the most travelled road to the marina called Cano Blanco (about one hour: this is a rough road). Before “La Pavona” (see below), this used to be the point of land closest to Tortuguero that could be reached by car. There is secure parking at the marina. The local boats generally charge around US $100 for a pick up or drop off in Tortuguero from Cano Blanco.

5. VIA PUBLIC BUS AND BOAT THROUGH CARIARI AND LA PAVONA.

This route requires a short introduction to eliminate some possible confusion you might encounter on the way. One source of the confusion comes from the fact that there is more than one transport company offering boat transport along the Suerte river and all of them want to take you to Tortuguero and each has their own opinion about how you should get there. The other is that La Pavona does not yet appear on any map.

First of all the route operated by COOPETRACA via La Pavona is currently the cheapest way to get to Tortuguero. It is the route the locals from Tortuguero use to get out to the banks and other essential services in Cariari and Guapiles. It is the route recognized by the municipality, national park service and Tortuguero local government as the official public route and receives municipal funding for its maintenance. COOPETRACA offers the bus and boat transport between Cariari and Tortuguero for a total of 2,000 colones (approx.$4) one-way.

As mentioned there are several boat operators offering transport to locals and international visitors to the area along this (or slight variations of this) route. It is in general, rustic and for those used to luxury it may even be uncomfortable. It does not have the fast, comfortable buses used on inter city routes or the comfortable covered boats used by the luxury lodges or on the route from Moin. The road is rough and the bus ride at times is quite bumpy and hot. The river is narrow and at times swollen with floodwaters or at other times so dry that it is un-navigable (extremely rare). During the height of the dry season people sometimes have to get out of the boat, roll up their pant legs and push their way over sand banks. During the wet season the boat operators provide ponchos and a large plastic sheet to cover all the baggage. It is an adventure for all but on the whole is generally quite safe (i.e. no white-water!).

Having said all that, La Pavona is currently the most popular route used to get into and out of Tortuguero for both locals and independent travelers and is also the safest and most reliable ANY service has ever been between Cariari and Tortuguero. The boats docking in La Pavona generally have reliable, late-model, environmentally-friendly and quiet four-stroke outboard motors. This is important because the Suerte river passes right through part of the Tortuguero National Park.

River transport has been up until May of 2005 a bit of a cash cow for some of the boat operators who have charged up to $7 or $10 for foreign riders (while charging locals traveling in the same boat about $2) but things have recently changed and everyone buying their ticket at the office of COOPETRACA (the transport company offering the “public” transport) pays the same.

Some of the other transport service providers who have well established, vertically-integrated, commission-paying operations involving buses, boats, guides, hotels and restaurants are not happy with the new “one-price-for-everyone” service offered by COOPETRACA. You will meet up with people hawking these services (and local tours) at all the bus stations along the way and upon your arrival in Tortuguero. There have been many complaints received at this office about false or misleading information provided by some of these people about guides, tours and accommodations in Tortuguero. It is OK to be a bit stubborn and to look for your recommended guide, lodging etc. ON YOUR OWN. The village is very small.

At the time of writing, everyone offering transport with regular timetables along the route between Cariari and Tortuguero by road and along the rio Suerte has an operating license authorized by the appropriate government ministry meaning they comply with the laws for safe transit on water. You are of course free to accept offers from anyone providing transport other than the public carrier but be advised that YOU WILL PAY MORE and you may find it difficult to contact your recommended guide, lodging or restaurant in Tortuguero. Many people have commented that they were not able to find the cheapest public transport service or their lodgings, guide etc. for a number of dubious or mysterious reasons.

There is nothing complicated or dangerous about traveling on your own to Tortuguero along this route.

If you are independent and want to travel on public transport all the way to the public dock in Tortuguero (not a dedicated terminal with a dedicated guide or agent waiting) where you may find your own way to your lodging, guiding service or restaurant, FOLLOW THESE DIRECTIONS. The non commission-paying, hard-working independent guides and services in the village will appreciate it:

Note: During a few days of the year this route may not always be transit able especially during high rainfall or no rainfall (too little water in river). If you want to check if the river is passable (especially if you have heard of very stormy conditions on the Caribbean coast) call one of the transport companies listed in your guidebook or for information in English, call the Tortuguero Information Center (833-0827 or 709-8055).

Take the 9:00 am direct bus to Cariari (about $2. Departures at 6:30, 9:00, 10:30 a.m and 1:00, 3:00, 4:20, 6:00, 7:00 pm) from the Gran Caribe bus terminal in San Jose. The 9:00 bus arrives at about 11:00 a.m. at the dedicated San Jose bus terminal in Cariari. Note: Buy your ticket for this bus at the Guapiles ticket counter. There are information desks at both the Gran Caribe bus terminal AND at the baggage check of the arrival terminal in Cariari run by independent travel agents that promote the higher priced commission-earning options. Their friendly and persuasive employees for obvious reasons give the impression that theirs is the ONLY route to Tortuguero. THIS IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE. You are free to choose your own travel options. They may be politely insistent.

Upon arrival in Cariari, and to go onward INDEPENDENTLY, you will need to walk about five blocks north to the local bus terminal located behind the police station after the Banco Nacional. Go to the back corner of the bus stop to the COOPETRACA ticket booth where you will find bus and boat tickets for sale. These tickets to be handed to the bus and boat driver cost 1000 colones each (currently just over $2) and are good for one passage. There are actually two buses at this local terminal that lead to different riverside docks (La Pavona or La GEEST) where there are boats waiting to take you to Tortuguero. Remember that the route to LA PAVONA is considered to be the official public route to Tortuguero and is at the time of writing the least expensive.

Take the 12:00 noon public bus to “La Pavona”. (There are departures at 6:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 3:00 PM). So far there are no signs for this bus at the Cariari bus terminal but it often boards its passengers from directly in front of the ticket booth or from the wall immediately behind or beside the police station. Show the driver your ticket.

At the end of the bus ride you will reach a farm called La Pavona at around 1:30 p.m. Here you will find the boats that will take you to Tortuguero.

The public boats generally do not stop on the way to observe wildlife unless there is something in plain view on the river. There will be other travel-weary Ticos (Costa Ricans) on the boat who just want to get home to their families. If you want to observe wildlife nothing beats a dedicated, slow early morning boat tour through the water trails of the national park.

The 1:30 PM boats leaving La Pavona will take you right to Tortuguero arriving around 3:00 PM. The boats and buses always wait for one another. There is a return boat service that leaves at 6:00 AM, 11:30 AM and 3:00 PM. These meet up with the buses that make the return journey from La Pavona to Cariari. The boat leaving Tortuguero at 6:00 AM makes the most efficient outbound bus connections. Arriving in Cariari one ought to take a local bus to Guapiles (do not go to the San Jose direct bus station unless you want to wait there until 11:30 AM). Once in Guapiles you can take a bus to either San Jose or Limon and be in either place around noon. This is early enough to make an early afternoon bus connection to many other destinations in the southern Caribbean, Monteverde or la Fortuna allowing you to arrive before dusk.

An early bus leaves Cariari at around 6:00 am for La Pavona. It meets up with the early boat that goes to Tortuguero at 8:30 am. The bus does not always leave from the terminal but always passes by on the street. Try to contact the COOPETRACA office in person if you arrive too late in Cariari for the buses and let them know you want the early morning bus. They should be able to inform the driver to look for you in the morning. Failing that, you can flag any bus down that passes around that time and ask if it goes to La Pavona. There is also a late bus for La Pavona at 3:00 PM.

Important information for traveling this route during the turtle season (Mar 1-October 31):

If you are traveling on the late bus (3:00 PM) and want to do a turtle tour that same night tell the boat captain travelling on the bus to call ahead to reserve a tour. There might be other fellow travellers who could benefit from this information. Let them know too. Tell the captain to try to contact your recommended guide. If this is not arranged ahead of time you may arrive too late for the 6:00 PM cutoff time for guides to get a tour permit for you. Try to make the earlier buses.

By rental car via Cariari/La Pavona:

Please read the previous section for important information about this route (like buying your boat tickets etc.).

You must get to La Pavona for the 8:30 AM, 1:30 PM or 4:30 pm boat to Tortuguero. Here you will find secure parking for a fee. You may follow the noon bus from Cariari which passes through the villages of Campo Dos, Cuatro Esquinas and Palacios.

To begin driving, set your odometer to zero at the only gas station in Cariari (200 meters past the single lane bridge coming into town). Drive straight for 7 kilometers and turn right onto the newly paved highway. Follow this road until the pavement ends after the village of Cuatro Esquinas (approximately 14.5 km after the gas station). Follow the gravel road until you reach the general store (“Abast Palacio”) in the tiny village of Palacios (23.4 km after the gas station). You can buy cold drinks and snacks here. 50 meters after the general store is a road going off to the left. Follow this bumpy road for 5.7 km (29.1 km after the gas station) until you reach the farm called La Pavona. There is safe parking here for a fee.

If you have the COOPETRACA boat tickets you can show them to the appropriate captain waiting in La Pavona.

Approximate driving time from San Jose to Cariari: 2 hours. Approximate driving time from Cariari to La Pavona: 1 hour. To reach the 1:30 pm boat you will need to leave San Jose at 10:00 am at the absolute latest. This will NOT leave time for mistakes or stops along the way if you want to have lunch etc.

If you require more detailed driving directions write to the Tortuguero Information Center tortugueroinfo@yahoo.com

It is not recommended to drive to La GEEST. The plantation owners do not allow taxis or rental cars into the compound without prior written consent. People are taken by surprise when told they have to leave their car unguarded on the road outside the main plantation gates.

OTHER IMPORTANT INFORMATION:

Remember to bring dollars or colones sufficient for transport, tours and lodging to Tortuguero. There are no banks or ATMs here and traveller’s checks can only be changed locally with a hefty commission charge. Only the souvenir shops will take travellers checks or Visa. Remember that the Tortuguero National Park charges $7 per person for a one-day pass (obligatory if you want to explore any of the waterways or trails in the area) or $10 for a pass valid for up to three days.

There is only one authorized trail (called “El Gavilan”) in the northern end of the National Park. Be a responsible visitor and don’t go to any unofficial trail within the park. Sometimes unlicensed guides will offer to take you there. Night tours that are not for observing nesting turtles are strictly PROHIBITED by the national park administration

As a general rule it is recommend to stay at least two nights in Tortuguero to take advantage of two mornings (the best time of day for animal viewing) to have a tour in the canals with an option in the afternoon if it rains.

Don’t miss your bus or boat connections. Travel wisely on buses and at terminals. Under the bus compartments are generally safe for backpacks, hand luggage should be carried on your lap and NOT in overhead compartments.

Bring rain gear, decent walking shoes if you plan on doing any hiking, and a flashlight for the frequent power outages. During turtle nesting season (July-October), flashlights and any type of camera or video camera are NOT allowed on the beach. Dark clothing is strongly recommended.

More information in spanish:

Flora:

The most important species are el cedro macho, el gavilán, el pilón, el javillo negro, la fruta dorada, el manu, el María, el alcanfor, el canfin, el cativo, la palma yolillo, la palma real y la choreja o lirio de agua.

This National Park was created in November 13, 1975 to protect its flora and fauna of this region of Costa Rica’s Caribbean as well to provide studies and investigations for the Scientifics.

Fue creado para proteger la flora y fauna de esta región así como para facilitar investigaciones estudios científicos y propiciar la educación ambiental. Entre la vegetación se encuentran helechos, la palma blanca, bosques sobre Lomas, los yolillales, constituidos por la palma yolillo y ubicados en el sector central del parque, pantanos formados por plantas herbáceas de hasta 2 metros de altura y comunidades de hierbas sobre lagunas con vegetación flotante como la choreja o lirio de agua.

Sus bosques poseen la misma complejidad estructural y diversidad de los bosques amazónicos y representan la mayor extensión de bosques humedos en él pacifico centroamericano.

Fauna:

El parque es atravesado por uno sistema natural de lagunas y canales navegables de gran belleza escénica y son el hábitat de especies de tortugas terrestres del manatí o vaca marina, del cocodrilo de gran diversidad de crustáceos y de unas 85 especies de peces de agua dulce incluyendo el pez gaspar.

Los mamíferos que lo habitan son la danta, el jaguar, el manigordo, el saíno, el mono, el perezoso, murciélago pescador que es uno de los mas grandes del país.

Algunas de las aves protegidas son la lapa verde especie en peligro de extinción,el pavón,el zopilote cabecirrojo, el gavilán cangrejero y el trogon violáceo.

Además de la tortuga baula la carey ya la tortuga verde la tortuga jicotea negra es muy común en los canales desde Mohín hasta TORTUGUERO. Es una de las zonas más lluviosas del país con aguaceros de corta duración y los característicos temporales del caribe.

Clima:

Tortuguero es una de las zonas más lluviosas del país entre 999 y 1000 mm al año. Aguaceros locales de corta duración que son los más frecuentes y los característicos temporales del caribe que se prolongan hasta 49 días, estos últimos son causados por los vientos alisios del norte y noroeste.

Tortuguero es el área más importante de toda la mitad occidental del Caribe para el desove de la tortuga verde. Otras especies de tortugas marinas que también desovan en la playa son la tortuga baula y la carey.

Es considerada todo un laboratorio viviente donde se estudia la estructura y el funcionamiento de los ecosistemas tropicales. Los bosques húmedos de corcovado fuguen entre los últimos que mantienen aún ecosistemas del bosque muy húmedo tropical, inalterados en el pacífico americano, con lluvias que superan los 5000 mm anuales.

AREA
SECTOR
VISITS SCHEDULE
HORARIO DE VISITAS SECTOR
TRAILS
SENDEROS
Sector Aguas Frías 8:00 – 16:00
  • Natural Los Raudales
Sector Jalova 8:00 – 16:00
  • Sendero Natural El Tucán
Sector Cuatro Esquinas 8:00 – 16:00
  • Natural La Ceiba
  • Natural El Gavilán
  • Natural La Bomba