Why you absolutely MUST visit Tortuguero
I had envisioned Costa Rica to be a dense jungle paradise, a place where the word tropical took on a whole new meaning. I imagined thick wet forest, plentiful bird song and an abundance of wildlife. I wanted to feel like an explorer venturing into uncharted territory! but unfortunately I didn't get the experience I'd hoped for... that is until I reached Tortuguero. Dubbed Costa Rica's answer to the Amazon, Tortuguero was everything I'd imagined and more. The climate was humid and the air thick, it rained almost everyday - not just any old rain, torrential pouring rain. The kind that makes you laugh out loud and feel ecstatic to be alive. Insects resonate through the forest and all sorts of beautiful birds are to be seen and heard. The jungle is dense, so dense that you can't see more than one metre past the tree line. Crocodiles line the snaking Amazonian style river and if you are quiet and look carefully you will see creatures materializing all around you. A bright green lizard the same colour as the trees, a caiman which you first mistook for a log... an otter quitely slinking into the water.
How to get there
Tortuguero isn't the easiest place to reach but it's also not as difficult as some would have you believe. Yes, it's only accessible by boat but getting there isn't the Da Vinci Code. From San Jose you simply jump on a bus to 'Cariari' Cariari is the final destination and where you need to disembark. Here you change to a bus headed for 'La Pavona' again, La Pavona is the final stop and where you need to get off. In La Pavona you will get on a small boat which takes you along the jungle canals to Tortuguero. The whole journey takes about 5 hours, 2 hours from San Jose to Cariari, 1 hour from Cariari to La Pavona, and then 1 hour from La Pavona to Tortuguero. The other hour is spent waiting for buses/boat to leave. Don't worry about missing the bus from Cariari to La Pavona, it waits for the bus from San Jose to arrive before departing. Same goes for the boats to Tortuguero, they will wait until the bus from La Pavona arrives. The boat trip from La Pavona to Tortuguero was one of the highlights of my trip! It's a truly beautiful, jaw dropping ride. We saw monkeys, a huge crocodile, and many unique birds. But even without the wildlife, the jungle itself is breathtaking.
Cost: For both buses and the boat it will cost roughly $8 (US)
Tortuguero is an expensive place to visit. Entrance to the National Park is $15pp and for basic groceries you can expect to pay a third more than in other parts of the country, this is because all supplies are brought in by boat. There are a few restaurant choices, including one or two soda's but eating out (even at the soda's) will cost you. You'll be hardwired to find a meal for less than $10 which might be inexpensive for some but when you're budget travelling it's alot! We managed to stick within budget by avoiding eating out and cooking for ourselves, our budget was $70 per day for two people, i.e. $35 per day for one person. It's totally possible! if you have more money to play with though it's better to budget for $50 per person, per day. (that's USD)
Where to stay
As we are on an extended trip our budget is tight! so we chose to stay at the local hostel. Even then it wasn't cheap at $28 per night, but the benefit of this was having a kitchen to do our own cooking which saved us a lot of money. It's called 'Aracari Garden Hostel' and is an excellent place to stay. They will lend you ponchos for the rain and even good quality binoculars free of charge, the kitchen is fully equipped (they even have a blender) and free spices are provided for guests to flavour their meals. The staff are friendly, helpful and really care about their guests, I highly recommend this place.
If you prefer something a little more upscale there are numerous lodges in the area offering full board and tour packages, these will include all of your meals and one or two guided trips each day. If you have the cash to splash this is a great option but if you're on a budget like me I suggest the hostel and doing your own exploring. We walked the national park one day ($30 for both of us) and the next day we hired a kayak for $30 and cruised around the canals by ourselves, it was magic. We saw so much wildlife and saved ourselves a lot of money! I always prefer exploring on my own without a guide but if that's not your thing there are several tour companies in town offering all sorts of guided day trips.
What to do
As above there are several tour companies in town offering a variety of trips including boat tours, canoe tours, kayak tours, guided jungle walks etc. These will all be great, and start at about $20pp. I suggest skipping the guided tours though and doing it solo.
Walk through Tortuguero National Park: It was so nice walking the jungle paths in utter and complete silence, you can hear everything and your chances of spotting something are greatly increased. With a group you'll spot a sloth and the odd creature here or there but things like jaguars, otters, and elusive birdlife will be nowhere in sight as the group and the guide chat away loudly scaring everything off. We were able to spot agouti, sloths, macaws, an anteater and three different monkey species all on our own. You can't get lost, and it's all flat. As above it's $15pp to enter, take a poncho and good quality binoculars. And 100% rent the wellies on offer at the little store just before the park entrance, trust me you're going to need them! from memory it's $3.
Kayak the jungle canals: Most places in town will charge $20pp to hire a kayak or a canoe, but if you go to 'Louis' Canoe hire' he'll let you hire a double kayak for $30 total, no doubt the single one's will be cheaper. This was my favourite activity in all of Costa Rica! Whilst quietly kayaking through the canals we saw toucans, macaws, caiman, otters, a huge crocodile, three different turtle species and an abundance of other birds - again all on our own. Not only was it cheaper to do it this way but the experience was far more enriching. Take binoculars! and don't scrimp, you need a good quality pair.
Do a turtle tour: If you visit during turtle nesting season (March - October) you can do a night tour and watch hundreds of turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, including loggerheads, leatherbacks, hawksbills, and even green sea turtles. Tours start from $25pp.
To leave you can either go back the way you came, via boat to La Pavona and then bus to Cariari, then another bus to San Jose. Or you can go the much more fun but also much more expensive route via boat to 'Moin'. We took the boat route and loved it, it's a beautiful ride and you'll see so much wildlife on the way! but as I said it's not cheap. Expect to pay between $30 - $35pp. When you arrive in Moin you'll then need to take a taxi onward, either to Limon (15 mins, $5pp) or Cahuita (1 hr, $20pp) Cahuita is an amazing place, I suggest going straight there.