Since arriving in Costa Rica, I had always wanted to visit Tortuguero. So when my friend said she was going last month, I didn’t hesitate to invite myself along.
Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica and is famous for for its long serene beaches that are nesting grounds for sea turtles. Basically in my mind, Tortuguero translates to “Land of the Turtles.”
YES, TURTLES. GIANT TURTLES. BABY TURTLES. MEDIUM TURTLES. SMALL TURTLES. ALL THE CUTE TORTUGAS.
I knew that Tortuguero would be one of my favorite spots in Costa Rica from the moment we stepped off the boat. Since there are no roads to Tortuguero you have to arrive via boat or airplane (baller status) and different from a lot of other popular destinations in Costa Rica, Tortuguero has a more laid-back, island-y, hippy kinda vibe. A lot of the businesses were small and locally-owned and it just felt a little more rústico y rural.
Boating into Tortuguero
The main strip is small, and I mean small. The downtown area is one paved sidewalk full of stores, restaurants, and shops which can be walked from start to finish in just about 5 minutes. In some spots, you can even see both sides of the water, the lagoon that we came in on from the boat and the outside ocean. That’s how narrow the land it is!
While there are some houses, hotels, hostels, and even a school, the majority of the area is protected land and part of the Tortuguero National Park, the main attraction in the area.
After a gorgeous sunset our first night, we signed up for an evening tour with a local guide who would take us to the beach to watch a mama turtle come up and lay her eggs. Sea turtles lay their eggs at night during high tide to avoid predators, so we had to wait until 10pm to go out (this grandma had to have some coffee to stay up that late).
We couldn’t take pictures because the turtles are sensitive to light, but let me tell you all about sea turtle egg laying (because clearly I’m an expert now).
Once it becomes dark outside, the mama turtles climb all the way up to the top edge of the beach, dig themselves a hole and drop about 100 eggs. After laying their eggs and covering their nests back up, the ladies return to the sea, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves when they hatch about 2 months later.
It’s estimated that only 1 in 1000 baby turtles will survive to adulthood. Sadly, they are hunted down by vultures, crabs, and other beach-dwelling buttheads who gobble them up before they even know the glory of a sweet sea breeze. Not to mention all the predators they have to fight off if they make it to water!
I know it’s SO SAD.
These monsters also pose a threat for the lady turtles climbing onto the beach to lay their eggs and furthermore, they have to compete with each other for beach space. Our guide told us that when the edge of the beach becomes saturated with nests, things can get a little heated between the females and they will start to take each other out. And that’s exactly what happened to this poor gal as she was climbing her way up the beach.
Taken out by her own kind can you believe it?
Being in Tortuguero was a bit of a raw experience. All of that stuff we learned about way back in biology class…the circle of life, survival of the fittest…was happening right before my eyes here on a beautiful beach in Costa Rica! I tell ya, it’s crazy. If you’re a Darwin enthusiast, this is the place for you.
Despite facing the reality of the baby turtles, Tortuguero is a gorgeous place and has tons to offer beside turtle watching. The National Park is full of freshwater creeks and lagoons which we explored our second day on a canoe tour.
We saw river turtles (the smaller guys), caimanes (the alligator’s lil cousin), bats, and tons of tropical birds!
We also woke up at 4am our second day in an attempt to see some baby turtles hatching, but unfortunately there weren’t too many because it was the tail end of nesting season. The baby turtles follow the sun towards the ocean, so the best time to see them is when they hatch during sunrise or in the afternoon during sunset.
As we were walking along the beach, my friend Sami courageously fought off a group of vultures and rescued a baby turtle just moments before it was swept away as breakfast. She scooped it up into her soft angel hands and set it free into the salty ocean.
We’re optimistic that this little guy will be the 1 in 1000.
Whether it’s turtle season or not, make sure to put Tortuguero on your “must see” list for when you’re in Costa Rica. The turtles we saw were Green Sea turtles and their nesting season is from July to October and the Leatherback turtles nest from February to April so there’s plenty of opportunity throughout the year to visit!