You only need one or two nights in Tortuguero, its a very small place. You do need to plan your journey here and for the most part you will take the bus from San José or Limon. There are no cars in Tortuguero so you will arrive by boat or by plane only. There are more expensive shuttle options as well.
I’ve just spent three gorgeous days in Manuel Antonio and I wanted to get to Tortuguero from there. Tortuguero is on the Carribean side of Costa Rica and if taking public transport then you have to go via San José.
You cannot do the journey in one day, and so you will need to spend a night in San José- so I went from Manuel Antonio to San José and stayed in the party hostel called Pangea.
Generally in Costa Rica the buses start early in the morning and finish quite early as well, so it is important that you organise yourself a day earlier so you get to your destination on time. As a solo female backpacker, the last thing I want is to be stuck in some town with no accommodation and no transport in the late hours.
I left early enough to make the 8am train, but I was told to go to the bus terminal MEPE. This is incorrect! MEPE takes you to Puerto Viejo and NOT in the direction of Tortuguero. I got out of my cab and then went to buy my ticket at MEPE only to be told I need to find a taxi to take me to Gran Caribe terminal. I came out of the station to find a taxi and to my wonderful surprise, my lovely taxi driver Verny had been waiting to see if I managed to get my ticket for the bus so he then drove me for free to Gran Caribe! He is such a nice guy, and it was so kind of him to wait and check on me- I didn’t even ask him to!
There is no direct bus from San José so you have to go to Cariari and then from the same bus stop take another bus to Pavona and from Pavona you take the boat over to Puerto Viejo.
Buses run on the hour every hour from 6am, but given the last minute rush around, I missed the 8am. Gran Caribe station is definitely not as nice as Terminal 7.10 and I found myself clutching my bags a little bit tighter. I got into the ticket hall and got the 9am from Gran Caribe terminal to Cariari.
The journey takes 2 hours and there was a toilet stop en route, I didn’t leave the bus but a few street vendors came on the bus to sell mangos, plantain chips and lottery tickets whilst we waited. I couldn’t resist some sliced green mango with fresh lime- it costs 300 colonnes and comes in a plastic bag and wrapped inside is a little tissue to clean your hands after! Other than my mango excitement I slept pretty much the whole way.
Arriving into Cariari and finding the bus to Pavona was so simple- if you are traveling to Tortuguero there are tourist information guides waiting to help you. The bus was right there so we boarded our luggage and waited to leave.
After driving for about 2 minutes we stopped at the bank- THERE ARE NO CASH MACHINES IN TORTUGUERO!!! You have to pay everything in cash- dollars or colonnes. At this point its your last opportunity to get cash out, but it doesn’t always work for international cards so plan ahead as much as you can.
Back in the bus and after two minutes we stop again! This time for about 30 mins so the perfect time for a loo break or to get some snacks. The bus gets pretty full so its always best in Costa Rica to get to your bus early so you can get a seat.
We arrived at a little hotel and bar looking place, and you have to go inside to buy your ticket for the boat: it was about 1,600 colonnes for your boat ticket and then you walk down to the boat station. Your suitcases go in a separate boat, but they are very well organised and work hard to make sure nothing gets wet. You have to pay another 1,000 colonnes per suitcase that goes on that boat- and you pay this at the boat station.
Finally you arrive in Tortuguero! I was surprised to see my name on a board when I arrived- most hotels and hostels come and pick you up to to take you to your place.
If they don’t, don’t worry- Tortuguero is so small you will get to your lodging in 5 minutes!
I recommend staying here for a night or two- there isn’t too much going on! But it’s worth the trip just for the turtle tour!