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Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful countries out there and seeing all the incredible wildlife that calls this place home is just one of the reasons you need to visit. I know when we first arrived, we couldn’t believe just how many creatures we spotted – especially in the water!
In fact, snorkeling in Costa Rica puts you in an underwater paradise full of incredible sea creatures including turtles! Ranging from some of the smallest sea turtles out there to the world’s largest sea turtles, Costa Rica is a dream destination if you’re hoping to see turtles in the wild.
Trust us when we say that these amazing creatures are ones that you have to see for yourself to really appreciate! Especially the bigger ones like leatherback turtles, you won’t believe the size of them until they are right in front of you!
While turtles love the Costa Rican waters, there are certain areas of the country where you’re more likely to spot them – like the aptly named Tortuga Island (tortuga is Spanish for turtle!). We will guide you through the 7 BEST places to see turtles in Costa Rica along with some of our favorite tours and tips so you can definitely spot a few on your Costa Rican vacation!
Don’t have time to read the full article? One of the best places to see turtles year-round is in the waters surrounding Caño Island. You’re almost guaranteed to see turtles when snorkeling in the area, which you can only do on a tour–like this small group snorkeling tour from Drake Bay.
What species of turtles will you find in Costa Rica?
The gorgeous Costa Rican beaches and coastline are far more than just dreamy places to escape to on holiday. They also provide turtles with necessary safe beach areas for nesting, which is a crucial part of turtle habitat.
The four main species of turtles in Costa Rica are hawksbill, olive ridley, green, and leatherback.
Hawksbill turtles can be found in tropical waters, not just in Costa Rica, but around the world. They are considered to be one of the most visually stunning species of turtles because they have really colorful shells.
Olive Ridley turtles are the second smallest species of sea turtle. Don’t let that fool you, these still aren’t turtles that could fit in the palm of your hand – they weigh between 75 to 100 pounds (34 to 45 kg). They can be found in the Southern Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.
These turtles are the second largest sea turtles in the world. They can get up to 500 pounds/227 kg! These turtles are endangered, unfortunately, mainly because their eggs are considered a delicacy, which threatens their populations.
Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtles in the world, and actually, one of the largest reptiles! These giants are between 500 to 2,000 pounds (227-907 kg), and between 4 to 8 feet (1.2 to 2.4 meters) long. These turtles are so big that it’s almost hard to picture turtles of this size if you’ve never seen them! They can be found in a massive range all over the world, as high north as the Arctic Circle, and as far south as the southern tip of Africa. With great size comes great distance, I guess!
When is the best time to see turtles in Costa Rica?
The best time to visit Costa Rica to spot turtles changes depending on whether you’re on the Caribbean side or the Pacific side, as well as which turtles you’re hoping to see.
Hawksbill turtles nest on the beach at Cahuita National Park in September and October.
Olive Ridley turtles nest all throughout the year along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. However, the best time to see them is from July to November, when there are higher numbers of them coming to the beaches.
Greens nest along the northern end of the Pacific Coast, spanning from June to October. They are especially active around Tortuguero, so if you’re interested in seeing green sea turtles, check out the tours we include of Tortuguero National Park below!
Leatherbacks nest on different coasts at different times of the year. From March to July they can be found nesting on the Caribbean side of the country. From September to March, they can be found nesting on the Pacific side. If you get the chance to see these giants, we really recommend it!
Best Places to See Turtles in Costa Rica
1. Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is one of the most remote and beautiful National Parks in Costa Rica. This ecotourism haven on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is only accessible by boat or plane, which gives it a remoteness that adds to its wonder.
It is well-known for being home to beaches that both the hawksbill and green sea turtles nest on throughout July to September. While October is still part of their nesting season in the national park, September is the end of the real peak season.
If you’re already in the Tortuguero area and want a quick guided tour, this turtle nesting tour is our pick. You will get to watch a turtle lay her eggs, camouflage the nest, and then return to the water. This tour takes place in the evenings since turtles only lay their eggs at night. Luckily, the guides have flashlights for you, so you can see still what’s happening!
The tour starts at only $40 USD and is about two hours long. Since it’s an evening tour, you can easily plan to do other tours or sightseeing beforehand as well. The nesting season is from July to November, so you can only book the tour during that time. If you’re lucky enough to be here during those dates, make sure you book a spot on this turtle nesting tour here!
If you’re hoping to see turtles but you’re based in the capital city of San Jose, no worries, we’ve got you! This full-day tour to see turtles goes from San Jose to Tortuguero National Park and back. It’s a full day and you have to be up before the crack of dawn for the 5:30 am pick-up, but we definitely think it’s worth it if you are interested in the wildlife that Costa Rica has to offer!
This tour is more expensive than the first option, starting at $225 USD, but considering all of the travel involved that’s included, it’s a great way to get to see the national park if you’re based in San Jose. Some of the highlights for me (aside from the turtles) were seeing the caimans, sloths, and basilisk lizards, which actually run across the surface of the water, which is so funny to see! You can book your day trip from San Jose online here.
Related Read: Staying in San Jose doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in the city! Check out all our recommendations for day trips from San Jose for lots of ideas.
2. Ostional Wildlife Refuge (Nosara)
The Ostional Wildlife Refuge is located on the Pacific Coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. It is about 2 hours and 15 mins south of Liberia, the city that you likely will fly into if you’re not arriving in Costa Rica via San Jose.
This wildlife reserve is a protected area to safeguard the nesting of Olive Ridley sea turtles. This place itself is really amazing – it has black sand beaches and there is one specific mile of beach where the turtles come to nest.
In the rainy season, between August and December, there are fewer turtles, as well as fewer opportunities to see the turtles. However, in the dry season, there can be thousands of turtles nesting! There was even a day in 1955 when 500,000 female turtles came to nest, the largest event recorded!
To get the chance to see the turtles here, your best bet is to join the Thousands of Turtles Tours offered by the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Association. This tour is around two hours long and can be booked either very early in the morning, or in the evening. What we really love about this option is the deep knowledge of the guides. You can tell that they are really passionate about the turtles as well as this habitat that not many people get the chance to see.
Because of Covid-19, these tours are only offered privately now, which is actually really nice, as it gives you the chance to get one-on-one time with the guide and ask all of the questions you have. You can also book private transportation through them to get to the wildlife refuge.
The tour has a flat fee of $150 USD plus $35 USD per person. Because turtle nesting can be unpredictable (it is nature after all!), you’ll need to select a range of dates and times when you’re available and the Wildlife Conservation Association will be in touch to help narrow it down once the time gets closer.
3. Caño Island (Drake Bay)
Caño Island, or Isla Del Caño, is located near the southern end of the country on the Pacific Ocean. It is an incredible place to spot wildlife in Costa Rica, both on land and in the sea! The only way to get here is by boat, either from Uvita, Sierpe, or Drake Bay.
Now, don’t expect to actually get on the island though! It’s hit or miss on if people are allowed on the island and honestly, it has been completely off-limits lately. However, the waters around the island are the big draw anyway! Its crystal-clear waters are widely considered to be the second-best place to snorkel in the entire country – only behind Cocos Island.
We went snorkeling around Caño Island and it was like I was in an aquarium! We were lucky enough to spot two sea turtles while we were in the water which was definitely the highlight. We took so many underwater photos of the turtles swimming around the coral. You’ll also see tons of fish and maybe even some seahorses or sharks.
If you want to snorkel here, you’ll need a tour! This small group snorkeling tour departs from Drake Bay, which is the closest town to Caño Island. There are two separate snorkeling opportunities included, which gives you lots of time to see the incredible marine life. And the wildlife spotting even starts before you jump in the water as you might see whales, dolphins, and turtles on your 45-minute boat ride over! This tour runs all year round as you’re likely to see turtles while snorkeling regardless of which month you go.
Once you’re back in Drake Bay, there is a really nice lunch included at a local restaurant, which you will definitely be looking forward to after all of that snorkeling! We love when meals are included because then you don’t have to worry about packing anything yourself or trying to figure out a good place to eat when you’re likely a little tired and hungry. The tour starts at around $113 USD and includes transportation, lunch, and all of your snorkeling gear. To secure your spot on this tour, you’ll need to book online ahead of time.
Why We Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Check out the Viator website here!
4. Hermosa Beach, Central Pacific
There are multiple Hermosa Beaches in Costa Rica, but the one you’re after if you want to see turtles is this Hermosa Beach which is about a 15-minute drive from one of the best beach towns in Costa Rica – Jaco!
Not only is this a beautiful beach, but it’s also a great place to see the nesting and hatching of turtles, from September to December! There’s a protected beach area on the south side of Hermosa Beach and your best bet is to take a tour to get here.
The tours offered by Jaco Tours are really great because this company is so passionate about the health and well-being of Costa Rica’s sea turtles. If you are here between September and early December, you’ll get to see Ridley turtles returning to the beach to lay their eggs like they have done for generations.
If you are here around the end of December, this is the perfect time to see the hatching of baby turtles and help them make their way to the ocean! This is what actually happen the last time we were visiting in December and I think it was just as amazing as seeing a turtle nesting and way more adorable! If you can, I think you should jump at the chance to see baby turtles scurrying across the beach into the waves.
Tours are only $45 USD per person and include transportation in an air-conditioned vehicle.
Related Read: If you want to see the turtles nearby, Jaco is a great base for your vacation! There are lots of free activities in Jaco, great restaurants, fantastic ziplining tours, and places to stay.
5. Isla Tortuga
No, not the Tortuga in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (that one’s in Haiti)! This beautiful little island off the coast of Costa Rica has crystal blue waters and is only accessible by boat. Tortuga actually means “turtle” in Spanish, so I’m sure it’s easy to guess what you can see while you’re here! There are a few different options for tours to Tortuga Island.
The first is a Tortuga Island adventure tour from Jaco (this is one of the best tours in Jaco!) Sea turtles aren’t the only things you will see on this tour! This tour also includes a stop at the famous Crocodile Bridge near Jaco as well as the Isla Negritos Wildlife Refuge where you’ll see all the spider monkeys who live there! If you’re lucky, on your boat ride to the island, you might even have some friendly dolphins catching a ride beside your boat. Of course, the main attraction is the snorkeling around Tortuga Island where hopefully you’ll spot lots of turtles!
After you finish snorkeling, you’ll have free time on the Tortuga Island beach to relax and enjoy lunch with yummy fresh fruit. This full-day tour is packed full of wildlife and fun experiences and starts at $115 USD per person. If this sounds like the perfect day on the water, you can book your spot online here.
Another option for a tour to Isla Tortuga is this private tour from Puntarenas. This beautiful coastal town is a great jumping-off point for a trip to Tortuga Island. The tour takes you on a cruise to the island where you might spot dolphins, spider monkeys on the nearby nature refuge, and a spectacular stone arch in the ocean. Once you’re at the island, you’ll be able to jump in the water to snorkel and hopefully spot some friendly turtles nearby!
The advantage of this private tour is that it’s a really personal experience. You won’t feel rushed by other travelers and it’s a great way to take in some of what Costa Rica is most known for. It’s also really reasonable by private tour standards at only $115 USD per person and includes a fish ceviche or grilled chicken lunch. You can book your own private tour to spot turtles online through Viator.
If you happen to be in either Montezuma or Santa Teresa, you can still visit Tortuga Island from either of those places with these tours from Zuma Tours. We personally went with Zuma Tours from Montezuma and would highly recommend them! The tour costs $80 USD from Montezuma which includes two hours of snorkeling near the island and a fresh BBQ lunch. The tour from Santa Teresa is $99 USD or you can upgrade to include scuba diving.
Tamarindo is one of the most popular places to visit in Costa Rica! It has gorgeous beaches, great restaurants, fantastic surfing, and a really fun atmosphere. It’s also considered one of the safest spots in Costa Rica – so grab a rental car and make the 1.5-hour drive from Liberia’s airport and you’re all ready to explore this paradise.
But it isn’t just people who flock to Tamarindo, the turtles love it here too! So it’s likely you’ll spot some while you’re here.
Of course, your best chance of seeing turtles in this part of Costa Rica is by joining a tour. Luckily, there are some great tours to choose from in Tamarindo. This turtle-watching tour will take you to one of the most important nesting sites in the country – Playa Minas. This is a secluded beach that has a bit of a wild feel to it. You’ll be exploring the beach at night when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Your guide has a special infrared light so you don’t disturb the turtles and can still see what’s going on.
The best time to take this tour is from October to March and depending on when you come, you might even see leatherback turtles or little baby turtles trying to get to the ocean! The tour is $70 USD per person and includes transport from wherever you’re staying in Tamarindo. So book a spot on this tour online and get ready for a fun turtle-spotting adventure!
Related Read: If you’re after a really memorable vacation, why not book a treehouse hotel? There are options for a variety of budgets and they are such neat places to stay!
Samara is a quiet coastal town on the Nicoya Peninsula. For finding turtles here, there are three nearby beaches that turtles frequent during nesting season. They are Corozalito Beach, Camaronal Beach, and Ostional Beach.
These beaches are a bit of a drive, so the best way to get there is with this turtle tour. Your guide will take you to one of those three beaches – whichever one you’ll have the greatest chance of seeing turtles at on that day. This way, you know that you will be able to get the most out of the experience, instead of running the risk of having to go to a beach where there isn’t much going on.
If you’re reallllly lucky, you may even get to see an arribada – that’s when hundreds and even thousands of female turtles come to nest on a beach. Arribadas happen at Ostional Beach usually once a month during the nesting season. September and October are the top months to book this tour, but it is available throughout the year.
We just missed the turtles laying eggs by two days when we were at Ostional Beach, BUT we did get to see babies hatching and making their way to the ocean which was totally worth it! The tour from Samara starts at 7 pm and lasts for about 3.5 hours. All your transportation is included – whether you’re driving the 45 minutes to Corozalito or Camaronal or the longer 1.5-hour drive to Ostional Beach. Tours can be booked online here for $57 USD.
The BEST Things to do in Costa Rica
While there are so many fun things to do in Costa Rica, a couple of specific attractions and activities stand out amongst the rest. They are:
There are some impressive (and beautiful!) volcanoes that you’ll want to check out while you’re here.
Poas Volcano is known for its bright blue crater lake. Poas Volcano is most commonly visited on a day trip from San Jose. This Poas Volcano tour from San Jose is one of the best you can do since it also includes a visit to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens as well as a coffee farm.
Arenal Volcano is also one of Costa Rica’s top attractions. Arenal Volcano is located closest to the town of La Fortuna. You can book this full-day tour from La Fortuna that takes you to the volcano to hike, the famous La Fortuna Waterfall and even a hanging bridge – it’s a full day of adventure!
La Fortuna Waterfall is one of our favorite waterfalls in all of Costa Rica. You can easily visit it on this full-day tour in La Fortuna that also visits hot springs.
Rio Celeste is another beautiful waterfall that is famous for its bright blue water. Rio Celeste is a popular attraction to visit from Guanacaste Province and this particular tour includes transport from there. Alternatively, you can book this tour from La Fortuna or this tour from San Jose.
See the wildlife
Costa Rica is the place for wildlife lovers! One of the best places to see lots of animals in their wild habitat is at Manuel Antonio National Park. With the help of a guide you will see plenty of birds, monkeys, and even sloths! This particular tour is super popular and also has amazing reviews, so you really can;t go wrong.
There are also lots of wildlife rescue centers around the country that are worth visiting. The Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo is one of our favorites as well as Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center in San Jose where you can book this private tour.
Getting Around Costa Rica
How you choose to get around Costa Rica is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make when planning your holiday here! How you do it depends on your budget, travel style, and comfort level.
Renting a Car
Without a doubt, the number one way to explore Costa Rica is in a rental car. We book rental cars on the Discover Cars website as we have had good experiences with them in the past.
One of the things you need to watch for when renting a car in Costa Rica is the mandatory insurance that the government requires you to have. There are a lot of very cheap rentals that don’t include this mandatory insurance (TPL) in the original booking price, but there are also ones that do. To avoid additional surprise charges when you pick up your rental car, be sure to rent a car that includes the mandatory insurance when you book.
Thankfully, on Discover Cars it’s easy to tell apart the companies that include the mandatory insurance and those that don’t. The trick is you can’t pick any car on their website. In the picture below, you can see this rental car, with pick up in Jaco, includes the TPL. That means the mandatory insurance is included in the price. Any cover you get above that is extra.
Of course, I still suggest getting the full coverage offered by Discover Cars, which covers you even more.
You can browse cars on Discover Cars here.
Adobe Rental Rent A Car is another rental company that we most often use in Costa Rica. We love them because Adobe has 15 offices around Costa Rica and delivers door-to-door around their offices at no extra cost. We also are pleased that all of their cars are new. In fact, they are never older than 2 years to the date. They are also the only company to include mandatory insurance and promise no hidden fees. You can get a free quote for a rental car from their website here.
If renting a car isn’t in your budget, you don’t feel comfortable driving in Costa Rica, or you just don’t like driving, shuttles are the next best option. There are hundreds of shuttle routes available all over the country, and they are very affordable.
Shuttles in Costa Rica are specifically for tourists and often include pick up and drop off at your selected hotels and airports. The drivers also speak some English, and the vehicles have air conditioning. You’ll also be guaranteed a seat when you book a shuttle (which isn’t the case with the public bus system.)
To get the best price, use the website Bookaway. They compare all the offers and prices of shuttle companies in Costa Rica so you get the best price! Honestly, we have saved so much money using Bookaway!
You can search for shuttles online on Bookaway here.
Lastly, you can use the public bus system. On short journeys, such as from San Jose to La Fortuna or Uvita to Manuel Antonio, this system is great. However, the longer the journey the more hassle and time spent on a bus. It’s undoubtedly best to save the public bus in Costa Rica for short and straightforward trips!
The public buses are definitely the cheapest way to get around Costa Rica, but they are not always very reliable and schedules often change without notice and delays are to be expected. The buses can also be very crowded and hot – so just be prepared!
It’s also good to speak some Spanish if you plan on riding the public bus since most drivers and ticket booth operators don’t speak English.
Invest in Travel Insurance
Paying out of pocket for trip interruptions or medical treatment will add to what might already be a stressful situation. We always travel with SafetyWing travel medical insurance.
The best part is that it costs only a fraction of what most insurance policies charge, which makes it perfect for digital nomads, long-term travelers (like us), and budget travelers. It only costs $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country. We usually purchase it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada from Colombia before the border closed!
While people from all over the world flock to Costa Rica to set their sights on tropical birds, sloths, and mischievous monkeys, we think it would be a shame to forget about the incredible sea turtles that nest on Costa Rican beaches. These creatures are amazing to see up close – whether you’re snorkeling or watching a tiny turtle make its way to the ocean for the first time.
Hopefully, this guide on the best places to see turtles in Costa Rica was helpful as you get ready for your vacation. If you need more help planning your trip, make sure to browse around our other blogs for tour ideas, hotel recommendations, and more! We love spending time in Costa Rica and know you will too.