It is possible to travel from San José to Tortuguero by public transportation. In fact, it's rather challenging, a mini adventure in itself. You have to take a bus to Cariari, then another bus to La Pavona and finally a boat to Tortuguero. Buses to Cariari leave from the Gran Terminal del Caribe. I was told that the first one departs at 6am, so I took a taxi from Hostel Pangea at 5:30am. Once at the bus terminal, I found it was only at 7am. I thought of having a breakfast but all the facilities at the terminal were still closed. Fortunately, one of them opened a little before 7:00am so I could have a breakfast (a black coffee and cheese empanada) before departure. I took a Guapileños bus which was 1.390 colones (December 2010). It was an amazing journey through the dense rain forest of one of the most scenic regions of Costa Rica. Get a window seat if possible, the views are incredible. Later I discovered that it would be most convenient to take the 9am bus arriving around 11am in Cariari, and then the bus to La Pavona at noon (other buses leave at 6am and 3pm).
Cariari has two bus terminals: the one serving San José is at the southern end of town, while the small one serving Caribbean destinations is about five blocks north (closer to the centre), which is an easy walk. I bought a ticket at Coopetraca window to La Pavona (or Rancho La Suerte, how they call the docking area). It was an interesting ride through the banana plantations and the 'banana towns' that were first developed and operated by the Untied Fruit Company. The bus arrived in La Pavona around 1:30pm. Three companies provide transportation along this route: Clic Clic, Coopetraca and Bananero. Boats to Tortuguero are timed to meet the buses, so you won't have to wait long for your connection. Two boats were waiting at the dock at the edge of the river. I picked the one that looks more comfortable and safe, then payed on board. The fare is not regulated and the price can sometimes varies for foreigners. I payed around 3.000 colones (December 2010) for both, bus and boat. This was what locals payed as well. The boat normally takes about an hour and 15 minutes to reach Tortuguero. The last boat departs at around 4:30pm. Keep in mind that there aro no accommodations in La Pavona, but there is a restaurant at Rancho La Suerte where you can get a coffee and snack, and use the bathroom for a small fee.
There is very little in the way of roads in Tortuguaro, so most travel is either by boat, train or plane. There are larger slow moving tourist boats with canopies where the guides take you along the canals, which is the way we took our tour from the cruise ship. I have read that we could arrange this trip on our own, but it seemed much easier to take a ship's tour even if it was more expensive.
However, on our first trip, just to get to the place where we were staying we had to take a small boat and this boat was an open boat which was much faster, as the primary purpose was transportation and not sightseeing. We saw several of these type boats zipping up and down the canal on our second trip.
There are also the boats used by the local inhabitants for their transportation.
There is very little in the way of roads in Tortuguero. Until the late 1970s, train and canoe were the only means of reaching this area. Many of Costa Rica's sixty thousand black people that still predominantly live along the Caribbean coast trace their ancestry to the ten thousand that were hired from Jamaica to build the Atlantic Railroad (for pitiful wages). When we came in 1997, I was told that the 1991 earthquake had destroyed the rail connection between San Jose and the coast, and was advised not to take that particular tour.
When we came on a cruise ship 10 years later, some of our fellow tourists took the narrow gauge railroad tour, but I was more interested in seeing wildlife than in riding the train.
Getting to Tortuguero was a long trip! It took close to 5 hours by boat. We left theMoin Boat Dock (just north of Puerto Limon) at around 10:30 a.m. on route to Tortuguero. We got to the Moin dock at 8:30 a.m. as we were unsure if the boats were on time or late etc. We were actually supposed to board the boat at 9:30 a.m. but it was delayed while wating for passengers coming in from San Jose. The owner of the B&B were we would be staying in Tortuguero called the Moin dock to tell us of the delay & make sure that we were alright waiting. Imagine our surprise when one of the dock workers said...."the phone is for you"! The trip may have been long but was very interesting. We saw lots of birds,monkeys,sloths, caimans etc. One suggestion would be to have something soft to sit on for the trip or you'll have a numb bum by time you arrive! We did stop once for a break at a small cantina along the canal (note you pay a small boy to use the bathroom facilities....very cheap). Our boat opperator was great & it cost us each $30.00 as we were only going one way...up. A round trip ticket costs $50.00US. The Casa Marbella B&B in Tortuguero made the arrangements for us. Boats usually leave the Moin Boat Dock betwwen 9:30 & 10 a.m.
There are no roads to Tortuguero. Access is by boat from Moín near Puerto Limon, or by small plane.
As this area is mostly visited on a package deal, you will be picked up from your hotel in San José by an airconditioned bus early in the morning (around 6 am). The bus drive will take about 2 hours. Halfway, there is a stop for breakfast. The boat trip will take another 1.5 hours to your hotel in Tortuguero.
After your 2 or 3-days stay the same boat and bus (with a lunch stop halfway) will bring you back to San José or to a meeting point for those who are continuing their road trip by rental car.
There's two ways to get to Tortuguero.
First one: fly. Get more info at www.flysansa.com or www.natureair.com
Second one: the long and peaceful journey through the costarican country side! We were given two bus/boat options, both costing about 25$ round trip.
1. Bus from San Jose to Limon at the Gran Terminal del Caribe. Transfer to a bus going to Moin and get out at the docks. Take the boat shuttle to Tortuguero that leaves at 10h.
2. Bus from San Jose to Cariari at the Gran Terminal del Caribe, leaving at 9h. Buy in Cariari a ticket that will get you by bus to Geest Casa Verde and then from there to Tortuguero by banano boat, reaching Tortuguero at around 15h.
A long trip with a thousand sights and sounds. For a limited budget like ours this is the perfect option (we took the second one through Cariari), combining a cheap itinerary with a sightseeing tour (we got to see sloth, monkeys, turtles, caimans, bananas plantations, ...).
The operating company: Rubens Viajes Bananero
Departure from Cariari: 13h30 and 15h30
Departure from Tortuguero: 7h30 and 11h
There are no roads connecting the airport to the surrounding area, so all airport transfers are carried out by boat.
When we arrived, it was raining quite heavily, and the boat captain had very thoughtfully brought large umbrellas for us.
Most of the accommodation is only a few minutes away by boat. We initially called in another hotel for lunch, then carried on to our lodge.
The flight from San Jose to Tortuguero was aboard a small aircraft. There was the four of us plus one more gentlemen, and I was lucky enough to sit in the front with the pilot.
The flight was spectatular. Leaving San Jose, the pilot navigated the plane around the volanoes for us all to have a good look - although they were mostly covered in cloud.
It was a slightly bumpy flight, but I love flying and to me that adds to the excitement!
Coming in to land at Tortuguero was an amazing experience. The pilot flew low along the coast, it felt like he was almost skimming the tops of the trees. There was no sign of an airport. Suddenly there was a clearing in the tress, and there was a gravel airstrip. Tortuguero.
This was "my" panel of instruments.
I kept my hands as far away from the controls as possible. Absolutely no curiosity whatsoever about the function of any particular switch or guage.
Just please, land this thing in one piece.
Tortuguero is isolated on the northeast coast of Costa Rica. It can be reached by land travel to Limon and then a two and a half hour boat trip upriver. However, that will mean afull day's transportation from San Jose. The flight time is under an hour. If time is more valuable than money, then I'd suggest flying in to Tortuguero.
On our flight I was given the opportunity to be the co-pilot. As you can see in this photo, I was helping the pilot navigate to the tiny grass runway between the Caribbean on the right and the Tortuguero River on the left.