Is it your dream to swim in crystal clear water with marine friends in one of the world’s top snorkeling destinations? Is it also your dream to see the bioluminescence as you kayak your way through a tropical bay? If your answer is yes to either one of these questions, then you will really enjoy Isla Tortuga.
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Visiting Isla Tortuga and Paquera
This post contains all the information you need to plan an epic day to enjoy Isla Tortuga from Puntarenas/San José. Isla Tortuga is off the coast in Paquera and is not to be confused with the Tortuguero National Park, which is on the opposite side of the country.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Paquera is during the country’s dry season between December and May. I would say the closer you can get to January, the better. Because Paquera gets sweltering hot. But all in all, the experience you’ll get to have here is worth all the heat you’ll endure.
What to Bring
If you have all these items, you’re ready to go! If not, everything that’s linked below is what I used and my absolute favorite. So, I highly recommend them!
- Beach towel
- Sunscreen: This pack of 2 Reef-Friendly sunscreens will make sure both you and the sea life at Isla Tortuga are happy and healthy. The best thing about it? Each tube is 88ml so they can pass through the TSA screening at airports!
- Good hiking shoes: There is a hiking trail you can explore on Isla Tortuga. Although I feel like if you’re going to Costa Rica, it’s always best to have good hiking shoes. This pair from Columbia is my favorite.
- Insect repellent: For someone who despises all sticky lotions, these wipes were perfect for me.
- Rain jacket: No such thing as a perfect rain jacket in my experience. But so far, this one keeps the water out like nothing else. The fit could feel a bit tight so go one size bigger if you want.
- Dry bag: No one ever knows how a boat ride will go. You’d want to keep your valuables like your phone, power bank, charger, and wallet safe from getting wet. But ESPECIALLY during the bioluminescence tour. The kayak will always have water inside.
- Change of clothes
- Water bottle: When in a hot country, insulated water bottles are a MUST!
- A good camera
- Headlamp: This one, I especially love because of how bright it is. Costa Rican nights get REALLY dark so this will definitely come in handy on your walk back to your car!
Where to Stay
Isla Tortuga is a DAY destination with no on-site accommodations. So depending on what you want for the rest of your trip, there are 3-4 options you can use as your base.
Paquera and Montezuma are both on the same side of the bay as the island, so the boat ride will take much less time. You can drive from both destinations up north for 2-3 hours and you will be in the luxury beach towns of Guanacaste.
If you’re looking for more of a local culture or history travel, it may be a better idea to remain around the Central Valley, in the coastal town of Jaco. It takes about 1.5 hours to drive there from San José, and there are day tours to Isla Tortuga leaving from Jaco. I will link these tours at the end of the post.
Though I do have to say, I would recommend spending nights in Paquera. It gave me time to relax as well as be adventurous, the perfect combination. Plus, if you’re doing the bioluminescence tour, it’ll be over way after the ferry back to the mainland has stopped running.
How to Get There
Depending on where you’re staying, there are several routes you can take to get to Tortuga Island. Since I spent the weekend in Paquera, I will be talking predominantly about that and my personal experience.
Again, I will say that the best way to wander out of San José is to rent a car. If you’re more of the adventurous, hours-long bus-taking type, by all means, do that!
The rental car companies are always around the airports. You can find the best rental car deals from both San José Airport and Liberia Airport below.
All the information you need to rent a car and drive in Costa Rica is available here.
The advantage of buses in Costa Rica: SUPER cheap, less than $5 per person to get nearly everywhere.
The downside of buses in Costa Rica: They take at least an hour longer than driving yourself if not more. And most suppliers don’t provide an online reservation system, so you’ll have to get there early and beat the crowd.
The bus terminal that leaves for Puntarenas from downtown San José is at WWH7+PJH, Av. 12, Santa Lucia, San José, Costa Rica. You can also search Google Maps for “Terminal buses a Puntarenas.” The bus runs every 40 minutes from 6 am to 7 pm.
For your return trip, the same bus back to San José runs every 40 minutes from 5:30 am to 7 pm. The bus terminal to get back to San José is on: Calle 2, Puntarenas Province, Punta Arenas, Costa Rica.
A shared shuttle bus from the San José airport or a San José downtown hotel costs $55 per person. Please keep in mind that you’ll need to book your bus 2 days in advance at the latest.
You can also book a private shuttle and it’ll cost $140.
Taking the Ferry
Taking the Ferry Paquera is an art form, especially if you’re crossing with a car. You can learn all you need to know about taking the ferry here.
Accommodations in Paquera
I’m only sharing what I have direct experiences with there. Just wanted to make sure to put you all in great hands. Otherwise, there are a handful of options in Paquera, most of which have amazing deals.
Vista Las Islas
I stayed here for the weekend so rest assured what I’m saying is true! Vista Las Islas is an eco-boutique hotel, meaning it gives you both luxury AND is friendly to the environment. Every room has a porch with a panoramic view of the coast, worth chillin’ in the morning with a cup of coffee.
I did NOT stay here, and I almost did. I would have if I didn’t happen to find a really good agent deal with Vista Las Islas! Bahia Rica was the local tour operator that took me on my epic day adventure, details upcoming.
They have a guest house and a cabin on site for travelers to book. And I assure you, even though I didn’t stay there, I wish I did. It was legit in the woods and right by the coast. If you’re a nature lover, this is your spot.
First thing Saturday morning, I stuffed my face with breakfast and drove over to Bahia Rica, which was only a 15-minute drive from my hotel. I arrived early so I ended up getting to hang out and chat with the owners, Thomas and Vigdis, a little bit. They are the sweetest pair of people on the planet, another reason to try and stay the night there and support them if you can!
At 9 am, we boarded the boat and headed toward Isla Tortuga. There were only me and 2 other women on the tour, and luckily, we got along so well!
The boat ride took around 30 minutes. They took us straight to the island first to drop off the lunch chef and her things. You read that right. Bahia Rica folks have got their own kitchen on the island, and they sent a chef to make hot lunches for us!
Then we headed back off the beach into the water, towards a big rock where we would be snorkeling. There were a lot of people snorkeling and at least 10 other boats floating around waiting for their people as well. But it didn’t feel crowded at all once I got going. I ended up floating and swimming around for a full hour, watching fish, sea urchins, and all the underwater friends. You seem to lose your sense of time underwater…
After getting out of the water, we were taken back to Isla Tortuga, where there are hundreds of beach chairs for rent all along the beach. But we were led past those chairs and into a shaded little nook where the Bahia Rica private kitchen is. There were chopped mangos and cantaloupes waiting for us on the table, and boy did it hit the spot after a full hour of swimming.
To get a hot lunch served was already more than we could have dreamed of… but it was also DELICIOUS.
We had about an hour left on the island after lunch. We decided to go float in the ocean and talked about all kinds of things… which resulted in a sunburn on my forehead. But hey, new friendships are worth it!
If you have enough time and prefer the more adventurous itinerary, Isla Tortuga has several forest trails for you to hike away from the beach as well.
After returning from Isla Tortuga, we had about 3 hours until sunset, which was when the bioluminescence tour would start. And there were 3 hammocks by the beach at Bahia Rica, so we each took one and took naps.
At sunset, we were given a safety brief on kayaking in the dark and some background knowledge on bioluminescence. We then put life jackets on and got onto our kayaks.
A word of caution: It was pitch-black dark in the water. My phone camera could barely capture anything, not even my own hand. So you might want to consider this if you have some fear of darkness.
No need to panic if you’ve never kayaked before. I hadn’t either! But I was fine, not counting those 27 times I started straying away from the group and had to desperately paddle myself back, hahaha!
The bioluminescence glitters only when there’s movement in the water, which is why the most stunning photos of it we’ve seen were all crashing waves on beaches. Because we weren’t in an area with that kind of extreme water movement, we had to disturb the water with our hands and paddles to see anything.
But it was pure magic. The water lit up underneath our kayaks as we floated along. And whenever I put my hand in to stir the water and pull it back up, my hand would glitter for seconds!
This also means that if we had jumped in, our entire body would light up under the water! If you could stand kayaking in the dark at all, I highly recommend this.
If you only wish to do the bioluminescence tour in the evening, you can book with Bahia Rica here.
Nearby Options for Divers
If you’re an avid diver, don’t forget to check out these 3 shipwrecks near Tortuga that you can dive to:
If you’re only interested in Isla Tortuga and you only have one day for it, check out the day tour options below!
Unless you’re deeply afraid of darkness, the tour offers a serene and enchanting experience. After sunset, you’ll receive a safety briefing and instructions for kayak beginners, then you can paddle in calm waters and witness the magical bioluminescence. The algae glow with every stroke of your paddle. If you stick your hand into the water, it will continue glowing for seconds afterward, too!
Isla Tortuga offers a combination of relaxation and adventure. Visitors can enjoy snorkeling in clear waters rich with marine life, including fish and sea urchins. The island also features beautiful beaches where you can unwind or engage in beach activities. Some tour operators offer delicious hot lunches prepared on the island.
You can either take the shared shuttle, which costs around $55 per person, or a private shuttle at approximately $140. It’s important to book the shuttle at least 2 days in advance. To save HOURS from your journey around the Nicoya Gulf, the Ferry Paquera is another great option.
The closest and most notable place is Bahia Rica, which offers a guest house for travelers. It’s located in the woods by the coast, so, ideal for nature lovers. The accommodations are rustic, with no air conditioning, and are constructed from driftwood. Despite this, they offer a unique experience with spectacular opportunities for wildlife sightings and enjoying sunsets over the bay.
Safety is a priority on these tours. The water is usually not more than 5 feet deep, allowing most people to stand if necessary. The bay is calm with minimal waves, contributing to a peaceful kayaking experience. Experienced guides provide safety instructions and ensure a comforting presence throughout the tour. Life jackets are provided as well.