The village of Tortuguero lies directly on the long beach where turtles lay their eggs. It is appropriately called Playa de las Tortugas (“Turtle Beach”). Most of the 2,000 inhabitants are descendants of slaves brought to Tortuguero in the 19th century by North American lumber companies that came to cut ebony in the forest. The rusting machines and vehicles that lie around everywhere are also reminders of that bygone era. They lend the village a special kind of charm that lies somewhere between open-air industrial museum and tropical junkyard. The machines also symbolize how little human life was worth a century ago. The U.S. lumber concerns that shipped these machines and men to Costa Rica simply left them behind when they had outlived their usefulness. The black lumber workers turned to fishing and farming to survive. Much later the tourists arrived, giving the villagers a chance to earn a little extra money.
Today the village is significant only as the gateway to the Tortuguero National Park. The 10,000 visitors who come to the park every year have little economic impact on the daily life of the villagers. Most of the tourists come in organized tours that arrive in the morning and leave again the same evening. Others spend the day in the park and travel on to the Barra del Colorado Nature Preserve. Very few tourists actually spend the night in the inexpensive and very basic lodges available in the village. Individual travelers who plan a longer stay and who have had their fill of fish should bring other supplies with them, because the menu in the village restaurant consists solely of fish, served seven days a week.
Very close to the village, reachable in just a few minutes on foot and built on one of the canals, is the most important of the park’s three forest stations: the administration office of Tortuguero. Visitors can pay their entrance fee at the station, obtain information material and ask the rangers about the turtles, and where they happen to be coming ashore to lay their eggs at that particular time.