Tarcoles River Cruise Guide & Review (All You Need To Know)

A visit to the Tarcoles River in Puntarenas is a thrilling boat ride where you can spot crocodiles up to 17 feet long, over 30 kinds of exotic birds, iguanas, and lizards, cruise through mangrove forests, and admire the rainforest scenery. But your trip could turn sour if you don’t know some crucial things before you go.

These days, it’s rare to get close to wild animals in their natural habitat. My friend, who’s from America and lives in Costa Rica, suggested Jose’s Crocodile River Tour. We then traveled from our AirBnB in Playa Tivives to Tarcoles, where the tour takes place. It only took us about 35–40 minutes by car.

During the tour, we saw more than 20–30 crocodiles. Some of them even swam right up to our boat, so we could take pictures with them. 

However, there are aspects of this trip that we didn’t like and had to learn the hard way. So, if you’re considering a visit to the Tarcoles River to see Crocs, this article is for you. Learn all you need to know before going. 

Key Takeaways

  • The Tarcoles River flows from the Cordillera Central to the Gulf of Nicoya
  • It’s 111 km long, and the big deal about this place is seeing crocodiles and beautiful birds while traveling through the mangrove forests.
  • There’s no entry fee to access the Tarcoles River, but the popular option is to hire a tour guide to experience the area to its fullest. 
  • Jose in Puntarenas offers the best Tarcoles River cruise tour, among other options.
  • For an organized boat tour of the Tarcoles River, expect to pay around $30 to $60 per person. 
  • Come with your binoculars, camera, mosquito repellent, and dress light.
  • No, it’s not safe to swim in the river. It’s murky and uninviting.
  • They feed the crocodiles raw chicken to bring them closer, so you can see them. If this is a turnoff for you, now you know. 
  • Treats are available at nearby restaurants. Some tours provide coverage for water and drinks. However, I still budgeted for it.

What’s the Tarcoles River all about?

The Nicoya Peninsula receives the Tárcoles River, which originates in the North Puntarenas region and empties into the Pacific Ocean.

It’s more than just a river where you can spot crocodiles; it’s also extremely important for the country. It runs alongside Carara National Park, acts as a border for it, and helps with irrigation and electricity production.

It’s also a place where you can find different kinds of birds and fish, such as herons, egrets, spoonbills, caracaras, and macaws. A visit to this river is one of the best things to do in Puntarenas.

How do I get to the Tarcoles River in Puntarenas?

To reach the Tarcoles River in Puntarenas, the easiest way is to join a tour organized by a company that offers trips to the area. However, keep in mind that there will be a fee for these tours, which can vary depending on the company.

Suppose you’re driving on your own, especially if you’re heading towards destinations like Jacó and Manuel Antonio. In that case, you can stop along Route 34 at the Tarcoles River Bridge to see the huge crocodiles.

I suggest opting for a boat tour up the Tarcoles River. This way, you can get a closer view of the Crocs and enjoy a guided tour. 

The Tarcoles River starts in the mountains of the Central Valley and flows down the Pacific slope, eventually emptying into the Gulf of Nicoya. 

Although it stretches for 111 kilometers (69 miles), the most famous part is the section that crosses the Pacific coastal highway.

Are there entry fees at the Tarcoles River, Puntarenas?

You won’t encounter an entry fee to access the areas around the Tarcoles River. However, if you want to get a close-up view of the Crocs and have a guided tour, you’ll need to join a tour group. It comes with a fee.

  • Without transportation, the fee for adults (13+) is $40; for children (ages 5–12), it is $30; and for children under 5, it is free. 
  • The fee for adults (13+) with transportation from the Jaco Area or Los Suenos is $60; for children (ages 5-12) it is $40; and for children under five it is free. If you have three or more adults, the transportation price decreases.

The Tarcoles River offers a variety of enjoyable activities.

A trip to the Tarcoles River is more of an exciting learning experience. The guides there usually teach you all about crocodiles, the river’s history, and the different birds and animals you might see.

But online, most people just talk about the river being full of Crocs. There’s actually more to do there. Let’s begin with the most obvious thing:

Observe and interact with crocodiles.

While researching online before the trip, I learned that you could find about 25 crocodiles per square kilometer. However, when you’re on the boat tour, there’s no guarantee that you will have many Croatians. 

We were lucky to see a 16-foot crocodile named Shakira as it emerged from the water, its sizeable gray-green snout breaking the surface. 

Our guide explained that they often name the Crocs based on their traits. Shakira was named because she sways her hips when moving on and off the riverbank.

There are other crocs we spotted, and I learned their names: 

  • Danny DeVito: short, stocky croc
  • Nicole Richie, female croc
  • Miley Cyrus: The agitating croc
  • And a three-foot baby croc.


Your guide should identify various bird species among the shrubs and trees along the riverbanks during your boat tour.

Don’t ignore this activity, because many of these birds can be difficult to find in Costa Rica. You can spot some of the following birds in Costa Rica:

  1. Crested Caracara
  2. Black Hawks
  3. Magnificent Frigatebirds
  4. Anhinga
  5. Snowy Egret
  6. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
  7. Black-necked Stilts
  8. Ringed Kingfisher
  9. Northern Jaçana, and many more.

Despite not being a bird-watcher, the stunning array of birds we encountered captivated me.

Their colors and calls made us feel truly immersed in the jungle.

Visit Steven Lisa’s restaurant.

After the tour, you can enjoy a delicious meal from Steven Lisa’s special menu and refreshing fruit smoothies at a nearby local restaurant.

  • Address: 50 meters north of the Estación de Servicios EUSSE Puntarenas La Pita, Tárcoles, 61102, Costa Rica.

Make sure to request the special menu, which includes chicken and rice accompanied by a tasty salad and a refreshing fruit smoothie or ice. 

The food and service are excellent. Giant iguanas nearby enhance the restaurant’s atmosphere. Each meal from the special menu costs around $8, and they accept credit cards, making payment convenient. 

Is it safe to swim in the Tarcoles River?

Swimming in the Tarcoles River is clearly unsafe, primarily due to the large number of crocodiles inhabiting its waters. 

It’s best to admire the river from a distance. The water’s murky and unappealing appearance serves as a deterrent, which is fortunate because swimming in it would be highly hazardous.

The water even carries around 67% of sewage and industrial waste from over half of the country’s population. I wouldn’t even recommend you dip your toes in it. 

Preparing to Visit the Tarcoles River (What You Should Know)

As someone who’s done a lot of croc watching, I’ve learned a few tips I can share. Here are some of my experiences:

  1. Avoid the smell of meat. It’s best to skip meat before your tour, as you don’t want to attract crocs with any food on your clothes.
  2. Protect your skin with SPF, and consider wearing long sleeves to avoid looking like tempting prey.
  3. Leave raw meat at home. While it’s unlikely you’d bring it, crocs are drawn to it.
  4. Bring binoculars to observe from a safe distance. Crocs can be smelly up close, and their breath isn’t pleasant.
  5. Bring your digital camera or use your phone camera to externalize your experience. You don’t get to see these creatures every day. 

The Tarcoles River Tour offers both pros and cons.

Every trip has its good and bad sides. If you’re considering a boat tour to the Tarcoles River, keep these pros and cons in mind:

What I like about the Tarcoles River boat tour

  • You will see lots of crocs, beautiful birds (like a stunning red macaw), iguanas, monkeys, and crabs.
  • You might receive cold bottled water halfway through the 90-minute tour.
  • It is a fantastic experience, with plenty of opportunities to take close-up photos and videos of the Crocs.
  • The tour is relaxing and enjoyable, and it doesn’t require you to be constantly awake.
  • Both the guide and the boat driver are usually friendly and knowledgeable.

What I don’t like about the boat tour to the Tarcoles River

  • For tourist safety, the access to and from the boats could be improved.
  • Usually, tours to this location include water and coffee, but the restaurant may not always be aware of this and may ask you to pay for them.
  • I observed the guides feed raw chicken to the crocodiles, which seemed to be a regular practice. Apparently, the guides did this to draw the crocodiles closer to the boat, allowing tourists to observe them up close.

What’s the best boat tour to the Tarcoles River? 

There are quite a few boat cruise companies in Puntarenas that offer boat tours on the Tarcoles River. But the most popular one, which I absolutely recommend, is Jose’s Crocodile River Tour.

Jose’s Crocodile River Tour

  • Address: Q9GF+R9X, Puntarenas Province, Tarcoles, Costa Rica

One major observation I made was that Jose’s boat made frequent stops compared to other tour boats on the river. 

While we watched other boats cruise by, slowing down or stopping briefly only once or twice, Jose and his team consistently engaged with the Crocs. They would even get out of the boat to feed or call the crocs.

Departure times for this tour include 7:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., and 4:00 p.m. Your tour will consist of an experienced tour guide and a complimentary cold bottle of water. 

Wrapping up: Is the Tarcoles River worth visiting?

Absolutely, I highly recommend this boat trip. The cost is worth the experience. If you’re someone who loves adventure, don’t miss out on this boat tour of the Tarcoles River.

Experience the safety of American crocodiles of all sizes. You’ll also encounter various species of exotic birds and wildlife, including iguanas, water-running lizards, mangrove crabs, monkeys, and more. 

Just manage your expectations regarding the number of Crocs you’ll see, as they can vary. Also, the tour company you choose can significantly impact your experience, so choose wisely. 

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Born in California, Michelle traveled extensively through the USA and Europe before moving to South Florida during the pandemic. Her career in Marketing has taken her all across the world. Her favorite country is France but she'll never turn down a beach vacation!

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