Staying in a country like Costa Rica for a month is a great way to explore and get to know the place.
Our first visit to Manuel Antonio is to check out the hotels. There are many, but we like Costa Verde on the hill above the main street best. It’s away from the beach, the park and the village centre, which is a good thing, but close enough we can get there in five minutes by taxi. The taxi is cheap and the parking well-nigh impossible. The park and the beach are so popular, all the parking spots fill up early and on weekends they literally close the road to the village once capacity has been reached. These spots are popular because they are beautiful, which in Costa Rica means crowds, both tourists and locals. The park is the smallest in a country rich with nature reserves, but one of the most bio-diverse. The beaches are white sand, which in a volcanic country, are a rare sight. Most beaches nearby are black, grey, red or brown. Head for the little town of Quepos (kay-poss) on the Pacific coast. The road from San José has recently been much improved and the drive is now a pleasant two and half to three hours from the capital by rental car. Or take an easy 20 minute local flight. I don’t recommend the bus as the terminal is located in a very insalubrious part of town.
Hotel Costa Verde advises there are “still more monkeys than people” as guests and our room is so private, I’m inclined to agree. On our second visit to the village we stay a few days, soaking up the tranquility and basking by the pool. Nature surrounds us and the white-faced capuchin monkeys are frequent visitors on our second floor balcony. In the mornings we can hear the various families of howler monkeys calling to each other across the forest canopy. It sounds like they are close by, but we never see them. Turns out they are really, really loud and probably half a kilometre away.
We dine in the hotel, eat by the pool, and at sister restaurants across the street. All are excellent. El Avión has the additional fun of a bar in a 1954 era cargo plane (allegedly used in running arms to the Contras). The owners seem to like planes. For a premium, you can stay in a suite inside an old Constellation, up in the trees. I won’t dwell further on the hotel, as I want to get to the park, except to say that the views and the sunsets are spectacular (see The Zen of Sunsets).
Manuel Antonio National Park is perched on a peninsular jutting into the ocean. Although small in size it has a remarkable variety of birds, animals, insects and plants on display. Recognizing the tourist value of the monkey population, developers have wisely inter-connected all the rain forest canopy areas adjacent to the park with monkey bridges. This allows the park to maintain a larger animal population, since monkey families may come and go as they please.
The park opens early, and we are there to meet our guide, a necessary addition to our little party, as much of the wild life will remain unspotted without an eagle-eyed expert. To avoid over stressing the environment, the park only allows 600 visitors a day, so once the maximum is reached the gates are shut, often by 10 am. Johan has the guide’s essential tool: a fine telescope with macro capability. As we meander along the park’s one-way trail system he points out two- and three-toed sloths high in the trees, tiny frogs and lizards under leaves, iguanas and basilisks perched on logs, and multitudinous butterflies feeding on nectar in the jungle flowers. The sloths are green with algae in their fur and apparently stink up close. Fortunately, we aren’t that close. One frog, no more than an inch long, is bright green with big red eyes, like a precious jewel. The reptiles are fairly ho-hum after one has seen the crocodiles at the Rio Tárcoles on the drive down. The butterflies are spectacular, and I’m happy to see a huge blue morpho, one of the world’s largest species.
Our guide has a clever attachment in his equipment, which allows me to hitch my camera to his telephoto lens and get some great close-up shots. The one thing he doesn’t have to point out are the capuchin monkeys, which are everywhere. Beach raccoons amaze some of the tourists, but we’ve seen them digging through garbage in the back lanes of Toronto, and are unimpressed. We do see a small group of tiny, rare spider monkeys, but there are so many people jostling to take their picture they scuttle off before we get close.
The park is a treat. The guided tour takes an hour or so, and then we are free to wander on our own. I’ve brought my own snorkelling gear as there is none available to rent in the park. We change in the new and remarkably clean baños and head for the beach. The snorkelling is disappointing as the water is disturbed and sandy, reducing vision, but the swimming is fine on the beach our guide has recommended. The other beach, he tells us, has a dangerous rip tide, although it looks tranquil enough to the naked eye. Clearly, local knowledge is critical. The tide is going out so we can walk to a huge rock on a narrow spit of sand just revealed. Further along, there is a small island connected by a permanent isthmus and the climb to the top is apparently worth the view. But by noon it is hot and getting very humid, so we leave the park to find lunch in the village. The exit is not as much fun as the entrance, and needs work. As the tide has receded, we can splash across a little creek, but earlier we would have had to ask one of the predatory boatmen to row us across for a fee. It’s that or face the crocodiles. After our park tour, we try La Esquina de la Playa overlooking the village beach. It’s simple food, but I have a sinfully good burrito and Diane enjoys fish tacos. Another day we have an excellent lunch at the nearby Marlin, highly recommended by Fodor.
Back at the hotel, the wi-fi is finally working for the first time in several days and after an long afternoon nap, I check emails with a cocktail at hand and another magnificent sunset before me. Just another day in paradise, Costa Rica style.
PS: All the photos in this story and all my other posts are mine. Very occasionally I have used pictures which have been freely given to me. If I use other photographers’ work, with their permission, I always credit them. I use reproductions of publications, such as book and magazine covers, without apology. No other images have been downloaded from the internet. If you are interested in the source or location of any of my photographs, please ask me using the comment feature.
This article was originally posted on February 6, 2013. My review of Costa Verde on Trip Advisor had 2,725 readers, a personal best until recently.