Manuel Antonio – Limited Time? No Problem!
Manuel Antonio is the short vacationer`s dream location. You want beautiful beaches – check, rainforest – check, upscale accommodation and decent restaurants – check, activities such as deep sea fishing, zip-lining, kayaking – check.
In fact, if you only have limited time to visit Costa Rica, this small beach village and popular national park have just about got it covered! If you are a traveller in your golden years, a family with young children or a tourist with limited mobility; the ease of Manuel Antonio’s Park is a real bonus!
Manuel Antonio is not a town but a number of hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores that have sprung up on the windy road that leads from the bustling fishing town of Quepos to the national park and its surroundings. Quepos also thrives from the tourism that the area attracts and has many restaurants, bars, stores and tours that cater to its foreign guests.
The accommodation within the town tends towards lower budget or backpacker with cheap and cheerful “pack ‘em in” type of hostels and hotels. For those not on a shoe-string budget, the hotels which have been built on the cliff tops overlooking the ocean, along the road leading down to Manuel Antonio, will be the preferred choice of accommodation for a stay here.
The beach outside of the national park, Playa Espidilla, is a large expanse of soft grey sand and leads into clear, blue ocean. It is great for surfing, but there can be riptides, so take care. Life guards are usually on watch at this beach.
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country despite being relatively small. For this reason there is limited entry into the park – 600 people during the week and 800 visitors on the weekend. Do go early to ensure that you will be admitted, especially during high season. On Mondays, the park is completely closed. These measures have been introduced to prevent over-saturation of the park which has the prime purpose of protecting the wildlife in it.
You’ll see reviewers and travel guides that pinpoint the park’s popularity and relatively small area as reasons to omit it from a Costa Rican vacation itinerary. Certainly, if you have the time and the physical ability to hike through wilder jungle; there are more remote and isolated protected areas in the country that may give you the chance to be ensconced in nature and forget the outside world, but you shouldn’t get the impression that Manuel Antonio is all camera-toting tourists either. One of my most magical wildlife encounters in Costa Rica occurred right there in the center of the park!
Leaving the park as dusk approached, I was privileged to see baby turtles emerging from a sandy bank next to the trail; they were burrowing frantically out of their nest; pushing and shoving at their siblings in their desire to leave the sand and struggle down the beach to enter the ocean. I and others stood and watched as the tiny reptiles were guided by the light reflecting off the waves to tread their way with dogged determination towards their goal; overcoming obstacles such as sticks and our footprints to be washed into the water by a wave and bob along with just their heads showing.
Another time, I was horribly transfixed by the sight of a snake slowly consuming a bat as it hung from a tree. Agoutis nibble nuts in the undergrowth, sloths sluggishly edge their way along branches, squirrel monkeys chattering to each other and the white-faced monkeys are everywhere!
Actually, look out for the Capuchin Monkeys – they have learned to work together as efficiently as any ghetto gang to steal from unsuspecting tourists! I’ve seen smaller members of the troupe posing off in the branches overhanging a beach and as the tourists leap from their towels ready to snap a pic of the “oh-so-cute little thing”; their parents, aunts, uncles and every other member of the family are sneaking around and ransacking the unattended bags! I watched helplessly as my sun tan lotion was triumphantly carried off by one furry robber, but was fortunately dropped a few feet away with disgust when it wasn’t edible!
Far from being so over-populated with tourists that the wildlife has fled; they can be all too apparent! On a more serious note, the Manuel Antonio monkeys are believed to have a shorter lifespan then those outside of the park due to the high cholesterol intake in their systems from consuming human food – please don’t feed them!
The four beaches within the park are safer swimming spots than outside of it, as they are protected by the bays that form them. Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, Playita and Escondido beaches are all accessible by well-maintained trails and the more ambitious walker can take a circuit around Punta Cathedral too. The point is on a tombolo – an island now joined to the land by a sand strip. The jungle paths are perfect opportunities to stroll along with a sharp eye and careful ear to spot the animals in the undergrowth and above you in the trees.
Enter the park by La Posada Hotel and pay your $6 to $10 entrance fee with children under 12 being free. If you leave by the beach exit and the river is high; pay to take the boat across rather than wade in. The river is sometimes polluted and is rumoured to contain crocodiles!
The park was listed on the Forbes 2011 compilation of the “12 Most Beautiful National Parks in the World”, if you needed further confirmation of its charms.
Outside of the park, you’ll find many tour companies willing to take you on a whole host of other adventures, such as zip-lining, deep-sea fishing, snorkelling and much more. Tour guides are available to take you around the park, so you don’t miss a single tree frog hiding under a leaf and for more information on the flora and fauna of the area.
Only about a 3 hour drive from San Jose, Manuel Antonio is one of the closest beaches to the Central Valley and is really worth visiting. GPS co-ordinates for the centre of Quepos are 9.43306,-84.161932.
Reporting by Sara Ford
• Freelance writer for Vamos Rent-A-Car