It was the rainforest, after all. We had burned through the boys clean clothes faster than I had projected, with the mud and rain putting their cold weather gear out of commission as it was too damp for anything to dry. The pants I had hand-washed in the sink the first evening still hung sopping wet on a towel rack and had to be packed into the car like wet swimsuits. Despite the morning arriving rather clear and sunny we were in a hurry to leave the cloud forest behind and explore another region of Costa Rica – the coast.
When planning our trip we had considered the possibilities; the Caribbean coast and Guanacaste (northwest) were out due to distance, so we turned our attention to the shore south of Puntarenas. The resort town of Jacó was the first popular area we would reach driving south, but from friends’ descriptions seemed like more of a surfers’ paradise and party town than a family destination. The area north of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio was the next stretch that caught our eye, but due to the late hour all the appealing accommodations had been booked. And this is how we ended up between Dominical and Uvita, 45 minutes south of Manuel Antonio National Park on the slopes of the Escaleras Mountains overlooking the Pacific.
As Manuel Antonio has gained international fame due to its biodiversity and magnificent beaches, it was high on our wish-list of places to see. The next day we loaded up the cars and retraced our steps north to Quepos, the gateway to the park. Traditionally a game fishing base and center for production of palm oil (Highway 34 was flanked by palm plantations almost the whole way north), the town now caters primarily to tourists and provided some serious traffic. The road descends from town down to the ocean with Playa Espadilla Norte beach visible on the right, but our destination was the park, whose official entrance is off a small spur road to the left. As we approached the gates there were what looked to be uniformed locals trying to wave us into parking areas and bumper to bumper traffic. I’m still unsure as to whether these were in fact employees of the park, but we finally pulled into one of the lots and paid a parking/security fee. Next we stood in line at a kiosk a short distance from the entrance to buy tickets to the park, and finally we queued at the park entrance for a backpack check by park officials. Once in the park it was a decent hike of over 1 km following either a paved road or a boardwalk, and then paths split off in all directions to various beaches and viewpoints. (Click here for brochure and map)
We opted to start at Playas Gemelas, one of the smaller beaches with shade trees and rocks providing a spot to relax while the boys dug in the sand. We had been warned about the pickpocket monkeys and the poisonous manchineel tree, but nobody had mentioned the giant iguanas that were browsing the branches seemingly just above our heads!
As the afternoon passed we visited Playa Manuel Antonio, from which Playa Espadilla Sur was a short walk across the peninsula. The white sand beach descended into jade colored waters, calm enough for Lauris and Mikus to get out into the water. A coral reef is located in the bay, with peninsulas extending on either end; Punta Catedral to the west is a former island now connected to mainland, and has tidal pools at the base of its rocky cliffs.
Although Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica's smallest national park, the diversity of wildlife in its 3 square miles is unequaled: 107 species of mammals and 335 species of birds. Both three-toed and two-toed sloths can often be seen, along with three of Costa Rica's four monkey species — the mantled howler monkey, the Central American squirrel monkey, and the white-headed capuchin monkeys we saw. In addition to the iguanas we met at the beach, the park is also home to the common basilisk, the white-nosed coati, snakes, toucans, woodpeckers, potoos, motmots, tanagers, parakeets and hawks. We were told dolphins can be seen from shore, and during whale migrations it is not uncommon to see a humpback – fascinating sights for such a little park.
An important thing to know when visiting the park, is that there are strictly enforced hours. The park closes around 4pm, and at this point the marine patrol chases everyone out from each beach. It is a decent walk from the gate to the various beaches so bring a backpack. Bathrooms with showers for rinsing off after swimming are centrally located in the park, but the lines are long. Beware the toxic manchineel tree, the monkeys who will steal your food if allowed, and the riptides.
There is a limit to the number of visitors allowed per day (600), but the park is still threatened by overuse, pollution and hotel expansion. The Quepos/Manuel Antonio stretch was thick with businesses, hotels and restaurants, and it is easy to imagine the stress on the park from such intense visitation. However I am thankful for the opportunity to experience the park, if only for an afternoon; to meet the resident monkeys and iguanas, and to witness the stunning beauty of the beaches firsthand.
On our way back to Quepos we stopped at El Avión to feed the boys and watch the sun set. A Fairchild C-123 transport plane used by the CIA in the 70s to run arms to the Nicaraguan Contras was abandoned at the San Jose International Airport during the Iran-Contra Affair after its sister plane was shot down over Nicaragua. Purchased for $3,000 in 2000, it was disassembled and moved to its present location in pieces via rail, car and boat. Now a restaurant, we had a fun time exploring the plane and had a great view of the sunset while enjoying drinks and an appetizer, but soon it was time to move on as we still had a good 45 minute drive back to the villas.
The boys fell asleep not long after getting back on the road, and it was about halfway home that we pulled over at a roadside eatery for dinner. “Rest Club Roncador” – an open-air, no-fuss, pull-up-a-couch for the boys to sleep on kind of place. Sitting around the enormous table we had a delicious dinner, my favorite from all the evenings in Costa Rica. The menus were completely in Spanish, the other tables were occupied by locals, the kitchen was visible and also outdoors, and the food took forever. I had shrimp quesadillas (the shrimp as fresh as it gets and still cooked), and washed it down with Imperial beer, the #1 beer of Costa Rica. It was truly a memorable Costa Rican experience, and as we carried the boys back to the car one-by-one, I wondered what similar adventures we might have in the days to come.