This year for our 20th anniversary, my husband and I set our sights on the exotic jungles of Costa Rica for a once-in-a-lifetime tour!
January is right in the heart of the high season in Costa Rica, which is a good time to visit because it’s not so wet. During our two-week tour of the country, we visited four different provinces—Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde (The Cloud Forest) and Manuel Antonio. In this article, I will be focusing on Manuel Antonio, the final location on our big adventure.
Manuel Antonio, The Community
Just outside of Manuel Antonio National Park is the tiny village of Manuel Antonio. There’s not much here besides a couple of markets, a few shops and outdoor cafés. What you will find is an abundance of hotels, hostels and rental homes. The community of Manuel Antonio is the gateway to the national park.
We did enjoy a short walk around this quaint little community and were so excited to see an entire troupe of squirrel monkeys up close and personal. They use the phone and electrical wires to cross from one side of the street to the other, which is precisely what they were doing when we encountered them. So cute!
One really nice thing about Manuel Antonio is the bus service—very clean and inexpensive buses that will take you to the larger town of Quepos where you will find many more options for shopping, dining and lodging.
We stayed at the Hotel Playa Espadilla, just steps from the entrance to the national park. The hotel itself was a bit dated and the bed not too comfortable but the location couldn’t be beat. Also, the open-air restaurant at the hotel was very good and included a free buffet breakfast every morning. It had two bars, one adjacent to the restaurant that also had a swim-up feature attached to the pool. The other featured an open patio decorated with tiny white lights that created a magical feel after dark. We enjoyed live guitar music after 8 p.m. that lent to the romantic and cozy feel of the place, and the staff was very friendly and helpful.
Manuel Antonio National Park
The main draw to this area, as I’ve already indicated, is the national park. Since January is the heart of the high season, we encountered long lines entering the park both of the days we went. For our first time through the park, we were with a tour group on a guided hike. The pace was painfully slow in the beginning as our group navigated through the crowds. There were many different tours going on at the same time, and people were gathering in large groups to view the wildlife through the various guide’s spotting scopes. It was especially difficult at the onset, as we went down a boardwalk path that tended to bottleneck with all the people. After the initial slowdown, the pace picked up some and then ebbed and flowed after that.
By 8:00 a.m., it was sunny and already getting hot and humid. This area gets very humid this time of year and with temperatures in the mid-80s or higher, it can be miserable in the sun. Be prepared to take lots of rest breaks, drink plenty of water and look for shady spots whenever possible! A hat and sunscreen are also “must have” items.
The forest was dense and beautiful as giant tropical plants with huge leaves and tiny orchids smaller than a fingernail coexisted here side by side. It was also cooler under the protected canopy of the jungle, which we very much appreciated. There are many elevated walkways in the park due to flooding in the rainy season, which added their own beauty to the surrounding landscape.
We saw an abundance of creatures including: a yellow-throated toucan, a leaf-nosed bat, a blue-capped mot mot (it’s a bird), a white-capped parrot, a brown basilisk lizard (a.k.a. Jesus Christ lizard), an hourglass frog (he made himself known by jumping on my arm!), a white-necked puffbird, a two-toed sloth, a common night hawk, a scaly-breasted hummingbird, several deer and lots of white-faced monkeys. Wow, what a mouthful!
At the conclusion of the hike, our guide took us to the beach where we could spend about a half hour before heading back to the bus. Since my husband and I were staying just outside the park and could easily walk to our hotel, we opted to stay longer without the group. We had lunch (box lunch provided by our hotel) on a log overlooking the beautiful surf as the waves hypnotically caressed the white sand beach.
Dozens upon dozens of people peppered the coastline, laying on the beach or playing in the warm water. I wished we had brought swimsuits so we could join them. We spent the rest of the day enjoying the beach and watching the many white-faced monkeys as they tried to steal people’s food or played in the water fountains. I swear I’ve never seen such a concentration of monkeys in my life!
Our second trip into the park was spent hiking on our own, going on several trails that we missed on the guided hike. We also brought our swimsuits this time so we were able to play in the surf for a couple of hours. Instead of getting a boxed lunch from our hotel, we opted to buy lunch in the park. They have a concession area with sandwiches, various local offerings both hot and cold, pastries and cold drinks, all at a reasonable price. They also rent lockers so you can go swimming without having to worry about your stuff.
Mangrove Swamp Tour
The area offers other tours outside of the national park as well. One that caught our eye in particular was the guided kayak tour through the mangrove swamp. You can also take a motorboat tour if you’re not feeling as adventurous. It was very enjoyable experiencing these waterways at the level of the canals and the slow speed of a kayak.
Our guide pointed out interesting native plants and flowers along the way as well as wildlife that we came across as we meandered through the swamps. On our tour we saw: bats sleeping under a bridge, a tiger heron, a hawk and kingfishers as well as basilisk lizards and iguanas. Of course, there were lots of white-faced monkeys!
In the national park people are not allowed to feed the wildlife, but outside the park, the guide had no problem giving the monkeys bananas to get them to come closer to the boats and visitors. This just made the monkeys behave badly. They jumped on a lady in a kayak next to us and got muddy paw prints all over her, including the white shorts she was wearing. Another monkey jumped in a motorboat that was next to us (also feeding the monkeys) and ripped a woman’s shiny gold earring out of her ear. We were able to see first hand why they say not to feed the monkeys!
It was an enjoyable and memorable experience overall, and as part of the tour, we were given a delicious tuna lunch at a restaurant in Quepos before being returned to our hotel.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Manuel Antonio—and all of Costa Rica for that matter—despite the humidity. It was a whirlwind two weeks and we visited several magical places along our tour of this majestic country. I’m sure we will return to visit again one day, but for now, it's time to head back to San Jose for one more night before flying home to Oregon. Adios Costa Rica!
© 2019 Traci Wilson
Liz Westwood from UK on April 05, 2019:
This is an excellent travelogue. I am enjoying reading about your trip and seeing the great photos.