We decided on a whim to check out a part of the country we had not explored, yet, the Central Pacific Coast, and what better place to view the diversity of this area than Manuel Antonio. Less than a 3 hour drive from our Central Valley home, Manuel Antonio offers what is billed as the most biodiverse National Park in the country, boasting 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds, with 4 beaches along the Pacific Ocean.
Having dogs sometimes makes it difficult to plan a trip of a couple of days, but fortunately, Costa Rica has many hotels and lodges that are pet-friendly and welcome our furry family members. A quick search of the hotels in the area provided several choices and we chose a small boutique all-suites hotel just 5 km from the entrance to the park. With reservations made, bags quickly packed and loaded, dog beds in the back of the SUV and a full tank of gas, we head off on our journey.
Viewing road maps on a typical guide in Costa Rica is not for the faint of heart since, what might look like a nice highway could be a gravel road with several water crossings. So, having never been to this region before and seeing on the map that 100 km of our trip would be on a coastal “highway”, I was geared up for a somewhat rough drive for a good portion of the trip. To my delight, Highway 34 was a great paved highway, well maintained and not heavily traveled by commercial traffic. So we quickly made it through the towns of Playa Herradura, Jaco, Playa Hermosa and finally Quepos.
Quepos is the town that leads up to Manuel Antonio and it is quite popular with the surfing tourists, yet still maintains a Tico charm without being touristy. From the town we climb up the coastal hills to our hotel, Plaza Yara, and pulling into the small parking lot, we are greeted by a beagle-mix dog who immediately senses the presence of our furry children. Basso, as we eventually learned her name, wanted nothing more than to meet her new guests, and she was pleased to see us, also. Basso escorted me to the reception area, which doubles as an art gallery for local painters and artisans, and I was greeted there by our concierge, Nelson who greeted me warmly and had our booking ready to go. He took me on a quick tour of the property, showing me the breakfast lounge, the observation deck looking into the natural habitat surrounding the hotel, the adjoining restaurant, the pool and spa area, and finally ending up at our suite. It was beautifully appointed with two Queen beds, a small kitchen area, a very modern bathroom, a living room area, and a balcony overlooking the pool. Nelson made sure to let us know that he and the staff would do anything they could to accommodate our needs.
Since we were travelling light, I declined Nelson’s offer to get our bags to the room and unloaded our backpacks and dogs from the car with the hotel’s canine concierge, Basso, escorting her new “sniff buddies” to our suite. She even came into the room with us to check out our doggie beds we brought for our “kids”. It could not have been more charming. Basso immediately bonded with our beagle and I knew that they would enjoy each others’ company during our stay.
We arrived later in the afternoon, and after a quick trip into town for some supplies, we decided to take Nelson’s suggestion of dinner in the adjoining restaurant, Gondola Gourmet, which was a spot on suggestion. Our waiter, Jaime and the owner, Silvana treated us like family and we shared stories of Costa Rica and North America. The food was excellent and Silvana gave us a complimentary shot of homemade Limoncello with our check.
After dinner, we retired to our room and watched some TV (Spanish, English, German,and French channel selections) until it was time for bed. Now, I must say that we have travelled throughout Costa Rica for several years and have become accustomed to “Tico Beds”, which are harder than what one would expect from North American hotels, but with this hotel, they were less hard than most (albeit, not North American standards).
We arose early on Friday so that we could get a nice breakfast before heading up to the park, which was an easy drive up a windy, well paved road. At this point I will tell folks travelling to the park that there are several parking areas about a kilometer from the park where parking attendants will tell you to “Park Here” claiming that the parking areas at the park itself are full. Don’t be fooled and just tell them “otra dia” and drive onward to the park since there is ample parking just before the gates. To gain entry into the park, you must purchase your tickets at he bank, Coopealianza, just 200 meters before the entrance. Cash and Visa credit cards are accepted for payment…American Express and MasterCard did not lobby hard enough, I guess. You will also receive a map of the park with your entry tickets, which is most helpful to guide you through the various trails. There are several guides that you can sign up with for roughly $20.00 U.S., but make sure that if you choose a guide you get one who is wearing a brown National Park shirt since these are the most knowledgeable and reliable. They carry high-powered scopes on tripods and stop along the trails to point out the various wildlife through their scopes.
We opted for a self-guided tour with our camera and telescopic lens for a more personal viewing of what we wanted to see. We did garner some information by eavesdropping on a few guides, but we did not hang along with the groups for very long. The trails are very well maintained and easy to walk, with side trails of boardwalk to take you deeper into the jungle setting . The day was beautifully warm and the morning humidity was drying up, the sun and blue sky peeking through the abundant trees.
We could hear howler monkeys in the distance mixing with the sounds of cicadas and frogs closer by. There were vines winding through the trees and we overheard that some of the vines were over 100 years old. Another interesting tidbit of information we heard from a guide was that the howler monkey is the second loudest animal in the world, only surpassed by the blue whale. A howler monkey’s roar can be heard over 10 km away.
One boardwalk path took us through a marshy area with small rivulets and deadwood on either side. This was home to some very colorful fungi growing off the deadwood and even more colorful crabs burrowing into the mud.
Arriving at the beach, we were greeted with a view of clear blue water along a horseshoe beach with rocky outcroppings throughout. the beaches were not crowded and the water on the north beach was very calm with
Among the trees that were on the perimeter of the beach were Capuchin monkeys, waiting for the unsuspecting beach goer to leave his or her belongings unattended so he could swoop down and get a snack. They appear to be friendly little guys, but so was the Artful Dodger.
We watched with amazement as these monkeys worked their way through the tourists seeking out a trash bin or a stray nut or fruit on the ground. The younger ones would chase each other up and down trees while the more savvy elders had their eyes on bigger prizes. It was truly a jungle show and we saw a couple of times where their persistence was rewarded with a mad dash towards a vacant cooler, only to be shooed away by a park guard. I was rooting for the monkey, though.
While Jackie was off on the beach walking along the surf, I met my newest jungle buddy, Don Mapache (better known in North America as a raccoon). Unfettered by my presence, he came right up to me and started to sniff my sneakers (which is as unpleasant an experience as any human could sustain). Not finding anything of interest in my footwear, he reached up an pawed my leg to see if I had anything else to offer (vis-a-vis, food for the taking).
He had such longing eyes, had I been holding any snack I would have been tempted to offer it to him, which is strictly forbidden in the park guidelines. He sadly went off into the brush in search of another sucker. As an aside, Jackie and I sat on a bench later to have some cheese we had brought for a snack and a little raccoon (perhaps Don Mapache?) snuck up, unbeknownst to us) and stole our last 2 pieces of cheese. Chomping in the morsels, he looked very proud of himself.
Having had a full day of the jungle and wildlife, we headed back to the car and towards the hotel with a stop for a small lunch (since Don Mapache made off with the remainder of our sustenance). Some time by the pool and lounging in the hotel spa was a relaxing way to spend the late afternoon hours before a small pizza dinner and a restful night’s sleep.
In the morning we toured the gallery in the lobby area and decided on a purchase of a decorative porcelain gecko wall hanging for the house. We had a very nice conversation with the concierge on duty, Javier. He told us about his family in Puntarenas and that his son was celebrating his 13th birthday that day, so he was anxious to get off duty and head home. He wanted to know about our family and how we came to relocate to Costa Rica.
This sense of family is something that is first and foremost in the Tico culture, it is the most important facet of their lives. I see it at the local sodas where entire families share a meal, babies through grandparents. Fathers, carrying their babies proudly along with mother and other kids to the park for an afternoon. People live simply here, but they know what is important to them and whenever I talk to someone, the conversation usually involves their family.
The drive home with a couple of stops for vista views, dog walks, and a meal at a soda was pleasant. It is always great to be back home.