It was 6 a.m. and I was hiking alone in the lush, tropical forest below the Hotel Parador near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica when I heard a noise that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was a deep, throaty guttural call that almost sounded like an animal clearing its throat. I was on the so-called “Monkey Trail” on the hotel’s extensive grounds, so I was expecting to see howler monkeys. But I imagined the howler monkeys call to be more like a high-pitched shriek.
I picked up my pace in the enervating, early morning jungle humidity as my mind started running through the possibilities. Hadn’t I read that there were jaguars and leopards and pumas in Costa Rica? Was I about to become the first tourist to get mauled by a wild animal before he even left his hotel?
I regained my bearings a few minutes later and on my way back to the hotel pool I saw more than a dozen howler monkeys jumping from tree to tree, but none of them made much noise. Back at the hotel pool, I sheepishly asked a young man who worked the Hotel Parador’s adventure desk about the terrifying howl I’d heard.
“It is possible that was a leopard or a puma?” I asked quietly, so that only he could hear me.
“Sir, we don’t have leopards and pumas on the hotel grounds,” he said. “You heard a howler monkey.”
An hour later, I was at Manuel Antonio National Park wondering why it was easier to see monkeys at my hotel than at one of the country’s premier tourist attractions, know for its wildlife. My wife and I hired Flander Sanchez to take us on a guided walk through the park and a half-hour into our tour we had yet to see a monkey. Still, Flander had an uncanny knack for seeing things we would have just walked past if he wasn’t with us.
Just steps after paying the $10 entry fee to the park, he stopped dead in his tracks and started to set up a telescope on a tripod. He noticed a huge golden web spider sitting in its web and then a green lizard we never would have seen. Flander picked some petals off of a plant and has us breathe in the delightful citronella scent, but I wasn’t as interested in eating the fistful of termites he picked up off a tree on the side of the path.
“Come on,” he said. “These things are delicious. Try them- it’s part of your tour, no extra charge!”
My wife gave them a try and said they tasted like dirt, so I declined. Flander seemed a little hurt.
“I can’t believe you don’t like them! I love termites.” (see video.)
Another 15 minutes or so up the park’s main path, Flander spotted a white-faced capuchin monkey sitting in a tree overhead.
“I feel like he’s going to climb up to the top of the tree and then jump across to the other side,” Flander said, as two other clusters of tourists gathered around to gawk.
And just as I started to think, how the hell does he know what the monkey is going to do next, the monkey did just as Flander predicted, making a huge leap over the trail to the other side of the jungle as the cluster of tourists gave him a small round of applause for the effort. It felt a bit like a well choreographed show.
A big crowd gathered to watch a three-toed sloth scratch himself high up in the trees and a woman from New Jersey seemed thrilled.
“Look at him!” she bellowed. “He just keeps scratching his ass!”
By the time we reached Playa Manuel Antonio, I had a small mutiny on my hands. Flander still had plenty more to show us, but my sons and wife wanted to hit the beach. It was sweltering and my 5-year-old son Leo was dripping with sweat.
“Why are we on a tour, dad?” he asked. “You said we were travelers, not tourists. Only tourists take tours.”
I prevailed on the group to press on and we were immediately rewarded. There were white-faced capuchin monkeys everywhere on the path towards Playa Espadilla Sur, most of them hovering on short trees, hoping to scavenge for food.
At the entrance to the park, there were gruesome photos of dead monkeys with a warning about the dangers of feeding them. One feisty little monkey tried to raid a nearby garbage can and bared his teeth at Flander when he shooed him away from it with a stick. It’s sad and dangerous that the monkeys in Manuel Antonio are conditioned to scavenge for human food but the fact that they flock to humans makes for a remarkable experience for visitors.
The monkeys stop to stare right into your eyes and they seem to find the paparazzi fascinating. They’re also pretty damn smart. One tourist held out his flip-flop and was trying to encourage a monkey to come grab it but the monkey just looked at him like he was a dumb ass, as if to say, dude, I know that’s not food, why would I want your smelly flip-flop?
We walked on with Flander toward Playa Espadilla Sur, which is a huge, stunning beach that’s flanked by lush tropical jungle that encroaches onto the beach. It was nearly deserted, partially because the guides were telling people that there were crocodiles in the water. Flander still had more to show us but we parked ourselves in the shade of a huge tree and told him we were done. I felt a bit like a castaway that had just found paradise and didn’t want to move a muscle.
“Are there always that many monkeys out prowling around?” I asked.
“Not always that many,” he said. “They like to come out on the weekends.”
“Come on man, the monkeys don’t know it’s Saturday,” I said.
“They don’t know it’s Saturday but more people come here on the weekends and they respond to all the noise because they know there’ll be more food,” he said.
My guidebook said to avoid Manuel Antonio on weekends in the high season but if you want to get up close and personal with the park’s white-faced capuchins, there’s actually no better time to be there.
IF YOU GO: it takes about three hours to get to Manuel Antonio from San Jose. We were surprised to discover that it was slightly cheaper for us to take a private taxi than any of the group shuttle services that go to the area. If you have less than four people in your party, the shuttles will probably be cheaper though. We used Mario Rosales Melendez (86-27-62-95, Mario_tour76@yahoo.com) who charged us $150 for the ride.
The town of Quepos and the area right outside Manuel Antonio isn’t very pedestrian friendly, so don’t think you’ll be able to walk many places from whatever hotel you choose. Some of the hotels have shuttles, but you might consider renting a car if you want to have the flexibility of exploring the area on your own.
We stayed at the Hotel Parador and I would highly recommend it. The rooms are very nice, with comfy beds and modern amenities; the food is excellent and they have free shuttles to Manuel Antonio. But the real pleasure of this place is the lush grounds, the hiking trails and the beautiful pools with views of the Pacific. Here’s a tip for you if you stay there, or even if you don’t: check out the Fragata Restaurant at the farthest corner of the resort. It’s only open for lunch, but it’s set high up, so there are great breezes and amazing views, not to mention very good food at reasonable prices.
I highly recommend hiring a guide at Manuel Antonio. They cluster in front of the entrance and usually charge $20 per person. You can book ahead if prefer at email@example.com. Café Agua Azul is an American-owned restaurant that has excellent food and great views at reasonable prices.
[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]