International Adventure Guide 2013: Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park

manuel antonio national parkWhen you’re lying in the shade of a towering palm tree on Playa Espadilla Sur, a glorious, often empty beach backed by thick forest in Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park, the temptation to remain inert can be irresistible. But it would be a shame to travel all the way to this fascinating corner of Central America and do nothing but lie on the beach. Costa Rica has a whopping 26 national parks, so travelers can find adventure in every corner of the country. But Manuel Antonio, the country’s smallest yet most popular park, is probably the most accessible adventure hub for active travelers who are looking for more than just great beaches.

Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. The park itself is a 15-minute drive from the town of Quepos, which also has a small airport. A huge variety of hotels and adventure tour companies line the main road between the town and the national park. It isn’t a pedestrian friendly place but thankfully you’ll have plenty of opportunities for exercise in and around the park.

One could spend a month in the Manuel Antonio area and not get bored. You can hike through rain forests and beachcomb, take a canopy tour, go horseback riding, take a nighttime boat tour, snorkel or scuba dive, mountain bike, go on a bird watching and wildlife hike, kayak, go white-water rafting and more.

Adventure Activities

Hiking
The national park ($10 entry fee, closed on Mondays) is a great place to hike, especially early in the morning before the heat and humidity become unbearable. There’s a terrific circular loop trail (about 1.5 km) in the park you can take from Playa Espadilla Sur, my favorite beach, or Playa Manuel Antonio, the park’s most popular beach, to Punta Catedral, where there’s an amazing view.

Canopy Tours
If you’ve never tried zip-lining through the jungle, this is a great place to take the plunge without breaking the bank. A company called Rainforest Adventures offers a combo zip-line and tram tour combo where you can zip line over the trees and also take a 30-minute tram ride for spectacular views of the rainforest for $60. Canopy Safari offers zip-lining along with a combo package that includes open bar, if you want to glide above the trees and then get plastered down below, and Titi Canopy Tours, which offers day and night zip-lining, claims they are the closest to Manuel Antonio park.

Kayaking/White Water Rafting
Through companies like Iguana Tours or Jade Tours you can hire a kayak and guide who will lead you through the mangrove forests to nearby Damas Island, where you can snorkel and swim. Or if you’d rather go white water rafting, Adventure Manuel Antonio offers a half-day tour on the Savegre River, including breakfast and a picnic lunch for $89.

Adventure Hotspots

Take a Walking Tour of the National Park
The park itself is just 3 square miles but it has rain forest, white sand beaches and an abundance of wildlife, including howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys that will come within steps of you, sloths, iguanas, agoutis and at least 350 types of birds. Arrive early and hire a guide right outside the entrance to the park. The guides typically charge about $20 for a two-hour guided hike and, with their local knowledge and telescopes, they will help you see wildlife that you’d never see on your own. If you need a guide, you’ll see plenty of available guides standing outside the entrance to the park. We hired Flander Sanchez (info@manuelantoniotours.com) and I thought he was terrific.

Playa Espadilla Sur
Most tourists flock to Playa Manuel Antonio (PMA), but keep walking along the trail and you’ll come across this huge, spectacular beach. Both beaches are lovely but while PMA is often jam-packed, Espadilla Sur is blissfully quiet. Unlike PMA, it’s also easy to find a nice spot in the shade. Our guide told us not to swim on the day we were there in mid-February because a crocodile had been spotted in the water that morning, but from what I understand, that is a rare occurrence. If you’re up for a long walk on an empty beach, this is the place to do it.

Fincas Naturales Wildlife Refuge
This is a private, 25-acre wildlife refuge near Manuel Antonio, across from the Si, Como No Hotel, that was once a teak plantation. They offer five different tours of the refuge, ranging from $15-$45, and on any given day you might see snakes, lizards, frogs, sloths, monkeys, porcupines, armadillos and dozens of varieties of birds. They also have a butterfly garden that features dozens of types of butterflies.

Where to Stay

Hotel Parador
This is a luxury hotel with spacious and stylish rooms comparable to a Westin or Hyatt. There are extensive hiking trails on the grounds and if you’re out early in the morning and late in the afternoon, you’ll come across howler monkeys and plenty of birds. The food is also quite good and the pools have amazing views of the Pacific. From $199. http://www.hotelparador.com/

Arenas del Mar
Also in the high-end category, super deluxe Arenas del Mar is right on a private beach and within walking distance of Manuel Antonio. The rooms have 400 thread count linens, high-end furnishings and decks with stunning views of the national park. The American owners of Arenas del Mar also own Finca Rosa Blanca, a gorgeous coffee plantation and inn near San Jose. From $165. http://www.arenasdelmar.com/index.html

Villas Nicolas
This is a condominium hotel with 12 one or two bedroom villas that has rave reviews on Trip Advisor and is one of Fodor’s starred recommendations. Starting at just $95 per night, this place is a real bargain. From $95. http://www.villasnicolas.com/index.php

Hotel Plaza Yara
This is a small, all-suites hotel that features custom made furniture and rooms with kitchenettes just a five-minute drive from Manuel Antonio. With rates starting at $75 per night, it’s one of the best options in this price category. From $75. http://www.hotelplazayara.com/index.php

Logistics

Getting Around: Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. Manuel Antonio isn’t a pedestrian friendly area but I got around using the cheap local bus and the free shuttle provided for guests at the Hotel Parador. Taxis charge about $5-10 for rides up to about 15 minutes away. We hired a private cab driver to drive us from Heredia, near San Jose, to Manuel Antonio and it cost $150 for a family of four. Buses are much cheaper but the 2.5 hour drive will be more like 3.5 hours on an express bus (slower still on a local bus) that you can catch at the Coca-Cola bus terminal at Calle 16 between Avenidas 1 and 3.

Seasonality: The high season is December-April. You might save a little bit of money and still enjoy dry weather if you go May-August, but September and October are very rainy. Be prepared for temperatures in the upper 80s or low 90s with humidity year round.

Safety: Manuel Antonio is generally a safe area but you’ll notice that many of the restaurants and hotels have signs warning guests not to leave valuables in cars. Safety standards aren’t quite the same as they are in the U.S. but if you choose a tour company that has a good reputation and listen carefully when they give you tips, you shouldn’t have a problem on any of the adventure-related tours.

Note: You won’t find traditional street names and addresses around Manuel Antonio. On our scouting trip this didn’t prove to be a problem as cab drivers know how to find just about any beach, hotel, restaurant, store or attraction you might want to visit. If you’re driving and rent a GPS, it will recognize the names of my most hotels.

[Photo Credits: Dave Seminara, Rainforest Adventures]

One Day In Nicaragua: Self-Deportation, An Active Volcano, A Dead Boa, A Dip In A Lagoon And An Art Deal Gone Bad

Stepping over a dead boa constrictor with flies buzzing around it wasn’t what I had in mind when I hired a guy named Carlos to take us to see Volcán Masaya, a national park in Nicaragua where you can drive right up to the crater of an active volcano. But when we piled into his Toyota Corolla on a sizzling hot morning in late February, Carlos wanted us to see much more than just the smoldering volcano.

“I’m going to take you to a farm and then we’re going to visit a mask maker, before we hit the craft market, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano,” he said, before we’d even had a chance to test his air conditioning or fasten our seatbelts.

We wanted to see the craft market in Masaya, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano but I wasn’t sure about the rest of it. That uncertainty grew when we pulled up in front of what seemed to be a dilapidated farm as a host of mangy looking dogs serenaded us with howls and barks. A young man in a dirty, pale-blue T-shirt led us into some caged enclosures to look at iguanas and Carlos asked me if I’d ever eaten one. I have not.


iguana“It takes like pork,” he said. “You put it in a tortilla and serve it with a little salt and lemon juice. You want to try it?”

I didn’t but I’d seen Andrew Zimmern feast on iguana, porcupine and other exotic delicacies while filming his Nicaragua episode back in 2009 and was curious where he went. Carlos said that there was only one restaurant that had retained a permit to cook iguanas and it was in Masaya, near where we were going.

Carlos and the farmhand showed us some turtles, lizards and bunnies before leading us into a caged enclosure to see some boa constrictors. I assumed they would be inside cages but as we stepped inside the enclosure, we nearly tripped over a dead boa, whose carcass was a target for swarms of dozens of hungry winged creatures.

“When did he die?” I asked Carlos.

“Hard to say,” he said as the farmhand began poking a stick under some empty shelving units behind us. “But there are four other boas in here, don’t worry.”

“Four other boas?” my wife said, grabbing our little boys, ages 3 and 5. “Where?”

“They could be anywhere in here,” Carlos said.

And with that, we were ready to exit, but the farmhand seized a massive boa by the neck and we couldn’t help but stop to stare at the darn thing. It was hissing and coiling itself around the guy’s arms, clearly pissed off. For all we knew, it probably killed the dead boa in the corner, so after a few minutes we beat a retreat back to the car.

The visit to the mask maker felt safer and, to me, more interesting. I’m usually leery of these types of stops on a tour because typically the point is to bring you to a place where you will hopefully buy something, securing a commission for your guide in the process. The whole spectacle makes me feel like a piece of meat on a hook in a slaughterhouse, but in this case, it was just an old man sitting in the courtyard of his home with no shirt on making colorful, painted masks with his own hands. He made no attempt to sell us anything and seemed please to have us wandering around his home, snapping photos and asking ignorant questions.

The craft market at Masaya, built in 1891 and refurbished in 1997, is the best place to buy handicrafts and souvenirs in Nicaragua. There are dozens of vendors and if you enjoy haggling, this is the place for you. I sparred with a 4-foot-tall woman who called me “my love” and “my dear” over a painting I wanted but ended up paying very close to her original asking price because she correctly sensed that I really wanted the thing and used that advantage to crush me like a bug.

After a delicious lunch and a dip in the Laguna de Apoyo, a terrific swimming hole near Masaya, Carlos told us about his U.S. immigration woes. When he was 12, his mother arranged to send him to the U.S. by purchasing fake identity documents to make it appear as though he was the child of a Nicaraguan woman who had a better chance of getting a U.S. tourist visa than she did. At 22, he paid an unscrupulous immigration attorney $10,000 to try to legalize his status but it didn’t work and he eventually returned to Nicaragua. Now, at 40, he felt like his chance to live in the States had come and gone.

The Masaya volcano has to be one of just a handful in the world where you can drive right up to its craters. The volcano has erupted 18 times since the early 16th Century with the last major eruption going down in 1772, but there was some volcanic activity in April of last year that forced the closure of the park for several weeks. Prior to 1529, locals threw virgins and children into the volcano as sacrifices, and during the Somoza dictatorship in the ’70s, dissidents were also supposedly tossed into the volcano.

We hiked around the Santiago crater and although I appreciated the view and the novelty of standing right on the age of the smoldering volcano, I felt dizzy after a half hour and couldn’t help but assume that in the U.S., tourists wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the crater of an active volcano.




On the way back to the hotel, Carlos regaled us with stories about tourists he’s guided and I asked him if he wanted to see tourism boom in Nicaragua.




“We want more tourists,” he said. “But not at the expense of our culture and our traditions. We’ve got to keep what we have.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

How Cheap Is Nicaragua? How About $2 Beers In A Luxury Hotel Minibar

minibar pricesIf I ruled the world, I would issue a decree commanding every hotel to install minibars stocked with $2 bottles of beer. But since that’s never going to happen, you might have to go to Nicaragua to experience such an enlightened minibar alcohol policy.

I’m a frugal traveler – a cheapskate, if you will. And so I rarely – almost never, in fact – use the hotel minibar (unlike David Samuels of The Atlantic, who recently wrote a long and bizarre piece about how hotel minibars provide him with companionship). But last week while staying at the Hotel Plaza Colon in Granada, Nicaragua, I made liberal use of a hotel minibar for the first time in my life. The Plaza Colon is probably the most luxurious hotel in Granada and it’s one of the finest places to stay in the country, but I was shocked and delighted to discover that ice-cold bottles of beer cost just $2 in my room’s minibar. Bottled water cost $1, and a small bottle of rum was just $6 (or $8 if you wanted higher quality stuff).

You know you’re in a delightfully cheap country when a luxury hotel prices beer in the minibar at $2 and, sure enough, Nicaragua doesn’t disappoint on the value scale. Tim Leffel, author of “The World’s Cheapest Destinations” considers Nicaragua to be one of the world’s cheapest countries and after a recent visit there, I have to agree.


Two dollars is actually a pretty high price for a beer in Nicaragua, where most places charge $1 for a 12-ounce bottle of local beer. The Hotel Plaza Colon is an outstanding hotel and room rates there hover around $100 a night. Basic hostel beds go for $3-8 and in many parts of the country you can find a decent hotel room with A/C for $30 or less. If you are very, very frugal, you can travel for about $15 a day in Nicaragua.

If you patronize a restaurant that caters mostly to locals, like Asados Juanita in San Juan del Sur, you can eat a big dinner of freshly grilled meats, plantains, rice, beans and salad for about $4 (see video above). At the other end of the spectrum, you can eat at a touristy place like Abuelos, which is right on the gorgeous Laguna de Apoyo, for roughly $8-10 each. At Abuelos, you can gorge yourself on freshly grilled meats and then take a dip in the lake to cool off (see video below).




Car rental isn’t particularly cheap, but even in the most touristy areas of the country you can hire a driver to take you around for $50-60 for a full day, depending on how far away you want to go. A ride on a local chicken bus will cost about 60-80 cents an hour and more comfortable minibuses aren’t much more. A short ride in a taxi in Granada and other cities can cost as little as 50 cents each because the drivers stop to pick up other passengers. The one hour, twenty minute ferry ride to Ometepe island costs less than $2. A good one hour massage will set you back about $15-$25.

Entrance fees to tourist attractions, like the volcano parks and other natural wonders, rarely exceed $5. We paid just $3 to get into the Ojo de Agua, a gorgeous natural spring on Ometepe, and thought we had died and gone to heaven (see video).




After a budget busting week in pricey Costa Rica, we were thrilled to arrive in much more affordable Nicaragua. I don’t think it’s the cheapest country in the world, but it’s definitely the cheapest country that is close to the U.S.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Here’s How They Roll In Nicaragua

nicaraguan transportationNicaragua is a beautiful country. There are stunning beaches, active volcanoes, mountains, mangrove swamps, picturesque islands and just about every type of terrain you can imagine. But on a recent visit to Nicaragua, I found all of the creative ways that people travel even more fascinating than the landscape.

There are about six million people in Nicaragua but in some parts of the country it can feel like at least that many people are en route somewhere at any given moment in every type of conveyance imaginable. You see people everywhere coming and going from work or school, hauling firewood, or transporting goods to sell on the street or in a market.
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There are plenty of cyclists, and it is not uncommon to see two or three people riding on one standard bicycle. (A Nicaraguan friend swears he’s seen up to four school kids on a bike but I never saw that many.) I never saw a cyclist wear a helmet – understandable in a poor country – but it was more than a bit disconcerting to see so many adults wearing helmets on motorcycles but carrying children on their laps without any protection. There are carts being pulled by horses, donkeys and cattle. There are trucks with open or caged areas for human passengers. There are rickshaws and, even more fun, open-air three wheeled moto-taxis.


nicaraguans traveling in a cageAnd then there are the ubiquitous chicken buses, many of which have colorful names, logos and designs. I rode one chicken bus called “El Brujo” (The Witch) because it services villages near Granada where people go to consult witches. Most chicken buses are old school buses from North America and riding them is like a trip down memory lane if you grew up Stateside in the ’70s and ’80s. There were no live chickens on “El Brujo” but we had plenty of entertainment: a blind man came in to play the harmonica and a host of others came in and out at the bus at various stops to sell cold drinks from plastic bags and other treats (see video above).
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Taxis in Nicaraguan cities like Granada are dirt cheap and fun too, because they usually will continue to pick people up if there’s even a sliver of space in the car, or even if there isn’t, providing you with an opportunity to mingle with locals. Even ordinary cars can be a lot of fun because many Nicas like to plaster them with slogans, decals and other decorations. My favorite car had logos for Flor de Caña rum, an energy drink and Jesus Christ.

And of course, there are plenty of people getting from point A to point B the old fashioned way: on foot. Some of these people, including a lot of really tough, strong women, carry tremendous bundles on their heads. Check out the galleries to see all the creative ways that Nicaraguans roll. It’s a poor country and many of the people you see on the roads need to get where they’re going just to survive but a traveler passing through this country can’t help but admire their creativity and determination to get where they are going.
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[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Moments of Serendipitous Travel Bliss In Nicaragua

fat man getting haircut outdoors in nicaragua ometepeI was sitting on the Che Guevara ferry, which was bouncing over choppy waters in Lake Cocibolca on the way back from Ometepe island in Nicaragua, when I heard a sweet melody drifting slowly through the humid night air like a message in a bottle floating in the lake. I peaked around the corner of the boat to investigate and stopped dead in my tracks to listen to a young man and his grandmother singing a beautiful, melancholy Christian song.

They were holding hands as the boat swayed backed and forth and I was struck by how unselfconscious the young man was. One could ride planes, trains, boats and buses for a lifetime in the United States and not come across a young man holding hands with his grandmother and singing an impromptu song for no reason other than fun, but here they were.

I listened to their song and then introduced myself. The young man’s name was Janier Mairena. He was 25 and from a town called Altagracia on Ometepe. His grandmother’s name was Maria Auxiliadova Mairena. After chatting with them, I went back to sit with my family and realized that those kind of moments of serendipitous bliss, bordering on rapture, are why I love to travel. I knew I’d never forget them or their sad song but I wanted to share it with others, so I went back over to them and asked them how they’d feel about singing the song again, this time while I filmed them (see video).


At first, they just laughed and seemed confused by my request.

“I’m going to put it on YouTube,” I told them. “Give me your email address, Janier, and I’ll send it to you.”

But Janier had no email address and wasn’t familiar with YouTube. Ometepe is a beautiful, but poor and undeveloped island that is about to get an airport. I wondered if in five or ten year’s time any young people on the island will still be without email and unfamiliar with YouTube. Janier gave me the address of his church on Ometepe, saying it was all he had, and then he and his grandma happily sang the song again, just because I asked for the encore.

A few weeks before traveling to Nicaragua, I interviewed Amber Dobrzensky, the author of the “Moon Guide to Nicaragua,” and she mentioned that one of the things she loves about the country is its unpredictability. After visiting the country in late February for the first time, I now know exactly what she meant. These were a few moments of unexpected delight that I’d like to share.

ometepe outdoor haircutOne of the pleasures of visiting a country like Nicaragua is that you see things that you’d never see in the U.S. I could drive around Chicago from now until doomsday but I don’t think I’d ever see a man with a nice, big round belly getting an outdoor haircut with his shirt off. So when I saw just that by the side of the road in Ometepe, I asked our cab driver to pull over so I could meet and photograph the guy.

The big man, his barber and the bystanders had every right to wonder who the hell I was and I’m not sure I would have agreed to a photo if I was in this guy’s situation, but he didn’t hesitate to give his consent. I was greeted as a welcome curiosity on an otherwise dull Monday morning rather than an annoyance.




The man was sitting outside a humble home next to a huge pile of freshly picked plantains and when his neighbors got wind of what was going on, a few came out of their humble homes to tease him.

My Spanish is pretty rusty but I recognized that they were calling him gordo (fat). I think that one woman said something on the lines of, “The tourist wants to take a picture of you because you are so fat.” But instead of taking offense, the man started laughing and then I started laughing uncontrollably and everyone shared in the fun.

breakdancing in nicaraguaAnd on my last night in Granada, I stumbled across two very different musical talents that surprised and delighted me. The first was a group of guys breakdancing on the street. When I first saw them, from a distance, I was surprised – breakdancing? People are still doing that? But when I stopped to watch these kids I was amazed.

They were unbelievably good and the show just kept going on and on and I couldn’t fathom how they weren’t collapsing in exhaustion. I had the feeling that if these kids were in the U.S., they’d probably have their own show on MTV or, at the least, would be invited to perform at big time venues and on TV, but here, all they could do was pass the hat, and since Nicaragua is a poor country, very few people dug deep to recognize their talents.




My last meal in the country was at a place called El Camello and the food was good but the live music was even better. They had a singer/guitarist who had a great voice but whose passion and fire were even more impressive. I felt that if he lived in L.A., he’d probably already have a recording contract and groupies. He was putting every ounce of his soul into the music and when he stopped by our table during a break to ask for tips, I understood why.

His name was Luis Rolando Casamalhuapa and he was extremely grateful for the tip we gave him.

“I hate having to go around basically begging for money, but I really need to unfortunately,” he said.

He explained that he got into a terrible car accident in his native El Salvador that left him in a coma for more than three months.

“I was really lucky I didn’t die,” he said. “But my teeth were totally smashed out and I need all kinds of dental work.”

Luis said that he came to Nicaragua because the extensive dental work he needed was cheaper there but he was still a bit short and was playing in restaurants and teaching English in order to try to earn the rest of the money he needed. When I’m in the U.S., and someone approaches me with a sad story in need of money, the cynic in me often doubts if they are telling the truth, but in this case I believed every word, even though I couldn’t give Luis the $600 he needed to get his dental work done (nor did he ask for it).

All of the people described in this story touched me in some way – because of their sincerity, their sense of humor, their talent, or their resilience in the face of disaster. And the moments I shared with them, as our paths crossed, are what I’ll treasure most about my visit to Nicaragua. Go to Nicaragua and experience it for yourself. They’ll sing for you; they’ll breakdance for you; hell, they’ll even let you take their photo while they’re getting haircuts with their shirts off.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]