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]

Monkeys Are Big Business At Manuel Antonio National Park In Costa Rica

white faced monkey manuel antonio national parkIt 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?


manuel antonio national parkI knew that whatever it was, I had to avoid the impulse to run, but I hustled away as the animal continued to howl at a frightening volume. In a distracted state, I somehow managed to lose the trail and eventually found myself down at a rocky lookout over the Pacific.

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.”

guide manuel antonio national parkAn 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.

monkey manuel antonio national parkAt 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?




playa espadilla sur manuel antonioWe 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.




hotel paradorWe 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 info@manuelantoniotours.com. Café Agua Azul is an American-owned restaurant that has excellent food and great views at reasonable prices.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]