Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Costa Rica, but it’s also one of the most visited. That’s not surprising when you consider it is an area of pristine rainforest with an abundance of wildlife, there’s four beautiful white sand, warm water beaches in the park and another one just outside, the climate is moderate most of the year, and it’s relatively accessible – just a couple of hours by road from the capital, San Jose.
The national park is at sea level and the totally forgettable village of Manuel Antonio is a steep four kilometres up the hill. Strung out along the road in between are innumerable guest houses and small hotels. We stayed in a little place with rooms stepping steeply down a leafy slope and with panoramic views out to sea.
It was practically a wildlife sanctuary in its own right. By the time we left we were joking we didn’t even need to visit the national park.
When we checked in, the owner said it’s a ‘monkey highway’ and he wasn’t wrong. Every morning and late afternoon the white faced capuchins would come sliding down the electricity wires or climbing through the trees, scamper across the roofs and into the forest on the other side.
The babies look like very old men.
They definitely were not shy. They would climb onto our balcony when we were sitting there, checking out if we had any food.
Put a piece of banana on the rail and before long …
One of them even tried to open our sliding door.
And sometimes they would just sit on the rail looking cute.
The squirrel monkeys were also so, so cute.
The trees around us were full of birds, including two types of toucans.
Green and grey parrots.
And others that we’re not sure about.
There were iguanas living down by the pool.
There was a track down to the beach, less than 10 minutes walk.
Eventually we thought we better get out and do something, so we went kayaking through the mangroves in the Damas Island estuary about an hour away.
Within less than a minute of launching, the first thing we saw was a capuchin crouching in the shallows fishing.
We paddled silently through the mangroves following our Rastafarian guide.
Well, actually we were in a double kayak and it’s probably more accurate to say John paddled and Julie took lots of pictures.
We were very lucky. The guide explained that when he has groups of kayakers he stays on the main waterway, but as it was just us he was able to take us through smaller side channels which aren’t feasible when he has to manage several boats.
The pineapple mangroves were interesting. Nothing to do with pineapples. Obviously.
There were lots of birds, including ibis and herons.
Also many interesting critters, like crabs and iguanas.
We saved the headline act for our last day – Manuel Antonio National Park itself.
It’s a great place for iguanas and lizards.
There were more great birds.
We thought these parakeets were feeding on termites, but actually they were carving out a nest. Termite nests are softer than wood and the birds simply excavate a cavity for themselves.
As we walked through the park we could hear the screams of howler monkeys. Apparently their diet is nutritionally poor so they don’t have energy for physical fighting. They live in troops and when they sense that another troop is close, they roar, hoping the sound will convince them that their troop is larger than it really is. The other troop does the same. The troops roar back and forth, then eventually everyone goes their own way. Sounds like question time in Parliament.
We’ve seen and heard howler monkeys in a few places but they’re really hard to photograph. They stay high and you end up either too far away or aiming straight up into the sun. Here, the monkeys were more obliging.
And, finally, the prize we’d been seeking everywhere – active sloths. They move surprisingly fast when they are warm and dry. Much slower than monkeys, but faster than you might think for an animal called a sloth.
The trail through the rainforest ends at the beach.
In fact, twin beaches either side of a small promontory with a loop walk of about an hour up to several viewing points where whales can be seen in season.
After the loop walk, there’s an alternative trail back to the national park entrance, first following the beach and then on a boardwalk through a section of mangroves.
From there we headed back up the hill to our guesthouse for some more late afternoon entertainment from the monkeys and, like every day of our stay, a magnificent sunset.