The One Thing You Can't Miss: Costa Rica

It might be this country's smallest national park, but Manuel Antonio is packed full with rainforests, white sand beaches, and an astounding array of wildlife
February 22, 2016Words by Kylie FlyPhotos by Kylie Fly

Thick with rainforests and long stretches of beautiful coastline, Costa Rica has been a longtime destination for travelers looking to get away and enjoy the Central American sun. And it’s no mystery why — this country is home to some of the world’s best year-round surf breaks and more than 500,000 species of wildlife, and about 25 percent of its land is protected national forest (that’s more than any other country in the world). If you haven’t made a trip this way yet, put it on the top of your adventure list.

Despite its small size, the diversity of wildlife is unparalleled, with 100 species of mammals and 180 species of birds.

If you hear the name Costa Rica and think monkeys, toucans, white sand beaches, coral reefs, rainforests, and sloths – which you should – then you’re picturing Manuel Antonio National Park. Costa Rica’s smallest national park at 680 hectares, Manuel Antonio is located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, less than 100 miles from the nation’s capital, San Jose. Welcoming up to 150,000 visitors every year, Manuel Antonio is known for its hiking trails and pristine white sand beaches and coves, and even made the Forbes top 12 most beautiful national parks list in 2011. And if you’re a fan of flora and fauna, this park is especially for you. Despite its small size, the diversity of wildlife is unparalleled, with 100 species of mammals and 180 species of birds.

Manuel Antonio sings with cicadas all day long and is full of creeping, crawling things like snakes, geckos, tink frogs and the black ctenosaur (a dinosaur-like iguana), as well as several species of butterflies. Among the most-sighted is the blue morpho butterfly, a brilliant blue- and black-tipped winged insect that changes appearance in its upper wing depending on the angle of the light. The tropical forest is also home to the howler monkey, the endangered white-faced capuchin monkey, and squirrel monkeys – three of the four species of monkeys native to the forests of Costa Rica. White-faced monkeys, or capuchins, frequently become your hiking mate as you walk along the trails. They mostly eat insects, birds, eggs, and fruit but are big fans of papitas (chips) and granola bars, so steer clear of those types of snacks in the park (heads up: they check bags at the entrance). Capuchins have the biggest brain of all the monkeys in the park, so they’ll find a way to steal your snack away from you if you sneak them in. 

Don’t be surprised if you set your sights on the agouti, a small rodent about the size of a rabbit. When they get excited they make a barking sound, and are known as “the planter” by the indigenous people, since they bury their food to save it for later. Be mindful to keep your eyes up as well, since the two- and three-toed sloths hang out in the canopy above you. They can be hard to spot and sleep about 20 hours a day, so you know you’ve hit the jackpot when you find one inching along a vine right above your head. 

Once you’re done spotting wildlife, there’s still dozens of different activities to keep you busy in the park. Check out one of the four main beaches: Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, Teloro, or Playita. Hiking trails meander all the way to the several coves and beaches, which you’ll gladly welcome when you arrive soaked in sweat from the humidity, ready for a refreshing dip in the ocean and a nap on the white sand beach. When you wake up, order a fruity batido from one of the tiendas on the beach.

During your visit, I’d recommend opting out for a tour guide — getting away from the larger crowds of meandering tourists means it’s more likely that you’ll see wildlife along the trails. 

The park costs $16 per person to get in and you can stay as long as you want until it closes at 4 pm. Security guards will come in and clear all the beaches at closing time, so be sure to soak it all up before then.

One of the many beautiful things about Costa Rica is its cultural attitude towards happiness – embracing eternal optimism by coining the phrase pura vida, which means “pure life.”  The term became a nationwide sensation in 1970, and has been recognizably used since then to describe the Costa Rican way of life. Pura vida reminds us that life is short, and it should be enjoyed! It embodies a lifestyle that encourages a positive attitude despite how little one has or how hard things in life may be. During my visit to Manuel Antonio, I came across a Costa Rican native who explained what pura vida meant to him and how it relates to all living things. From animals to insects to hermit crabs and pesky sea lice, it’s an attitude of love and respect for all things, good and bad. Which makes perfect sense at the end of each sun-filled Costa Rican day, when everyone asks you the same question: “Where will you watch the sunset tonight?” [H]

Nauyaca Waterfalls
Nauyaca Waterfalls is a prime waterfall destination for jumping, hiking, climbing, and relaxing. These 200 foot tall falls spill over layers of rocks and cascade into a large pool ideal, making it a perfect spot for swimming. Bring a picnic along and make a day out of it.  

Crocodile Bridge
You can’t miss the crocodile bridge on your drive from San Jose to Jaco. Right off the highway, several large crocodiles lazily sunbathe on the muddy banks of the Tarcoles River. Jump out of the car and take in the scene — from above.

Surfing Puntarenas
Just south of Jaco is Playa Hermosa, a mecca for surfers. A little further south is Esterillos Oeste, another great spot for surfers looking to catch some fun waves. The best tides are two hours before high tide, and the best swells are during the region’s rainy season from May to mid-November.

Fishing in the Cloud Forest
Fly fishing is often overlooked in Costa Rica; white sand beaches and saltwater don’t necessarily bring to mind thoughts of freshwater river fishing. But here, anglers can hop from pool to pool all day long catching the Tico trout. They’re never huge fish, but they're always biting.  


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