CASKE 2000 > Stories > Culture > Costa Rica > Manual Antonio National Park


Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos "Beauty on a Budget"

10/26/2000 by Luke Shullenberger

The budget traveler lives for the daytime. He wakes with a bad taste in his mouth from the squalid accommodations and spends the waking hours packing in savory experience and activity. When done right, the entire 24 hour period can be remembered as a satisfying meal. Late to bed, early to rise may not make one healthy, wealthy and wise, but never underestimate the power of contentment, of the full-belly feeling of a full-course day. Manuel Antonio National Park is a feast.

We got out of bed at 5:30 AM. To say that we awoke at that hour would be incorrect. I had tossed and turned all night, sleeping little and was already up and itchy. The $5 per night hotel is located in a working-class barrio of the coastal town Quepos. The stuffy, tin-roofed, cement block structure is just next to a couple of marshy undeveloped lots. Mosquitoes, born just next door, bit my ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders through the bed sheet all night.

The budget traveler does not stay in the high-end hotels that line the jungle-coated access road to Manuel Antonio. The inconvenience of the six-mile ride to the park entrance from Quepos is more than compensated for by the $70 in savings. Excited and filled with anticipation, we packed up all our camera and video gear and arrived at the park at 6:30, half an hour before opening. We wanted undisturbed shots of the wildlife. We had to be first on the trails.

The entrance is right on the beach at the confluence of a small patch of mangrove swamp and tidal pools. High tide was scheduled for 8:00 and the incoming water filled up the tidal pools and spilled over the low-side bank, flooding a 100-foot wide section of beach flanking the entrance. There once was a walking bridge. Efforts to complete the repairs have been halted by a beach vendor mafia who make 30 cents per person, ferrying visitors across to the park entrance in a row-boat during high tide. Loaded with camera gear, we were captive consumers. The boatsman arrived just before 7:00 and looked at us with greedy eyes. We were his first victims of the day. Manuel Antonio is the most visited national park in Central America and even during the rainy low-season, the boatsman does well.

The 680 hectare park is small but a complete gem. It is situated on a point of land with craggy spits of rock that wrap around four separate bays in which lie four stunning beaches, think white sand and shade trees. The narrow trails that wind through thick forest guarantee intimate contact with the wildlife. In three hours of filming we captured all three species of monkey (howler, white-faced capuchin, and squirrel) iguanas, coatimundis, raccoons, tucans, scarlet macaws, paca (a guinea-pig like rodent) and those were only the ones we could get close enough to photo. The canopy, wherever you walk, is awash in movement and noise.

We had skipped breakfast to get there early and became so engrossed in our camera work we forgot about hunger or fatigue. On the Mirador trail, troupes of capuchin and squirrel monkeys swinging from branches and feeding on nuts in the canopy lured us into the thick margins of the trail. We stumbled over decomposing logs, through low hanging vines and mossy humps of peaty ground in our attempts to get them on film. We tromped through the fecund bog off of the beachside trail near the entrance in pursuit of a coatimundi and a raccoon. We waded through the stream below the waterfall on the cascade trail to catch the elusive, bright blue crayfish. And at one point I saw Jean-Philippe half-way up a tree perched in the crook of a branch trying to get some shots of a coatimundi feeding on fruit in the canopy.

Much of the wildlife has become remarkably tame, even bold in its contact with humans. Raccoons, coatimundi and reptiles walk languidly in the brush alongside the trail or sun themselves on tree trunks within feet of passing tourists. The birds, normally very skittish, flit around in trees feeding and chattering nearly oblivious to gawking groups. Yet the most engaging are the monkey troupes, especially the white-faced capuchins. Every day a troupe of 20 makes its way down to the beach near the refreshment stand. Mischievous and entertaining, they ham it up for the camera and will steal your lunch if left unattended. We saw groups of two or three swing through the branches of the shade trees flanking the beach scouting for scavenging opportunities. They would wait until sunbathers got up to go for a swim and then descend quickly to rifle through their bags.

We spent five hours in the park that passed in the blink of an eye. Feelings of hunger and dehydration eventually overcame us and we made our way out through the throngs of late-arriving tourists. On the ride back to Quepos we compared notes about the great pictures we thought we got and the ones that got away. Rounding a sharp turn on the access road, Manuel Antonio gave us a fitting parting shot. Dangling inverted from a power line that crossed the road 20 feet off the ground was a furry, light-brown sloth. Buses, trucks and cars passed beneath him and he slept peacefully, unmolested by the activity.

The budget traveler is unlike the sloth and must be truly fatigued to fall asleep in an uncomfortable room. I spent the afternoon writing and reviewing digital photos. We searched for a Laundromat for our foul-smelling clothes. And I spent my evening in a bar. Money saved on accommodations should be spent on more soulful things like cold beer and good food.

The bar had Direct TV. The presidential debates came on. The sparring on the screen reminded me of two capuchin monkeys I had seen earlier in the day fighting over a scrap of fruit scavenged from a garbage can. I smiled in private amusement. The budget traveler makes a journey last longer and with a bounty of experience is blessed with perspective and the knowledge that there is always a place to escape to. That kind of beauty is always free.

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