The stunningly beautiful Manuel Antonio National Park, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, is not a rambling wilderness. It is tiny – almost municipal in size, with some 9km of well-maintained concrete paths, thoughtfully placed benches, litter bins and WCs, a ticket office and guides touting for business. And volumes of people to match. From the park gates, a chain of accommodation, ranging from scruffy hostels to B&Bs to boutique hotels with sea views, stretches unbroken for 7km along a winding hilly coast road which follows a wooded ridge northwards to the harbour village of Quepos.
Surprisingly, within the park, none of this spoils the tranquillity to be found in the deep shade of the dense jungle, the beauty and variety of the ancient forest, the icing-sugar softness of the clean white sands, the shimmering blueness of the gentle Pacific Ocean, calm within the arms of several horseshoe coves, and the astonishing number of animals to be seen.
Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) flock to the park’s beaches on holidays and weekends, paying just a tiny fraction of the tourist fee to enter, and are joined by groups of elderly Americans, walking or being shuttled along the broad 1km drive between the entrance gate and the ocean, but venturing no further. Here picnics are laid out, games are played and the sea beckons. From this spot, with a bit of luck, revellers and tourists alike are entertained by raccoons or tiny white faced capuchin monkeys hoping to snatch a banana skin or an unguarded empanada.
Only a few of the park’s many visitors explore further, where trails loop into the forest and around the headland. Those doing so are quiet and respectful – they are there to discover, and to appreciate.
L: Right – find me a jungle creature.
D: We’ve only just walked through the gate. Be patient. And quiet. Look, there’s an enormous butterfly of the bluest blue you ever saw. I think he’s a morpho.
They tiptoe on, silently, only to be overtaken by several noisy Tico families clearly looking forward to a day at the seaside. Today is New Year’s Eve.
L: Oh no! They’ve ruined everything. All the animals will run a mile.
D: Hold on – over there, just by the path, there’s a little white-tailed deer.
L: Is it real?
D: Of course it’s real.
L: Why isn’t it moving?
D: It’s having a drink.
L: What’s that rustling noise?
D: I don’t know, I’m looking.
L: It sounds enormous. Shall we run away?
D: Probably not. Look – there it is.
L: Oh, it’s a sweet little…..well it looks as though a deer and a rat had a baby.
D: (checking guide book) I think it’s an agouti. And there’s another.
L: Can we sidle over to the group over there and see what their guide is pointing at? It must be exciting – they’re taking photos. What’s going on? I think they’re speaking French. Oh my word, whatever is that?
D: (eavesdropping in French) It’s a sloth. A big one. Apparently the Spanish translation is “lazy bear”.
The animal is firmly wedged in the V between two branches, high up in the canopy. It turns its head slowly to observe its audience.
D: Yes, it’s definitely a 3-toed sloth.
L: (very impressed) Wow, can you count its toes all the way up there?
D: Err, no. I’ve just overheard the guide explain that 3-toed sloths have the white mask face that this fellow has, whereas the 2-toed ones don’t.
L: What’s he saying now?
D: (listens some more) That sloths aren’t very good at moving around on the ground and so they only come down out of the trees once a week, to defecate.
L: That seems unnecessarily considerate of them, then. If I wasn’t too nimble on the ground, I’d just crap out of the tree.
D: Charming. Nice image. Thanks for that.
D: (floating on his back) Ahh, that’s better. Nice to be able to cool off in the sea.
L: Stop thief! On the beach! Quick, D, after him – that raccoon’s trying to get into our rucksack!
During that day, those walking the trails also spot spider monkeys leaping from tree top to tree top high above their heads, flocks of brown pelicans flying by in perfect V formation and an enormous iguana posing proudly on a sun warmed rock for his eager paparazzi.
That evening, on the tarmac seafront promenade in Quepos, Ticos gather to watch the sunset. Old and young stroll by or sit on benches and low walls, facing the sea, toddlers rumble past on bicycles, kids on rollerskates and one dude practicing his skateboard jumps.
L: Isn’t this lovely?
D: What? Blimey that’s loud. Whatever’s going on?
L: Oops! We’re sitting with our backs to a mobile disco van. They must be setting up for a street party this evening. Look how many locals have come out to watch the sunset. I said, isn’t this nice?
D: I suppose so, though you have to squint a bit to ignore all the litter.
L: You are so unromantic. I think it’s perfect to watch the sun sink into the sea at the end of the last day of the year. Amazing colours. Take a picture so that we remember it.
D: You do it. I can’t. I’m injured.
L: What’s wrong with you?
D: Tortilla chip stabbing. In the roof of my mouth. I think it’s serious.
L: Sigh. We saw a lot today. For such a small park.
D: Maybe we saw a lot because the park is small.
L: Maybe. Anyway, a good day.
D: Yes, a good day. And now we’d better get started on our big night!
The following morning over a leisurely breakfast in a B&B 5km from the park….
L: Did you see that black squirrel? He’s just dashed up that tree in the garden.
D: Which tree?
L: The one with all the pretty Christmas decorations.
B&B owner: More coffee? We have lots of animals here. You don’t even need to go to the Park. See now – the two iguanas over there on top of the garage? They fight all the time – only one can be king of the roof.
D: (leaping up and spilling coffee) Damn. Sorry. But there’s something really big up there.
The three of them study the upper branches of a tree overhanging the pool.
B&B owner: Oh yes, that’s a lazy bear. Like you, he’s having his breakfast.
L: (squeaking with excitement) A sloth! In the garden!
B&B owner: (pointing behind them) And have you seen your neighbours?
A pair of squirrel monkeys walk casually along a power line crossing an open expanse of lawn.
D makes a grab for the camera and spills more coffee.
L: So, are you a bit clumsy this morning? Did you enjoy your New Year’s Eve?
D: Hell yes – two for one on piña coladas!
L: What time did we get to bed in the end?
D: About 8pm I think.