Making Memories at Manuel Antonio National Park

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While we were staying near Playa Bejuco over the week of Christmas with the fam, we all decided to make the one hour drive and enjoy a day in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio National Park), an extremely popular tourist destination in Costa Rica for lots of good reasons.

It’s actually the smallest national park in the country, but the most visited due to its beautiful white sand beaches and abundant wildlife that is often easy to spot. In fact, some of the monkeys are known for steeling bags and opening backpacks to get to the snacks which we saw happen. Apparently, Pringle cans are banned as the monkeys know what they contain and the park is trying to ensure that the monkeys stick to their normal diet. The park is located two hours from San José on the Pacific Coast just south of the town of Quepos.

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White faced capuchin monkey

We opted to forego a local guide (we’d been here in January and discovered that as the park is so popular, there are large guided groups stopping everywhere to look at something), though they do often have a spotting scope which is very helpful because so it’s much easier to see the sloths and monkeys that are high up in the trees.

We walked to one of the four beaches in the park, Manuel Antonio Beach (also the most popular as it’s good for swimming and closest to the entrance), and spent some time relaxing on the beach and swimming. Oscar just learned to swim that week in the pool without any type of float or life jacket and he did an awesome job practicing in the ocean here with Uncle Keith, Auntie Annie and Grandpa. A couple of us also checked out Espadilla Sur Beach which is just behind Manuel Antonio Beach and much less busy. There are also other trails in the park which you can hike to see a waterfall and at least one of the other beaches, but we’ve yet to check them out (the heat and humidity and two little ones makes that tricky). 🙂

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Beautiful Playa Manuel Antonio

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As far as wildlife, we saw lots of seemingly fearless capuchin monkeys, a couple of sloths,  two chestnut-mandibled toucans, parrots, red land crabs and Oscar found an interesting salamander-type animal on the edge of the path. We even saw one sloth moving from one tree to another right next to the path near the entrance and quite low to the ground so that was very special. And Oscar was happy to discover his favorite monkey, cute little squirrel monkeys, on our walk back to the car outside of the park.

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Oscar’s discovery

After enjoying our time in sun, we headed back but had to make a pit stop and enjoy some cool ‘pipa fría’ (cold coconut water) sold at many of the stands just outside the park, It was SO refreshing after the being in the sun for so long!

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Selfie success…with everyone except dad

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We then headed to El Avión, a cool restaurant built around a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane with amazing ocean views, for a well deserved lunch before heading back to our oasis up the coast.

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Oscar and Alice at the controls…hold on tight!

 

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Road Trip to the Caribbean!

We spent last weekend celebrating Dad’s birthday on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica in the relaxed beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and surrounding tiny coastal towns of Cahuita and Manzanillo.

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The 115 mile trip took us SIX HOURS (that included about an hour for lunch)! Yes, it is slowwwwwww going on these roads. We had to skirt around San José (yet still got caught in traffic) and then climb through the mountains and into the clouds of Braulio Carrillo National Park topping out at about 5,300 feet before heading down to the eastern lowlands,

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The blue bags protect the bananas from bugs and being damaged.

banana and pineapple plantations and finally arriving at the Caribbean coast. Most of the route is two lanes and it’s especially slow when you’re behind large semi trucks in the mountains and also going through a few mile very congested stretch of road just outside of the port city of Limón which is full of semis and commercial shipping / sea container yards (Chiquita and Del Monte among them).  But we eventually made it to our lovely beach home for the weekend.

 

Our first adventure was to Cahuita National Park, Dad’s birthday choice, where we enjoyed a beautiful hike that ran parallel to the coast and saw iguanas, sloths, beautiful flora and a picturesque coastline! We were hoping to swim and snorkel here but unfortunately the water was quite rough due to a coming storm so we really didn’t get to swim.

The tiny town of Cahuita had a very chill vibe with lots of local characters and color!

 

Puerto Viejo is one of the larger towns in the area and we were surprised at the number of tourists and expats that lived there, as well as all of the English spoken and prices in USD. That was quite a change from Atenas!  We had some fabulous meals (Madre Tierra is a must for fancy tropical cocktails and dinner on the second floor, Chile Rojo had yummy sushi and Pan Pay offered delicious pastries) and enjoyed a little shopping here too as the weather wasn’t so conducive to outdoor activities.

 

We also visited the Jaguar Rescue Center which was awesome and we highly recommend it for anyone traveling to the Puerto Viejo area. The center takes in injured or sick animals and their goal is to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. There aren’t any jaguars there today, but the center began when a sick baby jaguar was brought to the home of the eventual founders after its mother had been killed by farmers. There are a lot of sad stories of injury and abuse (sadly, many stories due to humans) but most animals are eventually released. However, there are a few that are permanent residents including a margay (member of the cat family) and a crocodile that had been abused. The center is mostly volunteer run (with the exception of two veterinarians) and offers small group tours at 9:30 and 11:30am every day. We were able to see baby sloths and monkeys and get closeups of two types of toucans that live in Costa Rica, the Keel-billed Toucan and the Chestnut Mandibled Toucan.

 

We were hoping to spend some good time at the beaches, but with the storm and huge waves, we instead enjoyed quality time relaxing. We did drive south along the coast along some beautiful stretches of coast to the town at the end of the road, Manzanillo. I loved the feel of this town – authentic, colorful and laid-back! Hoping we’ll get back here one day to further explore the area and do some hiking in Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. Here are some of the colorful quaint homes in Manzanillo:

 

and a few more photos for good measure. ha!

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Special beverages!
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My sweet boy
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Coconut oil for sale was popular in the area. We had to stop of course!
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‘thatch for sale for roofs’

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Tarcoles and Carara National Park

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View from Crocodile River Bridge over Rio Tarcoles.

We had a fun day with mom and dad watching the huge crocodiles that congregate in the Rio Tárcoles under the Crocodile River Bridge in Tarcoles as well as hiking in nearby Carara National Park. Both sites are just a couple kilometers from each other and only about 40 minutes from Atenas so it was a perfect day trip for us, but they’re also easily accessible from San José or anyone heading towards the South Pacific Coast (Jaco, Manuel Antonio, the Costa Ballena) of Costa Rica as they’re located right on the main route, Route 34.

The Crocodile Bridge is a quick stop, but definitely worthwhile as the crocs are HUGE and fun to watch right below the bridge. The nearby town of Tarcoles also offers crocodile boat tours for those with a bit more time.

Carrara National Park ($10 entrance for adults) is an unassuming national park where if you blink, you might miss the sign and parking lot just off the highway but I highly recommend a hike and spending at least an hour or two exploring. It’s always hot and humid, but the trails are mostly all shaded.

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Hiking at Carara – Photo credit: Karen Solle 🙂

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This was our second visit and we’ve seen monkeys both times. It’s located in a transition zone where the Pacific dry north meets the humid south coast so there is an abundance of flora and fauna in the park. We decided not to hire a guide this time around, but there are typically a few waiting around the main entrance and they are fantastic as they know where the animals are hiding, what to look for and they often have a telephoto zoom lens or spotting scope so hikers can see up close the wildlife high in the trees.

Despite our not having a guide, we still saw a ton of wildlife and other hikers are usually happy to point out what they discovered or where to find a specific species on the trail which is super helpful. We discovered a scarlet macaw high up in a hole in a tree pruning itself as well as agoutis, leaf cutter ants, two howler monkeys swinging from the canopy, a number of unique birds and towering trees with amazing root systems. We hiked all of the trails in the park (3 interconnected loops) and estimated we walked about 4 miles in total. On a side note, I highly recommend the Costa Rica Wildlife Guide (Amazon aff link) so that you can identify what you see. Even the kids get into this!

After all that exercise, we enjoyed a delicious typical lunch with fresh fruit juices at Soda El Guacimo, a popular roadside restaurant with excellent service, just a couple miles north of the Croc Bridge.

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Casado con pollo (chicken, rice and beans, salad, green beans and sweet plantains)
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Soda el Guacimo: “May Peace and Labor Ever Live” (last line of the national hymn)