Stop, Look and Listen: Costa Rican Rainforest


When it comes to exploring Costa Rica’s Rainforest, you have a wide array of options: You can glide through the forest canopy on a high-tech aerial tram, raft down untamed rivers plunging through unexploited tropical wilderness, or cross suspended bridges hanging 25 stories about the forest floor. I

If those methods don’t suit your fancy, there is always the option of zooming through the jungle on an ATV or gliding over the region’s volcanoes in an ultra light. But regardless of how you explore this green corner of the world, it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience.

Most visitors to Costa Rica head straight off to explore some of the country’s three-dozen national parks, wildlife refuges, biological reserves and various recreational areas that make up 27 percent of this small Central American country. However, the simpler life does exist: A chance to breathe deep, relax and observe. When it comes to exploring and really seeing what the rainforest has to offer, low-tech shoe leather works best.

Although “Manuel Antonio” is the smallest national park with a land mass of only 680 hectares (or 1680 acres), it proves good things come in small packages. One minute my wife and I were gawking at Pappa, Mamma and Baby sloth high in a tree, and shortly after, we were sprawled on one of the park’s four lovely Pacific beaches, catching some rays alongside sunning iguanas.

The park’s four trails can be thoroughly explored in three to four hours, making it ideal for those with only limited time in-country. Three of the trails are easy wanders with serious trekkers, middle-aged adventurers, children and retirees sharing the trail, along with huge, multi-colored butterflies.

The Mirador or Lookout Trail (3/4 mile or 1.3km) is more of a challenge. It’s a 30-minute hike up a slippery ramp. A gorgeous ocean view is your reward at the top.

Discussing who saw what, and where, created camaraderie among park visitors. There is a palpable feeling of expectancy and excitement here. Sloth sightings create quite a stir, akin to earning a merit badge.

Daily park passes are US$7, and they don’t allow in and out access. You’re in for the day and must be out by 5 p.m., so pack accordingly: lunch, a few bottles of water, beachwear, sturdy shoes, binoculars and a good camera, of course – preferably one with fast film and shutter speeds, which is essential as the acrobatic spider monkeys don’t sit still for long. They are the most elusive of the four monkey groups.

The usual posers are white-faced monkeys, howlers and cute squirrel monkeys. Iguana photo-ops are plentiful, and it’s easy to snap marauding crab-eating raccoons raiding unguarded daypacks on the beach. We bird-dogged a group that had hired a US$39 park guide. These guides provide plenty of information and know the ‘Secret of the Rainforest.’

Sure, it’s a jungle in there, but it’s not a zoo. Some people leave disappointed, moaning about not “seeing much.” Perhaps they should have remembered this school safety tip: “Stop, look, listen.” That is the secret.

There are more than 100 mammal species and 180 species of birds in Costa Rica. But many creatures, including insects, are shy, and a noisy approach of hiking boots and chatter will have them scurrying away or hiding.

When we remained still and quiet for a time, the jungle slowly come alive. It was very much like staring at the ‘camouflage’ prints of Californian artist Bev Doolittle. Coatimundis, curious raccoons and agoutis resumed their scouring of the forest floor. Beetles, enormous grasshoppers and birds magically appeared.

We could discern patterns and shades, and were able to pick out subtle differences among the flora, sometimes even spotting a boa curled in the crotch of a tree limb. Jesus Christ lizards (they, too, walk on water), anoles, skinks and geckos were defined against branches or rocks. Visitors who know the secret politely speak in whispers so as not to disturb the rainforest’s elusive inhabitants.

Manuel Antonio’s four park beaches are in small coves protected from occasional Pacific riptides. There’s a certain wildness about the shoreline here, enhanced by the lush vegetation clawing at the sand, straining toward the sea.

The first beach, Espadilla Sur, is lovely, but the number 2 beach, Manuel Antonio, is a knockout. The other two are quite small with one only accessible during low tide. There is also some decent snorkeling just offshore, around small coral formations and lava rocks. However, ocean visibility is affected according to amounts of rainfall.

We took a leisurely river cruise up a mangrove-lined narrow tributary of the Rio Naranjo, on the park’s southwest border.

“Stop, look, listen” also applies in the boat as around every bend a birdwatcher’s paradise awaits, teeming with herons, hummingbirds, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, kingfishers, parrots and even a few familiar northern birds like swallows and warblers on winter vacation. Baby crocodiles were scattered on mud banks and mangrove roots as their big mama monitored us from upstream.

Our hotel near the park was on a regular swing-past for troops of white-faced (capuchin) and howler monkeys. The howler monkeys substitute for roosters here waking us at dawn. Their roar can be heard up to three miles (4.8 km) away. The only animal on the planet louder is the blue whale. Their fearsome roar is akin to a lion and made when they are threatened, hoping to scare off interlopers — in our case, the morning bus from the nearby town of Quepos. But Carlos, the steady bus driver, does not scare easily.

Most of Manuel Antonio’s hotels, cabins and hostels are on a bluff strung along a narrow road from Quepos. Some can be a good hike up from the beach. Expect some occasional rain, as the area is a rainforest, after all.

Costa Ricans, or Ticos, as they like to be called, are genial hosts, proud of their parks and very tolerant of “turistas.” When a television is on in a bar or restaurant, chances are good it will be on an educational channel. There are a variety of restaurants and accommodations just outside the park gate.

Manuel Antonio National Park is a beach vacation, a bird-watching delight and hiker’s heaven, all rolled into one.


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Manuel Antonio National Park

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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
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