“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. – John Muir
Our villa at Tulemar was like a treehouse, perched high above the jungle and surrounded by nature. I woke at 5:30 am to the sound of the birds greeting the day and went out to watch the tropical rainforest come to life. Two pairs of scarlet macaws flew poignantly overhead and settled in a neighboring tree where they squawked a bit before taking flight. Kingfishers, warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and tiny hummingbirds enjoyed their breakfast in the morning light. I could have laid here all morning but alas I had to get everyone else up for our seven am tour of Manuel Antonio National Park.
Visting Manuel Antonio had been a dream of mine ever since I first visited Costa Rica on a volunteer trip in 2011. Today I would finally see one of Costa Rica’s most popular and beloved parks and I could hardly wait.
Back in the cold, snowy months of January I received an email from guest relations at the Tulemar giving us a list of recommended activities and tours we could do during our upcoming stay. The 3-hour guided tour with high-esteemed naturalist and birder Johan Chaves caught my eye. Of course anyone can pay the park fees and see Manuel Antonio without a guide. But without the trained, experienced eye of a professional, I knew we would miss much of the wildlife in the park.
We pulled up TripAdvisor and were delighted to see that Johan was rated as the top 5 outdoor activities to do in Manuel Antonio National Park and out of over 330 reviews, every single one was rated 5 stars for excellent. We booked our tour immediately and it was the one of the best decisions we had made about the trip. He was phenomenal.
We met Johan at the Tulemar lobby promptly at seven and were on our way to the park. Despite the early hour, it was already steaming hot and mobbed with people. Outside the park entrance, we met another couple who joined our small group for the tour, and were ready to begin. After brief introductions, Johan took us aside to tell us a little bit more about himself, the tour and perhaps the most important message of all. To ignore the massive crowds, and keep our eyes and attention on him. If we stayed close, he would help us see the magic of Manuel Antonio. To this day, I am grateful for his words of advice.
History of the park
Manuel Antonio National Park was established in 1972 as a way to protect and preserve this magical land and keep it away from overzealous foreign developers who wanted to build a private resort in its place. The locals rose up against this plan and thankfully the government agreed to establish a national park. Today Manuel Antonio remains Costa Rica’s smallest national park encompassing an area of only 683 hectares. However its raw beauty, spelling-binding biodiversity of flora and fauna and ease of access make it exceedingly popular with tourists. The increase in tourism in such a tiny park has not come without a price to the environment, the wildlife and the sustainability of this park.
Once “wild” animals such as the white-faced monkeys have become exceedingly tame and brazen in their attempts to steal food. The monkeys are seen grabbing flip-flops, plastic bags filled with potato chips and any other junk food left sitting on the beach while an unknowing tourist takes a swim. The park management has tried to enforce rules such as not allowing certain foods inside the park and is supposed to check your backpacks when entering, but no one checked ours. Meanwhile locals and tourists alike carry in coolers and backpacks loaded with food to the beach each day. Johan informed us that the park is trying to build a concession area next to the beach which would be the only location people could eat and buy food but nothing has been done. Despite all the placards up around the park warning tourists not to touch, feed or disturb the wildlife, it still happens which is truly sad.
Another huge issue the park is experiencing is overcrowding. The crowds were getting so large that the park had to institute an entrance fee and also set a limit to 600 on weekdays and 800 on weekends and holidays. The park is also closed on Mondays. There have also been unexpected park closing from protesting staff. Unfortunately, the government is faced with a tricky situation on conservation versus profit. It is the country’s most popular parks but that notoriety comes with a price.
Our 2 1/2 hour tour began just inside the gates of the park. The first thing Johan did was take out his equipment. For the tour, Johan used a Swarovski ATX 65mm Telescope, the industry’s best optics to view the wildlife close up.
A telescope is a must at the park as many animals, birds and insects are either too small to see or too high up. You can bring a pair of binoculars yet you end up craning your neck and won’t get nearly as detailed of a view as you would with a telescope. Another added bonus is that the telescope allows you to take pretty good photos with a smart phone through the lens. Unless you have a gigantic telephoto lens, this is essential.
Every time Johan spotted something new, he would set up his telescope and each person in the group got their chance for a look. This is where having a small group (in our case only 6 people) is critical. If you are in a group of 10 or even 20 people, you would waste all of your time waiting around for each person to have a look and have the telescope adjusted for their height. We saw tons of large groups like this touring the park.
To our delight, the first thing we saw on the tour was a sloth. Sloths are everywhere in the park thus with the proper telescope or binoculars, they are easy to view high up the trees. There are two kinds of sloths: The more common three-toed sloth that has long course brownish-gray fur and a distinctive eye band, and the shaggy-looking gray two-toed sloth.
Sloths are primarily arboreal and live most of their lives in trees. They only come down once or twice a week to defecate and given their slow movement, this is the most dangerous time for a sloth as they are easy targets to prey.
Sloths are known for being slow and can only move 50 meters per day. It isn’t because they are lazy; they are lethargic because of the fermented leaves they eat which makes them groggy. Their necks can turn 180 degrees keeping their eyes out for prey and their slow movement protects them from being seen. If you look closely, you will notice that their fur has a greenish tint to it which is algae. Sloths don’t sweat and with the high heat, rain and humidity, green algae grows on their fur which provides food for 17 different varieties of insects! In fact, a sloth can have up to 1,200 bugs living on them at any given moment.
The two-toed sloths have evolved and adapted quite differently from their three-toed friends. We learned a great bit of detail on how all species have evolved over the years. Sloths typically hang by their large claws upside down in the tree and if they have a baby, the baby lies comfortably upon the mama’s chest. If the baby accidentally falls, then it perishes. Survival of the fittest, Johan believes.
The Howler Monkeys
Although you can hear the roar of the howler monkeys commonly throughout Costa Rica, they can be hard to see since they live high up within the canopy of the jungle. I never saw one when I was in the Osa Peninsula so you can imagine my excitement when Johan found one for us to view through his telescope.
Howlers use their notorious howl to ward off potential threats to their territory, and the sound comes from a special bone near the Adam’s Apple found only in the males that vibrates and allows them to howl. The roar of a male howler can be heard as far as a mile away! It is one of the most common sounds in Costa Rican rainforest.
Even bats are fun to see and there are roughly 116 species of bats at the park. These bats (pictured below) are known as the Lesser White-Lined Bat. On closer look, I was surprised to see the bats with their eyes open during the middle of the day. I thought they were nocturnal. Johan pointed out that these species of bats don’t have eyelids and have adapted to never sleep. Bats are also our friends because a single bat can eat 130 mosquitos a night.
Manuel Antonio is loaded with insects of all shapes, sizes and colors. Given how tiny they are, I was amazed that Johan was able to even find them. That is why a professional guide is so important. We would have missed seeing these miraculous little bugs.
I can’t remember the names of these lizards but they were pretty cool. We did manage to also see the infamous Basilisk (known as the “Jesus Christ” lizard because it can walk and run on water) later on in our trip but not at this park. We also saw plenty of poisonous snakes but again not at this park (too many people!).
The infamous red-eyed tree frog is nocturnal so unfortunately we were not able to see one. We did look on the undersides of leaves where they like to make their homes during the day but did not find one. We did see this colorful crab that blended perfectly with the leaves and the ground.
Manuel Antonio and Costa Rica as a whole is a bird-lover’s paradise. For such a small country, Costa Rica is home to 5% of the planet’s biodiversity and the same holds true with birds. In fact, Costa Rica has identified over 880 species of migrant and resident birds (there are 350 species in the park!). Some of my favorite birds from Minnesota winter in Costa Rica before making the long flight home.
One of the most astounding things we saw was the Common Pauroque (pictured below). This brown-colored bird lays its eggs on the ground and has no nest. It is so incredibly camouflaged that it took us five minutes to spot it through the telescope. It only lays its eggs during the dry season when the leaves have fallen to the ground and it can hide. Sometimes nature is even stranger than fiction!
Another bird (one of the 350 species that live inside the park).
We were two hours into our walk along an unshaded gravel trail when it was time to head over to the beach. Thankfully there is a short tree-covered path that leads to the beach. The path is also paved which allows handicap access. Currently, the only way people with special needs can access the park is via taxi cab that drives right through the park at a snail’s pace zigzagging through the crowds. It is not very pleasant for visitors however there is not much choice until the paved path is complete.
The white-faced monkeys
Near the beach, the playful white-faced capuchin monkeys were having their own party in the trees lining the beach. We enjoyed watching them for a while. Their behavior is so similar to people!
We left the monkeys just as a fight broke out over a stolen apple (at least it wasn’t a cookie or a bag of chips!). Some unlucky tourist had their snack stolen before their eyes.
There are three beaches inside the park. The most popular one is Playa Manuel Antonio (pictured below) which is right at the end of the walking trail. I confess to not making it to see the less crowed Playa Espadilla Sur or the Puerto Escondido. I’m certain the extra walk to reach these more secluded beaches is worth the effort. Of course the beach was stunning and I was able to snap a few pictures before the crowds moved in.
There is also a fantastic 30-minute hike you can take from the beach along a circular loop trial up high on the bluffs overlooking the beach. I desperately wanted to do the hike but by noon it was way too hot and we were famished.
We finished our tour just in time for lunch. We were hot, sweaty, tired and hungry yet had an absolutely magical first full day in Costa Rica. Johan’s tour proved to be a huge success with the kids. His knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for nature was infectious. He was a superb teacher for both the adults and the kids. He worked his magic and the tour will forever be a highlight of the trip.
I would love to go back someday to Manuel Antonio but it would not be without reservations. As Costa Rica becomes an even more popular place for international tourists, the park will become even more threatened. The booming tourism and overdevelopment is taking its toll on Manuel Antonio and stealing away some of the very things that make this place so special. What a pity.