As the beads of sweat dispersed across my forehead I could not help but feel that I had made a mistake coming back to Manuel Antonio National Park. The balmy mist encroached with each second that past as the sun’s relentless ray’s prodded at my freshly burnt skin. I sat up slowly, trying to inhale the humid air as my lungs begged for some reprieve. Booming waves pounded the sand as the granules churned and thrashed within the trough, and were dragged out to sea. Soaring cliffs hugged the base of the thick, jade jungle forming a protective barrier against the unpredictable waters of the Pacific.
My trip to Costa Rica had been mediocre at best. It was not that I was unappreciative of the rural beauty of the lush countryside, or the geometrically stunning patterns of the vivid rainforest flora – a wild, picturesque backdrop to the long stretches of beach which staged awe-inspiring vistas of jutting rock formations anchored in the ocean floor. It was that I had traveled to Manuel Antonio to experience intimate encounters with the Park’s biodiversity, only to discover a multitude of guided tours flooded with sweaty tourists squinting through telescopes to view nothing more than a speck of an animal tucked within the canopy.
It was my last day in Costa Rica and I still searched for the “Pura Vida” that all the local “ticos” spoke of. Earlier on my trip, I had ventured seven km north to Quepos, a small town known as the gateway to Manuel Antonio, for an inside glimpse of how tourism shaped the lifestyle, culture, and economy of the area’s people. Only six blocks of ramshackled shops and small buildings, Quepos, managed to escape the takeover of Americanization, thanks to the government’s refusal of Western patronage- yet the glamour of tourism had stripped away the simplicity of what once was a small, quiet town nestled in the heart of the rainforest. And although it was charming to browse the local market and visit the town’s oldest hotel (now a Best Western and the only US owned accommodation) I still longed for a sense of the exotic, pristine beauty the country was known for.
Desperate to fall in love with this perplexing country, I decided to act on a tip I received from my hotel’s hiking guide to trail solo through Manuel Antonio National Park on a weekday afternoon when most of the tours were finished. He advised that the trails would be much quieter later in the day because most of the tours that held large groups were organized in early morning. Deciding to give it one more try, I caught the hotel shuttle to Manuel Antonio at approximately twelve o’clock PM. Oscar, our driver, was able to convince the guards to allow me to pay the daily fee at the entrance, then drove to Playa Espandilla, the beach leading to the Park’s exit, so that I could access the gorgeous beaches without having to walk the entire length of the Park.
My mind continued to twirl in rumination as the waves roared and whispered with each ebb and flow. Parched, from lying listlessly in the sun for two hours, I inched off my towel and headed towards a water fountain I had passed on the way in. Turning onto the path of the forest floor I was greeted by a troop of capuchin monkeys playing far below the canopy. The family’s alpha-male quietly watched over the group as youngsters rolled around on the understory engaging in playful spats. Others carefully groomed parasites from a neighbor showing gentle signs of affection. As the troop gracefully drifted from branch to branch other creatures began to emerge from within the forest. A petite, silky anteater scurried as it searched for insects, three Macroteiid lizards quarreled over a mango, birds belted whimsical chants in melodious song, and a Jesus Christ lizard lay perfectly, camouflaged among the creviced bark of a tree. Thunder suddenly cracked in the distance yet I did not flinch-my eyes locked on the tiny creatures instinctively going about their afternoon.
The capuchins’ behavior shifted as it appeared that their focus had changed from play to business. Five dropped from the trees and headed towards the man-made path leading to the beach. One bold male lunged onto the metal flap of a garbage pail and began jumping crazily, creating loud clashing sounds and high pitched screams with every pounce. The rest of the troop chimed in with alarm calls as they closed in on a specific area just before the beach. Fascinated, I watched as a female soared through the line of trees that had been guarded by the screaming monkeys, carrying a tiny baby latched to her back. Once the mother had climbed back to the safety of the canopy the others rushed towards the beach and searched for the unattended backpacks of tourists. Able to slide open the zipper, several of the capuchins ripped bags of food from the opened flaps and swooped back into the trees as shocked tourists shouted after them. I stared in astonishment as one small primate delicately untied a plastic bag that held a box of juice and a half-eaten sandwich. He examined the straw and quickly figured out how to remove it so that he could pour the remaining liquid into his mouth.
Concerned for the animals’ welfare, the park rangers chased the remaining monkeys back into the jungle ending the amazing spectacle. The forest turned quiet once again as the last of the visitors trickled out the exit to avoid the approaching storm. Warm droplets of rain cooled my calescent face and the pure scent of earth permeated the sultry air. I walked back to the spot on the beach where I had felt defeated and uninspired, glancing out at the tumultuous ocean. The storm was beginning to intensify making the raw palette of sea, sky, and forest vivify in the soft twilight. Isolated and deserted the park was truly magnificent, mysterious and primitive. I realized that Manuel Antonio National Park was an extraordinary place that had been exploited and because of it I had undervalued its rarity, and openness to a world that so few ever come to know.
Gazing at the emergent layer of forest from the hotel’s verandah, I sipped a glass of freshly squeezed mango juice and reminisced over the many things I had learned throughout my journey. I pondered over the idea of a country that did not believe in staffing an army but rather arming its youth with the power of knowledge and negotiation. Seeing firsthand the level of poverty that is a very real issue for this small nation, and the resilient, effervescent spirit of its people, was a truly humbling experience. Living among Manuel Antonio within the confines of its primeval rainforest revealed the startling reality that this natural exhibition remains at the mercy of the tourism industry and the ventures of wealthy Westerners who seek to own a piece of this “Rich Coast” as a recreational destination. Yet, I still believe it is a place worth visiting as the insight one may gain from such a trip is invaluable. If you search hard enough for the quiet and unscathed beauty hidden in such a place, eventually nature’s allure reveals itself to those who appreciate its unyielding will and memorizing brilliance.