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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

So now that we've actually visited Manuel Antonio National Park, we feel we can actually tell you about Manuel Antonio.

Even though it's one of the most visited national parks in Costa Rica, we ended up here more as a matter of circumstance rather than choice. The school Crystal is attending for her TEFL certification, Maximo Nivel, has two locations in Costa Rica: San Jose and Manuel Antonio. The TEFL course is in Manuel Antonio.

My first experience in Manuel Antonio came from in the form of a walk from the school to the public beach, Playa Espadilla Norte, about a mile away. The school is located on the top of a hill - one of the many high bluffs that jut out of the Pacific along the Costa Rica coastline like the feet of the nearby mountains cooling off in the ocean. The road weaves through the jungle as it descends toward the beach. Hostels, resorts, and restaurants sprout out of the trees, all battling for valuable views of the ocean and western horizon. El Avion, a restaurant Crystal and I dined at for a date night, is built around an entire Fairchild C-123 transport plane with a lounge in the fuselage. The owners acquired the plane in August 2000, about 15 years after it had been abandoned in the San Jose International Airport, a relic leftover from the Iran-Contra Affair. The food was ok, the views were spectacular.

Street view of El Avion
Sunset view from our table at El Avion
Playa Espadilla Norte is a mile long pubic beach just outside the perimeter of the national park. It provides everything you'd expect at a public sand beach in a touristy area: surf rentals and instructions; parasailing; beach vendors trawling the tourists with snow cones, Cuban cigars, fresh ceviche and coconut water, beach chairs and umbrellas, and various miscellaneous trinkets; and a few over-priced but decent restaurants and bars. A few nights a week the restaurants will clear the tables from the walkway and bring in some loudspeakers and host a party in the street, often times supplemented with a bonfire on the beach. Playa Espadilla Norte is clean, and fun, and free.

View of Playa Espadilla Norte from the road leading down to the beach

Playa Espadilla Norte is an extension of Playa Espadilla Sur, which is in the national park. The national park charges a $10 entry fee and is an awesome place to see three-toed sloths, white-headed capuchins, toucans, iguanas, pristine beaches, and phenomenal views of the coastline and the islands that run along it. Although this is protected land, it is heavily visited and some of the animals have grown accustomed to human presence. At Manuel Antonio Beach, the most visited in the national park, we witnessed a white-faced capuchin steal a bag of trail mix from an unsuspecting tourist. He proceeded up into the trees with his loot and refused to share with his friends. A raccoon also approached us, hoping for a morsel dropped in the sand. Despite how cute they look and how comfortable they can be around people, they are still wild animals. While crossing a bridge along the Catedral trail, a group of aggressive capuchins rushed our group and one even took a swipe at one of our friends. They are aggressive and can be dangerous. Be careful, especially if you bring food with you!

El Bandito Capuchin

By far the greatest attraction of the park, for me at least, is the scenery. Well-groomed trails weave their way up into the jungle and poke out over the cliffs looking down at the rocky coastline and small, green-topped islands separated from you by a kilometre or two of ocean the color of mouth wash. After some gruelling, sweaty hiking through °90 F heat and 80% humidity our group reached one of the lookouts along the Catedral trail. We all stopped and stared out into the blue in silence for about ten minutes. A flock of massive pelicans soared across the panorama like something out of National Geographic. It was majestic.

One of the many incredible views in the park

Although I was slightly disappointed with the extent of human population in the park - compared to the amount of traffic along some of the trails I've done in the Olympic National Forest back home, the ones in Manuel Antonio might as well have been in Central Park - it was beautiful, the weather was great and the wildlife was breathtaking.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Quepos, Costa Rica

My first impression of Quepos as our bus bumbled in from San Jose was that it looked like a tiny surf town. The main road leading into Quepos runs parallel to a small bay, enclosed by a greened jetty that curls around it like a claw. The claw slowly dissolves from the greens of the palms, big-leafed trees, ferns and other jungle-y fauna, into a narrow strip of ankle-high grass, down to a brown-grey sand beach - always wet from the constant lapping of the mild waves - and finally into a sand bar that hides under the high tide. At low tide it barely leaves a single lane of water between itself and the jagged rocks of the breakwater, and small fishing boats can just about enter and exit the bay. After turning off the main road toward the bus station, you'll be presented with a scene of surf and beach apparel shops lining the street beside kitchy-named bars like Wacky Wanda's, and folks stroll along the sunny sidewalks in board shorts, flip flops, and sunglasses.

The main entrance into town
In January and February, it's pretty much like this every day
I'm now left to assume that this first impression is presented by design, targeting the arrivals of American tourists and intended to give them a feeling of familiarity. If you stay at the Best Western in Quepos, and do your eating and drinking at Wacky Wanda's, and do your beaching at the nearby Manuel Antonio beach, you will likely leave with the same impression of Quepos that you gathered when you first arrived.

Fortunately I've been afforded the advantage of rooming with a host family, being on a tight budget, and having ample time to unravel some of the small town's intricacies. Hopping between the fruterias, bakeries and super-markets, hunting for the best prices for staple lunch foods, I found the real Quepos living behind the facade of a modern surf town - young moms shopping at fabric stores for a roll of whatever is to become her child's next shirt or pillowcase, an amateur soccer game played at a field lined with families supporting (it doesn't occur to people here to have a field without ample seating for proper support), a young boy throwing rocks at an iguana recharging on a sunny rock and a mom snapping at him to knock it off, A three-toed sloth napping in a tree at the park, a middle-school marching band loading their drums into the back of a van clad in gleaming white and green sequinned vests and pants, families idling on a hot afternoon picnicking at the park. As I spend more and more time meandering around Quepos, I am pleased to have the cook at my regular Soda recognise me and my order. And I feel like a townie when I see Johnny the surf instructor in the streets and greet him, asking him when our next soccer match is. After just a few weeks I feel welcomed and have assimilated, at least shin-deep, into the community.

A lazy local, napping in the afternoon heat
If you're planning a trip to the Pacific side of Costa Rica, I'd say Quepos should at least make your short list of places to stop. It's by no means a backpacker's paradise, but by Costa Rican standards it's pretty affordable, and it's a safe town. It's also a great portal into one of the most visited parks and beaches in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio (which we'll have a post about soon!). A few notable attractions in Quepos are La Fèria, the farmer's market which occurs on the waterfront on Fridays and Saturdays, and a Carnivale celebration in mid-February to March. The Wide Mouth Frog Hostel is your best bet for accommodations in Quepos proper, but there are several on the 6km stretch of road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio as well.

Some of the produce available at La Fèria