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At first, Manuel Antonio National Park seemed like an unlikely place to view wildlife. Buses, cars and tents crammed the parking lots near the entrance. Restaurants and bars lined the access road. Dozens of hotels nestled into the surrounding hills.

Yellow-crowned night heron
Yellow-crowned night heron
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Pacific coast park is located 157 kilometers (98 miles) south of San José and seven kilometers (4.4 miles) south of the city of Quepos. Only 682 hectares (2.6 square miles) in size, it is the smallest national park in Costa Rica, occupying twice the area of New York City's Central Park.


Although we arrived at the park shortly after it opened, there was already a long line-up at the entrance. Most of the Ticos (Costa Rican inhabitants) and tourists were wearing bathing suits and carrying picnics to eat on the wide sandy beaches in the park. As they chattered excitedly along the tree-lined trail, our hopes of seeing wildlife diminished.

"Don't rush. Take the time to look," said our guide Ovidio Arias Calvo as we began walking along the trails in the reserve.

We could have sworn that Ovidio had eyes in the back of his head. Without warning, he'd stop and say: "Did you see the yellow-crowned night heron?"

Noting our raised eyebrows, he'd point to the bird, frozen in position to disguise its presence. He frequently called us back to look at animals that we had passed, including a three-toed sloth curled-up into a hairy ball in a treetop.

Hiking trails

Ovidio showed us a map of the hiking trails in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. The sandy Sendero Perezoso (Sloth Trail), along the beach, was the easiest but the busiest. Surprisingly, the animals seemed oblivious to the traffic.

Manuel Antonio National Park hiking trail map
Manuel Antonio National Park hiking trail map
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Rodent-like agouti scampered across our path. A prehistoric-looking iguana basked in the sun, camouflaged by fallen leaves on the edge of the path. Giant golden orb spiders stretched their glistening webs between branches like lacy tablecloths.

The Puerto Escondido (Hidden Port) Trail was the prettiest hike, but quite steep near the end, where it sloped to the water. Strategically placed benches offered welcome resting spots. Concrete block steps provided good footholds, especially when the trail was wet.

Private beaches

A side path led to the Playitas Gemelas beaches, isolated pockets of sand scattered with driftwood and rocks. Each little beach was just large enough for a couple to stretch out their towels.

El Mirador (Lookout) Trail climbed unrelentingly uphill. It ended at a viewpoint above the green sea and rocky islets. At the top, we watched a V-shaped formation of brown pelicans fly by. "It's the Costa Rican Air Force," joked Ovidio. (The country has no military.)

Retracing our path back to the trailhead, we looked down to see leafcutter ants, and up to see leafy stands of bamboo, as tall as palm trees. Frequently, we stopped to compare notes with other hikers about the location of the constantly roving wildlife.

One couple told us that they had watched a green snake swallow a yellow frog. As we spoke, a bright red land crab skittered by our feet, dragging a leaf into its hole.

Viewing islets from Manuel Antonio beach
Viewing islets from Manuel Antonio beach
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

White-headed capuchins

Attracted to picnicking families, bands of white-faced capuchin monkeys patrolled the beach. Signs warn people not to feed the monkeys.

But monkeys don't read signs. The mischievous primates sometimes steal bags off picnic tables. Scurrying up trees, they examine the contents, leaving the owners wide-mouthed with surprise.

By the time we made it to the beach, the simians had disappeared. Two hikers told us that they had seen a band of 15 white-faced monkeys on the Punta Catedral (Cathedral Point) Trail.

Marine reserve

We explored the loop trail around the wedge-shaped piece of land which was once an island. Over the years, a sandbar built up joining it to the mainland. Trees and shrubs now stabilize the connection, making it permanent.

Although the trail was steep, it offered rewarding views of the sea and lava rock islands. We regretted not bringing our snorkeling gear to explore the marine reserve section of the park.

Red-backed squirrel monkeys

Instead, we searched for monkeys in the rainforest. A peacock-blue giant morpho butterfly flitted by. White-tipped doves cooed in the branches. But we found no monkeys.

Red-backed squirrel monkeys
Red-backed squirrel monkeys
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On our way back, we stopped at a beachside picnic table for a snack. We had barely pulled out the bananas, when a troop of tiny squirrel monkeys appeared in the surrounding forest.

Taking flying leaps from one branch to another, the primates squealed with excitement. A palm-sized baby clung to its mother's back like Velcro as she catapulted from tree-to-tree.

Suddenly, stampeding of feet on the beach pavilion roof drew our attention to the arrival of a group of white-faced monkeys. One dangled from the roof by an arm, peering through open walls at the amused visitors inside. We quickly ate our bananas, fearing that the monkeys would swarm our table for handouts.

As the sun's last rays gilded the sky, the simians vanished into the foliage. In the distance, the haunting wail of a howler monkey rose to a crescendo and echoed through the darkening jungle.

In spite of first impressions, Manuel Antonio National Park isn't such a bad place for viewing wildlife, after all.


Costa Rica Tourism Board

More things to see and do in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica Trips for Nature Lovers

Costa Rica Zip-line Adventure Tour

Marenco Beach Rainforest Lodge - Hiking in Osa Peninsula Rio Claro Refuge

Savegre Hotel Birdwatching Tours