You, and 3 billion other tourists, will love Manuel Antonio National Park. Recommended travel gear includes a helmet and elbow pads. It makes pushing aside the weaker tourists much easier so that you can be the first to get a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime picture of those cute Capuchin monkeys playing with themselves in the palm trees.
Pro tip: Try filming the iguanas. They move a lot slower, and are less likely to throw feces.
The hostel I stayed at, Backpackers Manuel Antonio, sits across the street from the village’s centro, which in small-town Latin American dialect translates to “soccer field.” The rest of the community consists of one winding 10-mile road squeezed in on both sides by hotels, restaurants, and stores selling authentic Costa Rica handicrafts made in China. At one end of this road is the national park.
Manuel Antonio’s ticket vending stand is well hidden within the jungle of tourist shops that greet you when you get off the bus. The easiest way to find it is to “join” one of the millions of tourist groups being led like cattle by Costa Rican guides dressed in Indian Jones-style safari gear. Once you’re guided to the entrance, you can safely leave the group and no one will know the better. After waiting in line, I paid the ten dollars for my ticket, and practically ran into a deer right before I entered the park.
This is a common sight in Manuel Antonio Park: animals with no fear of humans. The park was established in 1972, so there have been plenty of years for wild animals to get accustomed to non-indigenous humans wandering through the jungle. You will find many indigenous animals here, including: raccoons, sloths, agoutis, coatis, and the endemic titi monkey. Yes, these monkeys are called titis! They are highly endangered…most likely because of suicide due to extreme embarrassment.
I entered the main entrance with a elderly, sweaty, overweight tour group being led by a guide who was joking in Spanish with the park rangers about his elderly, sweaty, overweight tour group. He switched to accented English and directed the group down the wide, rocky path. I quickly outpaced the herd, but within five minutes I ran across another tour group wielding cameras and pointing into the foliage.
They were not titi monkeys, but white-faced capuchin monkeys.
I pushed my way through the crowd and held up my camera in anticipation. Thanks to the Discovery Channel, we all know monkeys have a biological tendency to do funny things. This behavior has been recorded in many scientific documentary films, such as The Hangover 2, which features one of the spidery, long-tailed primates I was filming at the moment.
Unfortunately, they weren’t doing anything particularly funny, like throwing poop, masturbating, or chain smoking cigarettes. They appeared quite bored with all the tourists around. I put down my camera and listened to the guide while the monkeys scratched themselves.
The monkeys were attracting more and more tourists. It was time to move away. Far away. I kept walking and what I found was that it was impossible to get away from crowds at the park. Manuel Antonio, at 7,656 square miles, is Costa Rica’s smallest park, but one of its most famous, receiving around 150,000 tourists per year. At only 82 miles from San Jose, it’s also an easily accessible national park, and will become even more so since a major interstate highway has been recently built to connect San Jose with a popular nearby prostitution-themed funpark called Jaco.
At least I never had to worry about finding someone to take my picture at the scenic points.
One view required an uphill climb on a series of large, manmade concrete slabs. I suppose the slabs are Costa Rica’s way to avoid any permanent change to the natural environment, yet still make much of the park accessible when the constant rain turns many of the paths into fudge brownie rivers. In addition to the constant joy of equatorial rainstorms, it’s important to note when high and low tide is, as it makes certain areas of the park cease to exist for several hours.
Manuel Antonio has a extensive network of interesting trails well suited for travelers whose closets are primarily filled with color-coordinated, REI-brand moisture-wicking gear and matching all-terrain Teva sandals. For tourists who don’t consider sweating profusely to be one of their primary vacation activities, there are the beaches. Manuel Antonio, South Espadilla, Gemela, and Puerto Escondio are the park’s four locations where you can work on that perfect sunburn.
At this particular moment, isolated Gemela and Puerto Escondio were not technically beaches, due to the rising tide. I resigned myself to resting on the park’s big namesake beach. Even with the threatening rain clouds, it was a madhouse. I avoided colliding with several hyperactive kids, flying beach balls, and banana-thonged Eurotourists, while looking for a quiet place to nap that wouldn’t be underwater in the next hour.
I found a spot near the treeline, and stupidly realized I had forgotten to bring alcohol. I went with my second option, which is practicing mixed martial arts. In Latin America, this the only practical form of self-defense next to carrying a firearm. I was flipping and kicking around when I noticed a class of extremely inexperienced yoga students pointing at me.
I’ve practiced MMA for two years in Costa Rica. When I practice in public, I frequently meet hippie yoga students who confuse MMA training with some kind of new-age, karma-inducing advanced yoga. I quickly point out that my goal is to effectively beat the shit out of people, and not achieve inner peace. They (peacefully) lecture me on my lack of karma.
Anyway, I figured this group would be good entertainment. The perky, lithe yoga instructor, who was clearly born without basic anatomical features like bones, was demonstrating how easy it was to use her arms as a substitute for her legs. The amateur, karma-seeking students would let out an enthusiastic “OHM” and put their arms on the ground while throwing their legs in the air.
Unfortunately, they were used to using arms for normal hippie things, such as eating hummus, and would fall on the ground, often with limbs protruding at unusual angles. The instructor gave them encouraging pats on the back. She preferred her left foot.
After some time the students’ “OHMs” were sounding suspiciously like groans. The yoga instructor eventually decided that, yes, feet are perfectly fine for walking. She led the students in a round of applause, which was only hindered by the fact that some of the students could not actually find their hands.
My entertainment was gone, so I moved to South Espadilla on the other side of the peninsula. The tide was stronger on this side so the beach was empty. A lone parasailer sailed across the grey, cloudy sky. I watched him hovering majestically in the air until I noticed that, sadly, there was no lightning. I recognized the large rocky islands I had seen on all the websites and fulfilled my tourist duties by snapping 5 billion unforgettable pictures.
There is a different exit near this beach. The actual exit strangely enough led to a small river that, due to the high tide, appeared impassable. Several men sat with rowboats advertising passage across the river for 500 colones. Many of the tourists were taking these boats. Wading across the river was possible, and many people were attempting it, although a big official sign stood next to the river:
“BEWARE: THERE ARE CROCODILES AND FECAL MATTER IN THE WATER.”
Several questions come up: Why would Costa Rica’s most famous national park exit to a dangerous, impassable, crocodile- and shit-filled river? Did this river harbor a particular species of crocodile that suffers from severe bowel issues? Do the crocodiles only attack fat tourists? Were the crocodiles attacking tourists with the fecal matter? If so, could they attack the yoga students?
I naturally assume everything in this part of the world is a scam. Two Costa Rican guys stood next to me looking skeptical too. We talked momentarily in Spanish; they had visited before and remembered an easier way. To the far left, hidden among the palm trees, were some muddy steps that led over a small hill that extended into the ocean. On the other side was much shallower water, which appeared free of fecal-throwing crocodiles.
The three of us removed our shoes and gingerly waded across the river. After a tense minute I reached the opposite shore. I turned around and noticed the Costa Ricans had disappeared…
Just kidding. We laughed at the silly scheming boatmen and celebrated with a more honest businessman who was selling homemade ice cream by the bus stop. As expected, the rain started picking up while I waited for the bus with the other 4.26 million tourists.
The internet connection was good in the hostel, so I spent the rainy evening on my computer looking at pictures of titis.
* This post was originally published at Rali Gitano and is reprinted here with permission.