Manuel Antonio is considered Costa Rica’s can’t-miss nature park.
Frank and I are on a vacation to celebrate his birthday (and my recent job change AND making it through the pandemic with our relationship intact, what a blessing).
After a couple of days in San Jose and the Central Valley, we spent most of Sunday exploring the forest and beaches near the town of Quepos on the Pacific Coast that most people visit specifically to see this park.
Expectations are the thief of joy, so I try not to have them, but after reading all the hype about Manuel Antonio, I think I went into this one with more than I should have.
We saw a few monkeys and agouti, a tail-less forest rodent that is actually kind of cute. Thanks to our guide, we spotted a zebra grasshopper, some tadpoles hanging in a sack from a tree and a very chill three-toed sloth.
Ricardo, our guide, explained that the three- and two-toed sloths are remarkably different. The first (in the above photo) is an herbivore with a shorter gestation period and slower movement. The two-toed sloth, which we didn’t see, is omnivorous, eating other animals and eggs.
I was skeptical about hiring a guide at first. I can be stubborn about wanting to do things on my own. Driving toward the park, guides were practically jumping in front of the car to get our business
The park doesn’t give out maps, so it’s easy to feel lost before you’ve even started.
At the last minute, Frank said, “Let’s get one.”
I am so glad he did.
We joined Ricardo and this sweet German couple, who are in Costa Rica for a month (!), and spent the next three hours talking about plants, animals and the history of Costa Rica.
We learned about the civil war in 1948 that cemented the country’s attitude toward war. (It has been considered a pacifist country ever since.)
Having heard the news about the shooting in Austin, guns had been on my mind, so I asked him: Do people have guns here? “Why would we need them?” he replied.
Over a coffee break in the middle of the tour, the Germans explained their philosophy about travel. They take six weeks off at this time every year to go explore somewhere they haven’t been.
We didn’t have to talk about politics to talk about politics.
By the time we got to the incredible beach at the heart of Manuel Antonio, which, to be honest, was the absolute best part of the park, my ideas about the day had shifted.
We weren’t there to see anything.
We were there to experience whatever the day brought.
That did include seeing both a coati and a sloth (bucket list items, complete!) and swimming at what felt like a quintessential Central American beach, but leaving with new friends to keep in touch with on Instagram and new conversations to tickle the mind was the real win of the day.
These human connections are the main reason I travel, but it’s easy to forget that when I spend too long in the guidebooks trying to craft a “perfect” vacation and when I start keeping tabs on how many animals I saw.
I don’t want to be a greedy traveler.
I want to be a grateful one.
And tonight, as I sit in a hammock on the second floor porch of our AirBnB in Quepos, listening to the afternoon rain fall through the canopy, I can think back on the day and focus not on what I didn’t see but what I did.
Another travel-loving couple who made it through this most terrible year of COVID.
A Costa Rican who loves nature so much that he gave up his law practice to become a guide.
A beach that I’ll revisit in my dreams.
A supermarket filled with Ticos, where we stocked up on food for the week.
A mom from Michigan traveling with her 7- and 10-year-olds, who made me want to come back here with my own kiddos.
A plate of food, cooked en casa tonight, to eat after a long day hiking through a forest that, at times, felt like we were at Reimers Ranch outside Austin.
I am so, so grateful. For here. For there. For home. For away from home.
As always, thank you for your Substack subscription! This much-needed vacation couldn’t happen without the support of folks like you who are encouraging me to write in new ways, on new platforms and from new places.
I can’t wait to tell you about the fruit forest we toured a few days ago near San Jose! I finally got to try a Gros Michel banana, which is a big deal to this fruit nerd.
You brought me back to our trip to Costa Rica many moons ago. Thank you for sharing and the time travel I needed to start this week off. <3
Love this dispatch … I too resist all things organized and I too resisted a guided tour of Manuel Antonio and I too was grateful my husband insisted. The guide was wonderful and we saw animals we would have never seen on our own. It made us slow down and really see what was there all along. Enjoy, enjoy!