SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — When Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon cruised the Pacific coast of Central America, he was looking for the Indian gold that gave this region the name of Costa Rica (Rich Coast).
Instead, he found a coastline of unsurpassed splendor, with hidden bays, islets and rugged promontories, gleaming beaches, clear lagoons and a towering rain forest.
The conquistadores took this natural treasure house for granted, but modern travelers will find that after four centuries of exploitation, a few true gems remain. Such a gem is Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio National Park, where unblemished white-sand beaches and lush primary rain forest are preserved less than half an hour's flight from the capital city of San Jose.
We found Manuel Antonio when we were looking for an easy and inexpensive beach vacation for our college student daughter, who was spending her Christmas holidays with us. As newcomers to Costa Rica, we looked for guidance to San Jose's English-language newspaper, the Tico Times, and read old-timer Don Melton's description:
"My wife Anita and I have sipped coffee at Nepenthe overlooking Big Sur, snorkeled the crystalline waters of Xel Ha, studied marine biology off Marin, and as students of coastal archeology we have seen many wondrous places," he wrote. "But no coastal setting has struck us as being more spectacular or more magnificent than Manuel Antonio National Park and its surroundings." (Tico Times, Nov. 1, 1985.)
We made some inquiries and discovered that we could fly from San Jose to Manuel Antonio for only 515 colones (about $8.85) each way on SANSA, the Costa Rican domestic airline, and that rooms were available for as little as 200 colones per person. Good enough.
We packed up our daughter and one of her friends and took off on a holiday that completely altered our ideas of what a weekend on the beach should be. Now, after a full year of living in Costa Rica, we have yet to find a beach that equals Manuel Antonio in beauty, variety and ease of access.
Linked by Beaches
Manuel Antonio is the smallest of Costa Rica's national parks. Its 1,704 acres embrace three promontories linked by beaches and covered with humid tropical forest. The park's principal attraction is the clear blue water and white sand of the two beaches, Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur, one on each side of a slender isthmus.
Yet it is also a mecca for nature lovers of all kinds, who come here to enjoy an encounter with capuchin monkeys or three-toed sloths, turtles, rare aquatic and plant life, plus 184 known species of birds inhabiting the park.
Except for two well-maintained campgrounds, there are no overnight facilities in the park. Yet just outside its boundaries a wide range of accommodations covers every taste and pocketbook. We found that our $3.50-a-night pension-style accommodations at the Costa Linda (clean and friendly, but no private bath) represents the lower end of the scale.
Not far away the luxurious hilltop Hotel Mariposa offers double rooms, with two meals included, for $125 a night (perfect for honeymooners, with fantastic ocean views and no children allowed). And along the road to the park several motel-style establishments provide comfortable beachfront rooms with bath for up to four persons for $16 to $25 a room.
Fans and Screens
Bordering the park, Hotel Manuel Antonio has double rooms for $17, plus tax. With windows open to the ocean breeze, hotels never include air conditioning, but most tourist accommodations have fans and screens, important when the mosquitoes begin their nightly feast.
Food we found to be an even greater bargain. At Costa Linda the friendly English-speaking proprietors attracted supper guests from up and down the beach with delicious home-cooked dinners for less than $3. Hotel Manuel Antonio offered heavier and somewhat more expensive fare, and lobster dinners were advertised at bars along the strip for a fraction of the San Jose price.
No wonder that Costa Ricans flock to Manuel Antonio every weekend during the peak season that lasts roughly from Christmas through Easter. Tourists are advised to book accommodations well in advance. Even so, the park may be nearly deserted in midweek.
From the tiny airstrip surrounded by jungle and oil palm plantations, a Jeep taxi took us to the sleepy banana port of Quepos, then over green hills and past magnificent seascapes to the resort beach outside the park. We checked into our rooms and went down the road for a leisurely lunch on the veranda at Hotel Manuel Antonio.
Exploring on Foot
Gazing out over sand and sea and watching the pelicans dive into the breakers, my husband and I thought we had found everything we came for. Fortunately, our daughter and her friend were more energetic and persuaded us to press on and explore the park.