The central Pacific coast of Costa Rica is home to the smallest, yet most bio-diverse, national park in the country: Manuel Antonio National Park. I was both excited and eager to explore the magical rainforests when traveling alone in the Central America for the first time. After a short cab ride from my hotel Costa Verde, I arrived at the park’s entrance where my naturalist guide Henry Pizarro grinned in greeting, promising me the tour of a lifetime.
Spanning 1,685 acres/2.6 square miles, Manuel Antonio National Park is renowned for its beautiful white-sandy beaches and hiking trails teeming with exotic wildlife found at every bend. Two and three-toed sloths slowly meandered on branches, baring their algae covered backs, welcoming visitors with their ever present “smiles”. Howler, squirrel, and white-headed capuchin monkeys played on treetops within a few feet from passersby. Colorful toucans attracted crowds and stopped traffic on the trails. Multicolored mini frogs leapt from one leaf to another. Trees with prehistoric-looking, giant above-ground roots, where snakes sometimes hide, decorated the sides of the trails. It’s no wonder the park is listed in 1000 Places to See Before you Die.
A short hike led to the ocean where I witnessed one of the most breathtaking environments—a crescent shaped beach called Playa Manuel Antonio, surrounded by a lush green forest that plunges into the sea. Here, sloths clung to palm leaves, and iguanas sunbathed on rocks, carefree among the tourists. Leaf-cutter ants traipsed up branches carrying tiny pieces of leaves like a marching band. Beach-goers lounged on the soft sand and bathed in the cool waters.
Just a few hundred feet away, the beach becomes a tambol – a sandy strip that connects an island to the mainland – which led to another stunning beach. Playa Espadilla Sur was much less crowded and calmer. Although I ventured only a short distance, I felt a hundred miles away, where a long stretch of paradise awaited just for me.
After a quick lunch in town, Henry and I drove half an hour north to San Rafael Norte, past palm oil plantations towards mist-shrouded emerald hills. Soon, we entered the premises of Rainmaker Reserve, a privately owned mountain with 1,530 acres of primary rainforest. The owners saved the land from a logging company in the ‘90s; it is now home to myriad wildlife including the flashy harlequin toad, once thought to be extinct due to global warming.
The reserve is also known for some of the most feared snakes in Central America. As someone fascinated by reptiles, I couldn’t wait to start our hike. It began to drizzle; Henry handed me a hiking stick and warned me to not veer off the trail, so I won’t slip or step on something requiring medical assistance.
With no other visitors or sounds besides the bird songs and wind whispers, I followed Henry into the rainforest. Large leaves as big as umbrellas hanging from tall trees, dripped water droplets. Within a few moments of being in the forest, Henry spotted an eyelash viper curled up on a tree branch, its greenish brown scales perfectly camouflaged to its surroundings. After scant seconds of admiring this stunning snake, and a few clicks of my camera, I continued my way up the hill.
Ascending the hill, we noticed a string of baby bats on a tree and a Jesus Christ lizard that looked straight out of the Mesozoic Era. I was told it got its name because it has the ability to run on water. A blue morpho butterfly fluttered its bright blue wings; they shone in the low light against the dark green background.
Then, as if reminding me that Costa Rica is full of pleasant surprises, I spotted a long hanging bridge tied to a massive hardwood tree in front of me. It turned out that Rainmaker was the first location in Central America to offer aerial walkways through the tree canopies . I dreamt for years about these mystical suspension bridges symbolic of Costa Rica. Slowly, I made my way across the slightly swaying bridge, holding tightly onto its rope handles. Halfway through, I looked down, amazed by the deep ravine below. The expansive virgin rainforest all around me was perfectly still; raindrops trickled through the branches, and soon I was walking through mist, crossing more aerial walkways, one more thrilling than the last. It was the definition of tranquility.
After a few hours of hiking through the reserve, more serendipity welcomed me in the form of waterfalls. The humbling views of water gushing over boulders, the sweeping surrounding greenery, the low hanging clouds, and the solitude took me back in time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Henry said that Jurassic Park was filmed here.
I feel so fortunate to have been surrounded by such wild beauty, among the wise old trees that rise proudly, and animals that continue to thrive in protected areas. It was, indeed, the tour of a lifetime.
Visit www.natureair.com for domestic flights from San Jose to Manuel Antonio. Land transportation takes approximately four hours from San Jose.
Henry Pizarro: www.costaricanaturaltours-henry.blogspot.com, firstname.lastname@example.org,