In the 1980s, I had the fortune, foresight, or dumb luck to be one of the first people on the ski mountain with a snowboard. ‘What IS that thing, a surf ski? A mono ski?’ People had never seen anything like it before, but were fascinated. Twenty years later, snowboarding had literally taken the winter sports world by storm, and became nearly as commonplace as skiing.
The new rave is paddle boarding. For those of you who have never seen one before–it is like an oversized longboard, or a wind-surfing board without a sail. Built for stability rather than quick maneuverability, paddle boards have become one of those new adventure sports that appeal to nearly every generation.
Now there is paddle boarding in Manuel Antonio: A new company called Paddle 9 offers paddle boarding tours out of Quepos. Travelers can try out this new sport during their vacations to Costa Rica, in a secure and controlled environment. Paddle 9 offers both ocean tours for beginners to advanced paddle boarders, and also mangrove tours for intermediate to advanced levels. The price is $70 for approximately 2.5 hours, and includes transportation, boards, water, snacks and a professional guide.
There are few sports which offer such a serene and tranquil proximity to nature. Standing on a floating board out at sea, watching the lush coastline, and observing the pelicans fly in V-formations over the water is about as sublime as you can get. For travelers who are here staying at a hotel or vacation rental home in Manuel Antonio, it is a great opportunity to try something new, get some exercise, become closer to nature, and–who knows, maybe even end up on the brochure!
The great thing about birds is that they don’t stay put. They tend to pretty much go wherever they want. Sure, they may tend towards different climates, ecosystems, altitude and latitude–but they also travel more than any of us, and are a heck of a lot more mobile.
Which is why you can pretty much go birding anywhere you are in Costa Rica. As long as there’s some greenery, there are birds to adorn it–singsongy ones, and squawky ones, and odd-sounding ones, in all shapes, and colors and sizes. There is nowhere completely silent in Costa Rica; the ubiquitous birds are always interjecting.
Manuel Antonio is a paradisiacal melting pot for our feathered friends, the Raptors. It has a unique setting at the plexus of several different ecosystems–the montane rainforests of the mountains, the endless palms of the flood plain, a massive coastal mangrove system, and a vibrant ocean ecology. It is a lone set of forest-covered hills, jutting up from the flood plain, some of which form rock islands off the coast. Two significant rivers empty into the sea to the north and south–the Rio Paquita and Rio Naranjo.
Eat it up, Rio.
Strangely, until recently there were no toucans in Manuel Antonio. Sure they don’t stay put–but it was rare to see a pair of entangled toucans passing through. Then a couple of years ago–Bam! Sam AND his family moved in, including distant relatives, and even a few friends. Suddenly, Manuel Antonio started to ring in the afternoons with the distinct song of toucans, and they became as common as the monkeys. (Well–let’s not exaggerate…) Still–I have seen up to 12 chestnut-mandibled toucans (Froot Loops kind) in the same tree one afternoon!
So now that we’re at our new rental home in Manuel Antonio–Casa Luna, I thought I would really go out on a limb: Every morning for three mornings, I went all the way out to my back patio and staked out (with coffee) to shoot some exotic birds. My weapon: a Rebel, with a 200mm lens (not exactly a photographer’s dream, but hey…). The house backs up to rainforest, and there is a small creek that snakes through the edge. To one side is an exotic tropical wetland (ie bog).
It’s really amazing what you see if you stop and smell the birds once in a while–so to speak. A camera makes you a photographer, and the act of photography gives you a heightened sense of sight. It’s like putting on magic glasses, where suddenly everything takes on more color and vibrance, and you become aware of the myriad of details. Having a camera in hand not only lends you a creative license, but also stimulates the creative side of the mind.
Of course, photographing birds is a bit like… well, shooting birds. It’s hard to get a good shot. They’re either busy in flight… or those darn trees keep getting in the way. Most don’t seem to want to have their picture taken–regardless of the potential fame. But I did manage to get shots of a few of the key players.
Mornings are when the grey-necked woodrails turn on their jungle chicken alarms. For such a skittish bird, it seems to want to be heard. The shadowy mot-mots always seem to melt away with the light. Grey & blue and black & red tanagers stand out like !s. Woodpeckers peck to the beat of a different drummer. Kiskadees dip their yellow breasts in the pool. Flocks of parrots pass by noisily overhead. There are even a couple of special visitors–the scissor-tailed Tyrant, and fiery-billed aracari.
By the time I go back for my second cup of coffee I feel like I’ve already been on a safari–and its not even 7:00am.
One of the few perks of property management and vacation rentals is the interconnectivity one makes in the industry. Our industry is luxury rental homes, ocean-view condos, adventure tours, spa treatments, and fine dining. How can we possibly sell these services without getting to know them? It’s a tough job, but it’s our duty to get to know the best restaurants in Manuel Antonio, to experience the canopy tours we recommend to clients, to sit on the verandah of a luxury, ocean-view villa and look at the view as through the eyes of our guests–and occasionally accept one of the free massages we’re offered.
In this case, I actually got a fantastic massage–and was paid $80 for it. The massage therapist was Cinthia Rodriguez–Manuel Antonio’s best tica masseuse. The $80 was for some pending commissions she owed me. Yes–everyone in the industry gets paid a small commission for booking tours and services; it’s part of what we do.
In truth, we take advantage of our opportunities far less than we should. A free massage in exchange for dozens of referred clients is good business (thanks, Cinthia!). A free dinner in exchange for years of referring our clients to a local restaurant is welcome (thanks, Kapi Kapi!). Yet–more than ‘good business’, it is a demonstration of mutual appreciation and support. We refer our clients to specific massage therapists, tour operators and restaurants because we know them to be the best in the industry–and the most likely to make our clients happy. You can offer any sort of perk or commission you want–but if you don’t offer good service, don’t waste your time. Our industry is tourism in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica–but our product is happy clientele.
So what shall we try next week? Costa Rica’s longest Superman cable? A free yoga class? Some locally-made tamales?
It’s nearly Christmas–so maybe the tamales.
There are few restaurants in Manuel Antonio with ocean views and genuine, local food. Ronny’s Place is the best of them. Located far from any hotels or resorts, it requires a short drive up a bumpy dirt road to a perfect ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Aside from a couple of nearby luxury vacation rental homes, the entire valley below is undeveloped pastureland, giving way to a grove of tropical trees and palms, and down to a deserted beach. A large hill of virgin rainforest creates a sharp contrast to the sedated ocean beyond. As the colors of a Pacific sunset begin to light up the sky, the panoramic views are divine, exotic, and yet quintessentially Costa Rica.
A row of cement tables provide VIP seating for the show. A waiter (Ronny’s nephew) lazily serves his customers across the dusty road from the main restaurant. The chicharras hum in the background, and there is an occasional, distant roar of howler monkeys. Buzzards glide in slow circles over the hilltop, and dragonflies buzz the surrounding fields.
What better scene to enjoy cold Imperiales and chips with guac? Sure, the prices aren’t exactly local prices–but the location and views more than compensate. And if you hit Ronny’s on the right afternoon, it feels as if you have Manuel Antonio all to yourself…
Whether you’re a local–or it’s your first time in Manuel Antonio–Ronny’s Place is sure to be one of those unforgettable memories!
My buddy John just turned 40. Turning 40 is definitely a milestone in one’s life. While the Costa Ricans don’t seem to fret too much about age, for Americans living abroad it’s a birthday destined to be celebrated in a significant way.
But how does one celebrate a 40th in Costa Rica? What exotic, adventurous commemoration does an ex-Outward Bound guy and professional photographer have in store to celebrate his 40 years on Earth?
The answer: Friends, beer and corn-hole.
When you live in the rainforest, sometimes simple things can be exotic pleasures. The location set a perfect stage: An old, revived drug-lord’s estate, set upon a majestic mountain just south of Dominical. A half amphitheater of solid vegetation spilled down to the rocky shore of the Pacific ocean, and beyond–deep blue. Past the mountain’s shoulder stretched the famous Whale’s Tail–the beginning of Marino Ballena national park, extending south to encompass Isla Ballena, the Three Sisters, and numerous beaches. Isla Cano hovered like a dark mirage on the Pacific horizon. And in the far distance were the shadowy mountains of the Osa peninsula, impersonating dark clouds.
The game was corn-hole. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing corn-hole–it is a remarkably complex and skillful game, revolving around tossing corn-filled ‘bean-bags’ at a wooden target with a hole in it. Endless fun.
Unlike the typical 30th, this 40th was a family celebration. The kids splashed around in a pool fed by a mountain spring. A knot of women lounged on a grassy knoll overlooking the ocean views while others prepared a feast inside the villa. The men… well, the men played corn-hole, drank beer and ate ribs. Not much was unique about the activities, but the setting was glorious and the vibe copasetic. The howler monkeys howled, hidden in the billowy canopy of the rainforest. The toucans sang their banner song, and flew by in twos. Distant squalls looked like still life upon the blue backdrop.
Sunday morning John and I went for a walk through the labyrinthian estate, down palm-lined, paved roads to overgrown plantels and abandoned structures. The old ‘restaurant’ was nothing more than a decrepit floor and roof straddling a crisp stream. We competed to see who could find the most poison-dart frogs. I found three. John found seven.
It’s great that such places exist just a short hour from Manuel Antonio. If a 40th birthday is an opportunity to stop and assess your life–finding yourself in such and exotic AND familiar setting, surrounded by good friends and good food–is a good place to be.
Feliz Cuarenta, John!
Which reminds me a of a little joke–appropriate that it should be in Spanish:
- Pregunta: Que le dijo el cuatro al cuarenta?
- Respuesta: ‘Si quieres ser como yo, tienes que ser sincero.’
There’s a double-meaning to the title of this blog: Not only is the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica cooler (in terms of temperature) than the North Pacific, but it’s also a much more beautiful and interesting. Let’s face it–we’ve got lots that Guanacaste does not–rivers, waterfall, rainforest, mountains, and a plethora of wildlife. Most travelers who visit both areas agree–while every corner of Costa Rica is gorgeous–the area around Manuel Antonio takes the proverbial queque.
It got me to thinking: What is it that really differentiates the north from the central?
The answer: The Talamanca mountain range. Stretching from San Jose to Panama, the Talamanca mountains reach well over 10,000 feet in elevation–from sea level to 12,600 feet, in the case of Mount Chirripo. The mountains create a massive wall to the elements, and offshore winds push ocean-warmed, moisture-permeated air high into the sky, where it cools, becomes rain, and creates the rainforest.
Where there is rain, there is life. At 9 degrees north of the equator, the conditions are perfect: volcanic soils, lots of rain, and lots of direct sunshine. The earth literally thrives with life, from colorful algae to flamboyant scarlet macaws. The streams and rivers that enmesh the mountains are the veins and arteries of the land, the givers of life. They give form to the landscape over thousands of years–carving mountains, cutting valleys, creating caves, and cliffs, and waterfalls. High in the cloud forest, the rain drips perpetually from the leaves, seeps into the soil, creates rills and cascades of pure liquid crystal. The rills become fern-crested creeks, the creeks become frothing streams, the streams become turgid rivers, and the rivers find their way inevitably back to the coast, to the origin–to the ocean.
The entire cycle of life is present–both in water and in air. Plants and trees take the carbon dioxide from the air and create oxygen. Transpiration creates coolness, providing a more comfortable habitat for life. The mountains and the rainforest literally turn down the temperature a notch.
And all of this, of course, create the features that we love so much–the dramatic mountains and valleys, the cataracts and cascades, ancient forests and verdant plains. It gives us rafting, waterfall rappelling, canyoneering and several different ecosystems. It provides us countless more options for exploration and discovery, and even a dichotomy of destination.
Nearly every Sunday, if we’re not set to spend the day at Playa Espadilla, my family and I set out on an extemporaneous adventure. We pack the car with the basics–a cooler full of drinks and food, towels, bathing suits, sunscreen, and music. We start driving towards Quepos–no destination yet set. The first decision is almost always the same: beach, or river? Salt water, or fresh? Do we explore one of the pristine beaches to the south of Manuel Antonio? Or do we hit a river–or waterfall–for a picnic and some swimming?
More often than not, we opt for the fresh water.
Last Sunday it was Quebrada Arroyo–a 120-foot chasm carved into the rainforest, festooned by numerous waterfalls, and a 400-foot Indiana Jones bridge leading to the other side. It’s just a short, beautiful, 1-hour drive from Manuel Antonio, and an ideal day trip. You can cross the bridge and swim in the waterfall-fed pools other the other side, or you can hike down into the chasm and swim in the Vale of Waterfalls. Awaiting you at the end is a delicious, typical meal and some Costa Rican coffee, served in a wooden restaurante overlooking the whole panorama.
There’s a lot to be said for mountains. But maybe that’s just the Coloradoan in me speaking.
It was another beautiful Sunday in Manuel Antonio. I had brought the family down to the main part of Playa Espadilla for a change, and we were enjoying the comforts of Mary’s rental chairs and beverage service. The waves were small that day–perfect for Amaya and her friend, Hallie, to practice with their new body boards. They were just playing around in the whitewater–but hey, for a couple of 4-year-olds their bravery was impressive.
“Did you see how brave Amaya was?” I asked Estela. “Both of them–but Hallie’s just, like, out there. Amaya’s really brave to go out there and challenge her fears…”
It was shortly thereafter when they announced that they were going parasailing–for the first time.
trying to coax her down the 3-foot plastic slide we have at home–and now: canopy tours, body boarding and parasailing? Plus, Miguel was there, and would take care of them. I had no doubts, to be honest. The parasailing company was Aguas Azules, and I knew they had a 100% safe and professional operation. They are one of the best tour operators in Manuel Antonio.
I was the typical, proud, excited father–taking pictures, and boasting to strangers on the beach. They looked so peaceful, floating above the beach and islands. They had a smooth landing at sea, and were quickly whisked back to shore on the back of a Wave Runner. All three of them were beaming.Estela would also go along–three in row, with Estela in the middle and the girls on the outsides. It’ amazing that up to three people at a time can go parasailing these days!
“How was it?” asked Nicole–Hallie’s mom–when they finally came skipping back.
“Great!” exclaimed Hallie.
“Great!” chimed in Amaya.
“What’s for lunch?”
Ode to Manuel Antonio
Her tresses the rivers, flowing their course.
Her skin the beaches, bare and free,
Her lips the spirit of the living forest.
By the blue of night, or the light of day,
From Playa Espadilla to Playa El Rey,
From the hazy skies to the canopy,
To the hidden world beneath the sea.
She is mysterious, a figure of many faces,
Dressed in the jewels of her many hidden places:
The Naturalist, the Dancer, the Adventurer, the Lover,
A enchanted world for travelers to discover…
Every town has a character. Every town has a personality–even if its eclectic. It’s important to know the character of your family destination in Costa Rica. And surprisingly, Costa Rica is one of the most eclectic in Latin America.
Even so– everywhere in Costa Rica is beautiful, in my experience. From Costa Rica’s national parks to the most labyrinthine barrios of the central valley, from the Caribbean beaches in Cahuita to the Pacific beaches in Manuel Antonio, from the lowland tropical dry forests of Guanacaste to the dripping cloud forests of the Talamanca mountains. It just depends on what you’d like to do with the limited time you have in this beautiful country.
Let’s face it–some people come here to party and go crazy. There are destinations along the coast which cater to this group–aka Jaco. (oops) But the majority of visitors to the country are families, couples and friends who have come to explore Costa Rica’s thriving natural beauty, experience it through a variety of mediums, and partake of its warm, inviting culture. Parents seek to give their children a unique cultural experience, and connect them with nature in the process–but in lieu of having beautiful beaches.
As a father of two, beautiful, little girls–I’m always looking for a place that is not only safe, but also fun and enriching. I wouldn’t live here if I didn’t think Manuel Antonio was the perfect place to raise them. And I wouldn’t recommend it as a family destination if I didn’t feel this way. But even in the short-term, Manuel Antonio has a lot to offer for families.
- Manuel Antonio National Park: National parks inherently draw more open, down-to-earth people. Even better when it has the best beaches in Manuel Antonio!
- Monkeys: Let’s face it–monkeys are cool. They’re everywhere in Manuel Antonio!
- Rainforest: The lungs of the Earth, the living rainforest is so rife with life there is a perpetual buzz. To experience it is to understand its importance. Costa Rica is a nature lover’s paradise!
- Boutique Destination: Manuel Antonio is spread out over 5 miles of forested hills, sparsely developed, and dotted with fantastic restaurants with Pacific Ocean views, boutique hotels and vacation rental homes. It makes for great exploration!
Ocean & Adventure Tours: What you ant, baby I got it: canopy tours, catamaran tours,national park tours, waterfall tours, ATV tours, mangrove tours, canyoneering, scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, parasailing, jet skiing, sailing, deep sea fishing, hiking, beach combing, horseback riding, and of course, skiing. Manuel Antonio is an active destination–with something for everyone.
Fun Family Venues: There are great family venues in Manuel Antonio, from good food, dancing & live music at the Barba Roja, to the Si Como No butterfly and crocodile farm, to breakfast at the Mariposa–one of the ‘1000 places to visit before you die’. The kids will never get bored!
Safe: By all standards, Manuel Antonio is a safe destination both within Costa Rica as well as the Americas.
Tire Them Out: The best part is that your kids will wear themselves out during the day from all of the activity and go to bed early so that you can slip out to Salsipuedes for drinks and tapas.
So bring the family! Bring the kids! When you return, you’ll rave about Costa Rica’s pristine beaches and natural beauty, and your kids will be telling stories at school of their canopy tour, or their first time surfing, or the monkey that stole their banana. Manuel Antonio is a garden for blossoming memories!
Anyone who was in Quepos before 2008 would agree that the town was the dirty armpit of Manuel Antonio–we all have them and need them, but certainly don’t flaunt them. Go to Quepos to do your shopping and banking, and then get the hell out–especially after dark, when the vampires come out.
But in the past few years there have been a number of changes that promise to alter this image forever: the replacement of two ‘Oh, My God!’ bridges that were bottlenecks to incoming traffic; a new highway from San Jose, cutting the driving time down by an hour; several new parks, including a pedestrian waterfront walkway; and also the unveiling of the new Marina Pez Vela.
Promising to be one of Central America’s largest full-service marinas, Pez Vela is slowly becoming a deep-sea fisherman’s dream. In 2011 it was bought out by PIMSA (Portafolio Inmobiliario)–a well-funded investment group which owns Banco Promerica and has done several high-end developments in the central valley, including parts of Avenida Escazu. After securing the 2013 Offshore World Championship in early 2013, the Pez Vela marina once again began to change its face. In a matter of weeks, the boardwalk and commercial areas of the marina sprouted up from the ground, preparing to accomodate the upcoming event.
To put it in perspective–to even be invited to the Offshore World Champrionship, competitors have to win one of the 120 qualifying tournaments around the world. The event took place in mid-May, and set new records for catch-and-release: 811 sailfish, 9 blue marlin, and one striped marlin! In celebration, a gala was held at the marina’s new commercial center, including awards, live music– even fireworks! With results like this, Pez Vela has attracted the attention of the deep sea fishing world.
Marinas are attractive places for fishermen (and fisherladies!), and landlubbers, alike: Walking down the boardwalk, checking out all of the boats and their creative names–like the ‘Spanish Fly’, the ‘Mad Marlin’, and the ‘Reel Deal’. It’s fun to have lunch in a breezy, open-air restaurant overlooking the ocean, and listen to live music at night. Oceans are heavenly bodies of water, and marinas are their gateways.
After the event, I found myself watching the sunset over the marina from what will soon be the new ‘Milagro’ restaurant & coffee shop, and realized that Quepos will never again be the same. For the better. Once the armpit of Manuel Antonio, it will now become its vizor-shaded, suntanned smile. I saw a vision of myself a few years from now: Sitting in the very same spot, watching the boats come in at sunset, the tourists milling around in the shops below, drinking a hot cup of Cafe Milagro and reminiscing about the ‘old’ Quepos. If they only knew.