We left Monteverde early on Monday, 15th February. We were heading for Manuel Antonio, which involved changing buses at Puntarenas. From Monteverde to Puntarenas is only about 45 miles, but the journey takes three hours, which tells you much about the state of the road. Hairpin bends on a narrow dirt road clinging to the side of the mountain … it took us about two hours to do the first 15 miles. After that, we were on a ‘proper’ road, so our speed increased dramatically.
This was our second (very brief) visit to Puntarenas, because we had taken the ferry from there to the Nicoya Peninsula, four weeks earlier! Since then, we had completed a massive loop around Costa Rica and Nicaragua. But our trip was not quite finished. The bus from Puntarenas to Manuel Antonio also took three hours, but we travelled much further, along a decent road.
When we reached our new accommodation, we were pleased to discover that we had a whole apartment, with a large balcony. And the weather was hot and dry! The contrast between Monteverde and the coast was hard to believe. We were back to shorts and sandals, with temperatures around the mid 30s.
The main reason for our stay was to visit the Manuel Antonio National Park, the most visited in Costa Rica. (According to the guidebook, it’s the second most popular attraction in the country – we’re not sure what the first is.) Before doing so, we spent some time exploring the area, and had a relaxing day on the beach. The Playa Espadilla is a beautiful forest-lined beach, big enough so as not to be crowded, even when there are lots of people around. We rented loungers and a sun umbrella, and were entertained by people doing parasailing, as well as the passing parade of vendors selling cold drinks, ice creams, coconut water, sunglasses, jewellery etc etc.
On Wednesday we were up early to visit the national park. Bizarrely, the entry reminded us in some ways of Disneyworld. You have to arrive early, not just to make the most of your entry fee, but also because the gates are closed when the park reaches capacity. You buy your tickets at one place, and then your bags are searched before you are allowed in. A new rule at Manuel Antonio means that food is not permitted (except for some specific categories, we later learned). So our snacks were binned, and we had to go hungry all day.
Still, it was worth it. We completed all the trails in the park, took photos from the viewpoints and spent time on the beaches. We particularly enjoyed Playa Manuel Antonio: it is sheltered, the waves are not so strong, and we were able to float (if not swim) for the first time in Costa Rica! And we saw more wildlife than in any other place we’ve visited: lots of monkeys, several racoons, a couple of sloths, agoutis and even some poison dart frogs.
We had one more full day in Manuel Antonio, and went to another beach, the Playa Biezans. This was a small, sheltered bay, and the guidebook was right to say that it is the best beach for swimming. No rough waves here, and the water was delightfully warm. It contrasted both with Playa Espadilla, where there was lots of commercial activity, and the beaches in the national park, where there was none. Here there were no souvenir sellers, but vendors making and selling drinks of various kinds: shaved ice, coconuts and even mojitos. We were amused to see a young man busy with his cocktail shaker, while his pretty assistant patrolled the beach taking orders and delivering drinks.
From Manuel Antonio we travelled north up the coast some 45 miles to Jacó. The guidebooks paint a rather gloomy picture of the town, and our only reason for staying there is that it provides a convenient base for visiting the Carara National Park. Still, we thought, the town could not be all bad. It is indeed full of tacky souvenir shops, but then so is Great Yarmouth (Sandie’s home town). However, the town is smaller than we expected, and the beach was disappointing: rather dirty coloured sand, and surprisingly little life. Given that Jacó’s raison d’être is reported to be surfing, we were expecting to see lots more people, and traders offering to rent boards or give lessons. The contrast with the beaches in the Manuel Antonio area was very marked. Still, we saw a good sunset, and there seemed to be more people on the beach at that time.
We went by bus to Carara National Park. This is a ‘temperate forest’ (also known as the Goldilocks zone!) because it is between the dry forests of the northwest and the humid southwest. We did a couple of hikes there and saw several animals: monkeys, agoutis and lots of iguanas. We also heard (but didn’t necessarily see) lots of birds. The second hike took us past a lagoon, but there was not much water left there. We enjoyed our visit, but after Manuel Antonio, it was rather an anti-climax.
Our Central America tour was all but over. Next day we took the bus to San José, and stayed overnight at the Hemingway Inn, the same hotel we’d stayed in at the beginning of our trip. We arrived in the capital exactly five weeks after leaving en route to Montezuma. The next day we flew back to Fort Lauderdale – home to Florida!