One of the first things we do when we arrive at a new destination and move into our ‘home’ is to explore our surrounding neighbourhood. As our latest ‘home away from home’ is in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, it made sense to begin exploring our own backyard, the Manuel Antonio National Park. And what an amazing backyard it is.
Nature guide Manuel Cabalceta Mendez picked us up from our home early one morning for the five-minute drive down the hill to the park’s entrance. A local who has been guiding here almost every day for ten years, Manuel probably knows the park better than anyone.
“There are 32 national parks in Costa Rica – that’s 13% of the country! – and this is the second most popular,” Manuel tells us as we start out, his eyes darting here and there, scouring the undergrowth and tree tops for wildlife.
Minutes later Manuel spots us a sloth. Costa Rica’s larger equivalent of Australia’s koala bear – all they seem to do is eat and sleep – Manuel informs us that they only go to the toilet once a week, climbing down to the ground, digging a hole, and squatting, before returning to their tree. It’s comforting considering there has been one living in a tree directly above our first home away from home in Costa Rica!
We head off the main path onto a narrow track into the thick of the jungle, to see what we might find. Manuel is hoping we’ll see a snake that has been hanging around here recently, but first he points out an elegant long-legged bird called a Grey-necked Wood-rail in a swampy pond, an enormous millipede that releases toxic gases (fortunately not when we meet him), a handsome green Anole lizard with an enormous sack beneath its neck, jelly-blubber-like sacks of tree frog larvae dripping from trees (astonishing), and magnificent bright orange cup mushrooms (poisonous of course). And we’ve only been walking for 20 minutes!
Back on the main track we soon spot a mother Agouti and child (rodent-like creatures like capybaras) casually crossing the road, cute tent-making bats hiding under palm leaves, a Blue Morpho butterfly (too fast for us to capture in an image), countless purple and orange tropical land crabs scurrying about the mangrove floor, an adorable red and black Scarlet Tanager, and more slow-moving sloths.
If that weren’t thrilling enough, Manuel spots a handsome Laughing Falcon as it hops across the jungle floor. “He must have been eating a snake!” Manuel exclaims, excitedly positioning the tripod legs of his scope as the beautiful chocolate and white-feathered bird with its black Batman-like eye-mask swoops up to the top of a towering naked tree. There he perches for a while, looking down at us, occasionally laughing (at us?), and posing splendidly for Terence.
Not long after we have torn ourselves away, Manuel is once again excitedly setting up his scope so we can get an even closer look at a tree right beside the track that is full of Fiery-billed Aracari from the Toucan family feeding merrily on berries. We love falcons and were delighted with the Laughing Falcon, but these guys are pretty special for two Australians who were only accustomed to seeing Toucans in zoos or on breakfast cereal packs until now. Their flamboyant colours and massive curved beaks are astonishing.
We stay for some time watching these stunning birds, but as we walk off our jaws dropping not at the birds but at the group of young Americans who wander right by some of the icons of Costa Rica, chatting amongst themselves, totally oblivious to the fabulous creatures in the tree right above them.
As if that weren’t enough, on the remainder of our three-hour walk in the park we spot a long list of beautiful wild creatures: pretty Blue and Gray Tanagers, a lovely Purple-crowned Fairy hummingbird, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Black-hooded Antshrikes, Lesser Long-Nosed Bats, Jesus Lizards sprinting across the water, majestic Iguanas, the cutest Raccoons we’ve ever seen hiding within the roots of a tree while their mother steals them lunch from bathers’ backpacks on the beach, and a tiny common green tree frog so miniscule we’ve no idea how Manuel spots him hiding in a hole in a tree trunk.
Ecstatic at our morning’s spotting, we don’t mind at all when Manuel says, a tad disappointed, that he can’t seem to see any Caimans or Crocodiles as we stroll beside the mangrove swamp. “But it’s been a great morning,” I tell him, honestly. “We’ve seen so much!”
Not satisfied, Manuel leads us down onto the sands of Manuel Antonio Beach. It doesn’t take him long to spy a small Boa Constrictor wrapped around the branches of a tree above us. Manuel is thrilled to bits. Me not so much. While we certainly experienced what we came for, seeing Manuel so excited after ten years of coming here is testament to just how special this park is.
Manuel Cabalceta Mendez
506 8719 6195
Manuel is a licensed guide who offers walks in the park and other nature-based activities. He can be booked by email before you arrive in Costa Rica or by phone once you are there, however, note that he gets busy during high season. If you’re staying at Casa Elsa, Susan, the concierge, can book Manuel for you.