Manuel Antonio – Costa Rica arrival into the jungle
Manuel Antonio and it’s National park was the first stop on our tour of Costa Rica. It was to be our first taste of this Jungle nation.
There is plenty to consider and organise about arrival in countries these days and Costa Rica is no different. Below is our experience and Practicalities for arriving.
The flight with Volaris was anything but smooth. The two hour flight turned into over 3 hours due to the staff messing about to retrieve another customer’s bags, who decided not to board. The crew hadn’t a clue what they were doing. It reminded me of the days flying with Ryanair or easyJet. It didn’t help that the aircraft was a hot tin box with no a/c. We sat 45 minutes before we finally took off. An announcement stated, ‘Once the flight is in the air you can’t get off!’ funny enough that eh!
Immigration and entry practicalities
After the arduous flight we landed at SJO. All our documents were in order so getting through immigration was easy. We had all our ducks lined up correctly and our passage was smooth
Firstly, once you have booked your flight in, one needs to organise insurance that stipulates covid cover for hospitalisation and up to $2000 for accommodation cover. One used to have to buy Costa Rica’s own insurance, 3 options, but that has changed, so any international insurance will do as long as it covers at least $50,000 for hospitalisation and the $2000 for accomodation. We sought our own, due to being several hundred pounds cheaper!
We went with Seven Corners insurance; liaison travel plus plan. Thankfully, they insure people from all over the world. Best of all, the fact that we were already travelling didn’t matter, or what our government’s travel advice was for Costa Rica. They automatically send the required cover letter, needed for the authorities, as well as your insurance documents.
Flight out of Costa Rica
You need to have proof of a flight out of Costa Rica. It was strange though that immigration did not ask to see proof, only the airline. Our flight is a separate onward flight rather than a return to Mexico.
From 48hrs before your flight to Costa Rica, one needs to fill in a Health Pass. This will ask about you, your travel itinerary, where you are initially staying, when you leave, proof of your insurance; with document upload of cover letter and insurance certificate, when you are leaving, and about your health; specifically related to Covid. See our travelling during covid page. Once completed, a QR code will be generated for you to save or screenshot.
First accommodation booked
The health pass and immigration will enquire about where you are staying, at least for your first nights. We had Peace of Paradise booked in Manuel Antonio so all was good.
Getting a SIM and cash out
At all times in Costa Rica, you must carry identification with you i.e. passport / driving license, as police make random checks. This goes for tourists and locals alike. A copy of your passport is fine, you don’t want to go through the hassle of losing that. We automatically have photos of our ID on our phones.
Car pickup – Meeting Jimny
Our little Suzuki Jimny was waiting for us at Wild Rider rentals. Jose had picked us up at the airport and brought us the ten minutes to their rental lot. All went smoothly. Driving license details were taken and payment made. We purposely hired a 4×4 and unusually for us, I took their full insurance. There were a number of reasons. Firstly, hiring a 4×4, and the next reason, excluded my own excess insurance. Secondly, a lot of the roads are treacherous and nothing more than a very bumpy, dry / wet dirt road. Lastly, Car theft /break ins are rift in Costa Rica.
We had read loads of horror stories, online, about people’s stuff stolen out of the car. Jose explained to us that the people are just opportunity thiefs, looking to make an easy buck, so are looking for people making mistakes. Rule of thumb is, do not ever get complacent and leave stuff in the car. Not even a jacket or a food even though they are mainly looking electricals. Take every pick with you inside your hotel room. Park facing shop / restaurant windows so you, or others, can keep an eye on the car.
We choose Wild Rider for several reasons. Namely, its keen price for the product on offer compared to larger name rentals. on top of that, they are a local Costa Rica company so know the roads and contacts well. Also, they specialise in 4×4 vehicles and tailor the vehicles and insurance for that. Last but not least, because of the great reviews online. After searching through many options, and balancing our budget, we made as informed a decision as possible. Another good option, with good and positive response to us, is Vamos Rent-a-Car.
Jose’s map tip
As we didn’t have a cell phone connection yet, Jose linked us into MAPS.ME, an App that would work offline. He advised this was good to use so we set it up when we had WiFi at Wild Riders. It worked well enough for the 3 hour journey. We were meant to get a smart phone with a cheap SIM also, as part of the rental deal, but Jose forgot to give it to us as we concentrated on other parts of the rental.
We called at a mall close to the rental office to pick up some water and use the ATM. That, along with the delayed flight, meant we were only leaving San Jose at 3pm. Jose had said it would take 3 and half hours or more but we managed to make it in good time. Still, we arrived at Manuel Antonio, ahead of schedule, but shortly after it got dark. Pretty simple – Route 27 and then Route 34. All roads on the route were, thankfully, tarmaced. There are 3 tolls on this route – 250 Colones, 820 Colones, and 620 Colones.
Peace of Paradise was a quaint little hotel, surrounded by lush jungle. We were greeted by ‘Kitty’, the white and ginger cat, who likes to think of herself as the security guard. It didn’t take long for her to wangle herself into our room. Our place was simple but clean. It was too dark to appreciate our surroundings and we were knackered. We did have a kitchenette with a single stove ring, a fridge, and a sink. It was definitely enough to whip up some simple meals.
We met our host, Jim, an expat from the States, the next morning after we got back from the park. He’s a keen gardener and showed us, with enthusiasm, his different species of plants, as well as the wildlife, right in his garden. The setting is rustic in the semi jungle and perfect for sitting and appreciating the flora and fauna.
Early bird beats the touts
We got up at the crack of dawn to see this park, researching it carefully. Everything from parking, entrance fees, the type of wildlife we would see, as well as what scams to look out for. The reviews online were a mixed bag, but since it was one of the main attraction parks, we decided to give it a go.
We were only a few Kms from the park entrance and this ended up being very beneficial. Tour touts, dressed like officials; with ID badges for effect, stand in the road, about 500 metres or more from the entrance, and try to block your path so you will choose their parking and guides. It’s very aggressive. At that time in the morning there weren’t many around. They seemed to like a lie in, although we did notice a couple of tourists unwittingly pull over.
DON’T STOP, JUST DRIVE AROUND THEM. Jim, explained that him and other hoteliers have had meetings with the police over the years, to try to get rid of the scammers. They disappear for a little while, but always come back. Jim said,
“Don’t worry if you run any over, we won’t be offended?” 😂
Even though we got up early, we still arrived at 7.30am when we wanted to be there at 7am opening time. We parked at the last parking lot before the entrance, about 30 metres away. Online, from other visitors, the price was noted at 3000 Colones. The attendant tried to charge 5000. We settled at 4000. Leaving the car absolutely empty, and with money in our pockets, we headed to the entrance.
Outside the entrance gate at Manuel Antonio
The shops were already open and in full swing, as were the tour guides looking for trade.
“Where are you from?”, They’d ask, trying to get you into conversation. “If you need a tour guide, please find me. I’m official”, they’d say pointing to their laminated ID badges around their neck. We rushed on to the entrance gate, where more ‘official tour guides’ stood, asking the same questions.
Inside the entrance gate at Manuel Antonio
An abrupt official, speaking aggressively, pointed at everyone to line up like good citizens. One by one he checked people’s bags. Food is forbidden in the park, as you must not feed the animals, which is understandable. We had no bags, but the ignorant man insisted we still stood in line. Our turn came.
“Where do we pay?”, we asked.
“Credit card machine over there?” he barked.
We explained we only had cash. We had researched this beforehand, and many websites stated cash was fine but the jumped up, prickly man wasn’t for budging. Card payment was the only accepted method as they had shut the kiosk to cash payments. Our card had been left, locked up, in the guest house. We had no choice but to race back to the room to get our card. Luckily the car park attendant didn’t try to charge us again for parking. It was all very frustrating.
The time was just before 8am when we finally got in and paid our 11100 Colones (£12.85, $18) each entrance fee. Like Mexico the majority of things are quoted in US dollars. The machine where tickets are bought confirmed this. The price is quoted in $$ but then charged in Colones? Just quote in the local currency and tourists will get used to it. Tickets, including parking, worked out approximately £30 ($42). Expensive. Costa Ricans get it cheaper. Already we were feeling ripped off. At the same time, a steady stream of visitors were arriving. We had a quick check of the map board and decided on our route.
Guide or no guide
Around the entrance, plenty of tour guides are vying for your business for $40 up. We decided to go self guided. It is a risk as some animals are difficult to see and there is an element of luck involved for the self guider. There is also the quality of photographic equipment that you have. Guides will have handy telescopes on tripods that enable one to get close up views for those animals high in the trees. You can also then put one’s camera phone against the viewfinder and get a good close up photo. Guides can have good tips and information but will not always be able to get you all the animal sightings that you want as there is still an element of luck for them also. It all boils down to personal preference.
It’s a jungle out there
The jungle itself stretches up from the coast and 2 beaches that are in the park grounds. Some paths are narrow boardwalks; constructed to bring you deeper in, others were a wide gravelly road; a main artery that leads up to the cafe and gift shop, from there one can follow right and the path to the beach or veer left and into a quieter jungle walk.
The Manuel Antonio animal hunt
We initially followed the main gravel road. Most follow this from the entrance. We quickly came upon groups with guides. It all felt a bit busy and not conducive to a quiet environment to spot animals.
Jesus Christ lizard
The guides and groups did have their uses for a self guided tour, though. At a small stream crossing, where one such group was moving on from, I (Knox) spotted a little Jesus Christ lizard, named due to its ability to “walk on water”, skitting across the water and onto a rock. This allowed me to get a quick snap as Miko dandered up the path.
Not slow in seeing a sloth.
Fifty metres up the road, a crowd had gathered and the guides all had their telescopes pointing in the same direction. Walking passed, I (Miko) heard someone call my name. It just happened to be one of the guys, Fabian, we were talking to outside the park, who mentioned he was a tour guide. We had chatted a little with him and he seemed like a good guy.
Fabian had his telescope set up, talking enthusiastically with an American guy, who was his customer. Once he saw me, he insisted I look. And there it was, sitting high in the tree, a beautiful sleeping sloth! When Knox caught up, Fabian even took a picture for us through the telescope, as our phone cameras struggled to get a good picture high up in the tree.
A calm furry face greeted us through the viewfinder. Very intelligent and beautiful looking, sloths are easy to photo as they barely move.
Red legged crabs
It was useful to see the sloth with the guide’s help. Yet, the group’s seemed so close together and stifling. We ducked to the right and onto the boardwalk that led towards Manuel Antonio beach. It was much quieter here. Rustling around us slowed our step to a crawl as we searched for the source. More correctly, we soon realised that there were many sources.
When our eyes turned, a shy stillness, with a coy movement sideways, was evident as big, red, crustacean legs of the red land crabs edged towards an assumed safety. We always find crabs funny as they run away to dive into their hiding places, whether that be a shell on their back or a hole in the sand/ground. With humans around, their fear is understandable.
Agouti – the half pig rat.
Further along the trail there was a different kind of rustling in the undergrowth. Definitely singular, our eyes darted in the direction of the source. The fruit foraging rodent was scampering about the bush. Half hidden, it came a bit closer but knew it was being watched. Inevitably, the little guy took his sharp nose further away into the jungle.
Flying insects, tree top songs, and distant howling
All around, there were numerous species of colourful butterflies, clear winged dragonflies, and other flying insects. There is always a certain buzz about the jungle. Higher up in the treetops, but difficult to spot, there were a variety of birds creating their personalised concert piece. Further in the distance, the bark-like call of howler monkeys could be heard for miles. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see them.
Iguanas – flower power
Often iguanas won’t come that close before scampering away. On the path to the beach, a red nosed guy, due to the earth it had just slid down, sauntered across the road. We thought it was just being photogenic until it made a dive for a big fallen flower. Oh, it loved that. We helped add to his feast by offering flowers on the ground close to us. This iguana lapped it up and came real close. Great photos.
Lovely beaches and Punta Catedral
The twin beaches of Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur back onto each other, separated by a narrow strip of trees that make up a thin spine connecting the mainland with the lookout Peninsula of Punta Catedral. The beaches are tree backed, with golden sand, and serene.
We followed the trail up to the viewing points for some nice views but there were no further animal sightings. It was all a bit disappointing as we anticipated that the park would be abundant with monkeys and colourful, exotic birds. We walked along the beach and headed for the exit trail. At £30, It all felt a bit overpriced, especially when we have been to so many beautiful beaches and forests for free all over the world!
Agadoo shaking the trees
The walk through the mangroves towards the exit was somber. We were irked to say the least. Our eyes still kept an eye out as we discussed our impressions of the morning but without much expectation. Suddenly, some rustling caught our attention in the trees. And there they were, a troop of cheeky white faced (Capuchin) monkeys, swinging about in the branches. One wee boy was the bravest and a complete showman, as he jumped down from the tree and walked along the railings, so close to us and a few other tourists. Some girl put her sunglasses in her pocket for safe keeping. Monkeys are notorious for stealing stuff lol.
It was cool to spend a short time with the wee guy and his friends. Photos, videos, even selfies were had as we indulged in our super luck. Other self guided visitors stumbled upon our joy and we were all buzzing from the experience. It definitely made our trip to Manuel Antonio National park
Back at Peace of Paradise
Our accommodation at Jim’s was actually at least the equal of Manuel Antonio National Park and we saw a variety of wildlife in Jim’s garden including those exotic birds. Bright macaws flew between trees and stayed close to their nest in a dead palm tree. Jim explained how they had gouged out the centre, going down, using their strong beaks, and then they pecked entrance holes half way down. Super job to create a safe home. Agoutis rustled in the undergrowth, shying away when spotted. Capuchin monkeys watched us carefully as we ate biscuits and teased them with a banana. During the night you would hear them on the tin roof, jumping from there to the treetops. Howler monkeys were never far away either, but we didn’t see them but their howling call is distinctive and regularly heard.
Manuel Antonio town
The town isn’t bustling, but does have everything you need, Joseph’s supermarket, bakery, cafes, restaurant/ bars etc. However, expect extortionate prices, especially at Joseph’s. For a few basic items we spent around £26 and that was without alcohol!
We did find bigger supermarkets, the next day, in Quepos, called Maxi Pali and BM, which was generally about 10-20% cheaper in price.
The kindness of strangers
Leaving Quepos one evening it was already dark and lashing out of the heavens at 5.30pm, as we tried to navigate through traffic. A tad lost, we pulled over to ask a guy in the street for directions. He stood there soaking carrying a box of cakes.
He told us, he was going the way we were, and could direct us on the way.
We don’t normally offer rides to strangers. I’ve (Miko) watched too many horror movies, so my imagination can run away with it! However, our instincts told us, the guy wasn’t an axe murderer, so in he hopped at the back, glad to get out of the rain. We happened to see him 10 minutes before we asked for directions. We had stopped and let him cross the busy road. The thunder roared as we drove off.
Just to confirm he actually wasn’t an axe murderer, he told us the box of cakes were for his girlfriend. Lol. His name was Claudio from Uruguay but Italian descent. He was travelling around Costa Rica just like us, to get away from it all. We dropped him off at his stop, as he waved, saying Pura Vida to us (meaning simple life / pure life) and disappeared into the night.
There’s a great bar there called Vista Verde. They also do food at reasonable prices. Music was chilled and the staff were very welcoming and friendly. Through the restaurant/bar is the terrace. The view from the top is lush, green, and spectacular. A great place to enjoy a cold beer.
Just a few kilometres from Manuel Antonio is the small cove of Biesanz Beach. A lesser know place, backed by jungle, that has a chilled vibe. Get surf lessons on the Pacific or just relax. Again, the sand was a bit dull but that may have been in part down to the grey sky. As is often in Costa Rica, a guy was waiting on the street parking to “look after your car for a small fee”.
Blooming wonderful yellow snowfall
On a side trip, for FREE, from Manuel Antonio , approx an hour and a half away, we stumbled upon a glorious couple of Cortez Amarillo trees, on opposite sides of the road, Just outside Jaco. It’s yellow blooms, gathered thickly in their branches, fell like snow drops. It had caught a lot of people’s eye, as cars pulled over to the side on the busy road. We love finding hidden gems like this! Isn’t nature just devine! All around lay a blanket of yellow as all the stoppers clicked, posed, threw handfuls in the air, and generally showed amazement at this simple wonder. That was until the thunder and lightning introduced a deluge.
Jaco is a small seaside town about 70km north or Manuel Antonio. The day was dull and it gave the beach a grey complexion. The beach and town felt a tad unsavoury. A few drunken, loud mouth yobs were on the beach and gave it an edge. On the street leading from the beach to the town, a group of skimpy clad, and tasseled up, females descended from a coach. Think they were geared up for a show! I guess, with the overcast sky, it wasn’t a beach day.
Crocodiles – Why so snappy?
Another 20 kms further up the road affords the budget minded tourist a fantastic show. Along the main highway, located on the river Tarcoles, and its muddy banks, the bridge offers tourists a great opportunity to check out the snappy crocodiles.
Basking in the sun; sometimes jaws wide open, or swimming ominously in the water, There are many crocs to view from the bridge’s safe distance. It feels like they are just lounging ready to pounce! In case you need the warning, NEVER swim in Costa Rica’s rivers!
Keep an eye out for our other adventures as we continue to road trip around Costa Rica
You may also be interested in our island hideaway in Naxos