A Walk in the Park

At 16 square kilometres, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest national park. And as it’s also one of the country’s popular tourist destinations, one of the busiest, too. But considering that Costa Rica is famous for its protected areas (25% of the country is protected, the largest amount in the world as a percentage of territory), and its biodiversity (5% of the world’s biodiversity in 0.05% of the world’s landmass), the country’s parks’ popularity is understandable. And wandering along the trails, through the jungle and down to the park’s picture-postcard beaches, I can understand why – the forested hills full of animals, the white-sand beaches, and the regular ocean views, all make for a lovely setting.

Not that you’d know you were anywhere near wild nature in the nearby town of Quepos – like much of Costa Rica, the tourist boom is in full force here, and the 8km road from this old banana-exporting town to the small village of Manuel Antonio (just outside the park) is chock-a-block with fancy hotels and resorts, upscale restaurants (including one in an old banana train carriage), sunset-viewing bars (including one in a former arms-running cargo plane from Nicaragua’s Contra War), and a Spearmint Rhino-style ‘gentlemen’s club’ (when I passed the club on the walk back, there were a pair of very bright and very loud scarlet macaws in a nearby tree, and that was the closest that I came to checking out the local birds).

At the park entrance (where, in true Costa Rica style, they take cash and credit cards and have an ATM next door), there’s a swarm of two-legged, green-and-brown primates, hovering around a mass of hapless tourists queuing up to buy tickets – the tour guides, with their camouflage uniforms, shiny ID badges, and humungous telescopes. But they’re friendly, and I’ve already decided to hire one, as they know the forest and its animals better than anyone. And their knowledge (and big telescopes) might allow me to see the two animals that the park is famous for – the squirrel monkey and the sloth.

And even before entering the park, there’s our first critter – a white-faced capuchin monkey, scampering up a tree while holding on to a packet of just-stolen Doritos. I don’t think anyone has ever paid any attention to the numerous signs everywhere telling people not to feed the animals (because, for one thing, it can lead to aggressive behaviour); and as a result, some of the local wildlife has lost its natural shyness and become very forward. At the park gate, the ranger checks everyone’s bags, not for drugs or guns, but for food; and when she checks mine she finds my muffin (which I was saving for the beach). She politely orders me to eat it before going in, and I soon as I open the paper bag and take it out, a coatimundi (a ring-tailed, pointy-nosed, raccoon-like animal) appears from nowhere and runs straight at me to get at the chocolatey treat. It ends up chasing me in a circle around the table, much to the amusement of my fellow tourists, until the ranger (with a big stick and a loud voice) finally shoos the would-be-thief away, where it retreats to a distance, covetously eyeing up my sweet prize (half of which is now on the ground and the other half of which is stuffed in my mouth).

Once in the park, the guide takes us along the trail, past the strangler fig-draped trees, straight to the sloths. He’s probably seen them already on a tour this morning, and I’m sure he knows the trees they live in (and let’s face it, they don’t move); but even so, I’m impressed. While he sets up his tripod and telescopic lens, we scan the trees and see nothing but branches and leaves – clearly, being camouflaged and staying still are good strategies. But at however-many-times-magnification, there’s the first one, in all its hairy, lazy glory. Hanging off a branch, with a Zen-like look of peaceful contentment on its face. And further down the trail, another one, looking from a distance just like the bough of the tree, until zoomed in on. Wolverine claws tucked in, eyes closed, and with a look on its face that’s somewhere between having a pleasant dream and having a relaxing poo. Not for nothing is this track called Sendero El Perezoso (the Spanish word for sloth being simply ‘lazy’).

Sadly, no squirrel monkeys today. Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s few remaining natural habitats of these adorable-looking primates. But with their bright eyes and delicate, white-haired faces, their cuteness is their own worst enemy, and they were once a prime target for poachers, who would catch them and sell them as pets. So the timid simians (timians?) probably melted away into the forest at the first sound of human activity this morning.

At the end of the trail (and the end of the tour) is Playa Manuel Antonio, the park’s nicest beach, and predictably, its most crowded – both with people and with white-faced capuchins, who seem to be running a competition with the local raccoons as to who can steal the most snacks (and sure enough, up in the trees is a monkey chugging on a stolen carton of orange juice, while on the ground another coati is running off with a chocolate bar in its mouth).

Beyond the beach, I carry on walking on a loop around a rocky peninsula that not only gets me away from the rest of the tourists (who are all flopping on the beach), but has lovely views of blue sky, endless ocean, crashing waves, and offshore islands. Plus a continual aerial show of dive-bombing brown pelicans. And one final ‘wild’ animal – an agouti (a rodent like a large guinea pig), standing on the trail staring at me as I walk towards it. At least until I get the camera out, at which point it scarpers off into the undergrowth.

Back at Manuel Antonio village, outside the park, and on the beach, and you know you’re back in well-touristed, high-season Coast Rica. In other Central American countries, roaming vendors walk up and down the playa selling coconut water, or fruit, or beer, or weed; but here, the sellers are a little more upscale, to match the majority of the tourists – it’s the first time I’ve been offered cocktails and sushi from a cooler. And with its clear blue water, gentle surf, soft sand, and a Pacific sunset, it’s a fine end to the day.

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