Manuel Antonio

From the southeastern corner of Quepos, a road winds up, over and round the peninsula of Punta Quepos, passing the hotels, restaurants, bars and stores that have flourished along the length of this rocky outcrop. Travelling the road for the first time, you can't fail to be impressed by the beauty of the views. But if you happen to travel at night, you can't help being blinded by the neon and bright lights that speckle the hillside - evidence of the vibrant tourist trade. At times it is difficult to believe a national park flourishes on the other side of the watershed.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the threat to the region's natural wealth began in earnest. Long after the indigenous peoples had been sold off as labourers or wiped out by illness, the land was cleared for agriculture. While much of the region was used for banana plantations, the spectacular vistas of the peninsula were views acquired by foreigners. With the locals denied access, state authorities became aware of rumoured plans to clear the region for agriculture. In haste, the area was declared a national park in 1972.

Since then tourism development has been broadly limited to either side of the access road to the north and west of the national park. While there is no denying the fact that a flourishing tourist industry and a national park can make uncomfortable neighbours, the extent of the damage depends on your perspective. For the time being at least development is confined - and the future looks very different depending on who you talk to.

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Universally acclaimed as one of the most scenic landscapes of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio National Park is a gem of tropical wilderness. Whether you are a lover of pristine sandybeaches and crystal-clear waters, or of wandering through tropical forests that are teeming with wildlife, you will find something in this park for you.

The park only protects 1625 ha (with a further 55,000 ha of marine preserve) but it nevertheless packs quite a punch. High annual rainfall (close to 4 m) makes this an area of humid forest with sections of untouched primary forest and secondary forest slowly under- going regeneration. The diversity is complemented by stands of red, white and buttonwood mangrove. Offshore, a dozen coastal islands provide refuge and nesting sites for seabirds.

Rocky outcrops feature strongly in the headland.
Punta Catedral
, once an island, is now connected to the mainland by a sandy link or tombolo, slowly deposited over time by opposing currents sweeping along the coastline. A
trail
climbs steeply around the point, with viewing stops conveniently placed so you can catch your breath. The former island is home to primary and secondary forest and a quiet early morning walk will find you face to face with surprisingly timid wildlife including pacas, agoutis and iguanas. As always, however, with a guide you'll see a lot more. A couple of longer trails head east along the coastline passing the tree-fringed beaches of Manuel Antonio, heading out to
Playa Escondido
and beyond to
Punta Serrucho
and
Playa Playitas
. The trails are the best place to see the monkeys, which are fairly easily seen in the park, including white-faced capuchins and the rarer and endangered squirrel monkey.

The second main attraction in the park involves strolling just beyond the entrance to the park and plonking yourself on a beach. There are five beautiful, sandy beaches here, each fringed with the attractive (but poisonous)
manzanillo
tree and with gentle gradients that are good for swimming (but do watch out for rip currents).

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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