Beyond the Beach in Manuel Antonio

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sunrise over Manuel Antonio“Hey, I’m teaching a salsa class with Alexandra tonight – you guys should come!” said Danny, the bartender.

“You mean salsa, the dance?,” I said, as I mentally surveyed my limited clothing options.  Having previously been in the wild Osa Peninsula for 5 days, I was starting to resemble some type of “Jungle Jane” character, in stark contrast to the lovely couples that were honeymooning at this resort in Manuel Antonio.  I had forgotten how to use a hair dryer and wasn’t sure I was feeling stylish enough to join a salsa class at the moment.

“Sí, sí, we teach a salsa dance class here in the lobby…I’ll see you tonight, at 7:00!,” Danny replied.

Salsa DancingI expected to see the monkeys, the beach and the rainforest, the sloths and lizards, and even all the species of insects, spiders and snakes.  I was completely unprepared for salsa dancing in the middle of a rainforest.  I quickly found my only dress, attempted to tame my wild hair, convinced my family to join me, and danced the merengue in my flip-flops…

It was just one of many great experiences we encountered in the Manuel Antonio area.  I had expected this part of Costa Rica to be a bit more civilized than the south.  Even so, it was still a bit of a shock to us, after spending time in the isolated Osa.  Manuel Antonio is, after all, one of the most visited places in the country, having a great diversity of wildlife, fantastic national park, relatively easy access (3 hour drive/30 min. flight from San Jose), lovely beaches, and many of the adventure tours that you’d expect in Costa Rica.  It is definitely more touristed and busier than the south, with many choices of hotels and restaurants.  And yet, it still manages to retain its charm.

Landing Strip at Quepos We landed on a tiny strip in the middle of a palm farm (which we later found out is used for the export of palm oil) in Quepos, the closest airport to Manuel Antonio.  Our resort, Arenas del Mar, at first glance, seems like a typical upscale resort; it has the beaches, pools, spa, and all the amenities you would expect.  It even has resident sloths and capuchin monkeys (which know how to open an unlocked door and get into the Tico bar!).  However, as I soon found out, you can go beyond the beach and pool here, and have a more meaningful experience.

Three-toed Sloth at Lapa RiosCrocodile signBoatman in Manuel AntonioWe acquainted ourselves with the area first with a visit to Manuel Antonio National Park, where we saw much more wildlife and learned more than we ever could on our own with our trusted guide, Mile, from AveNatura tours.  Did we just see a baby howler monkey?  Was my daughter just holding a centipede?  Did my husband just eat a termite?  (“It tastes like citrus!”)  It is a compact park, with fairly easy trails and the reward of a gorgeous beach at the other end of the park.  We exited the park near a crocodile-filled river, where a boatman took us safely across to the other side (I still don’t know what keeps the boatman safe from the crocs, since he’s basically walking the boat across…)

Santa Juana ChairsSugar Cane FarmEyelash Pit ViperWaterfall Hike in Santa Juana


























We could have opted for one of the typical canopy tours, hanging bridges, sailing, or snorkeling trips.  We could have hung out at the beach or pool a little more.  Instead, we dug a little deeper into Costa Rican culture and went for a full day trip to the tiny village of Santa Juana, in the beautiful mountains outside of Manuel Antonio.  We were treated to a drive through a palm plantation (and a history lesson from our guide, Johan), breakfast of homemade empanadas, a tour of a sugar cane farm, nature hike (spotting a deadly eyelash pit viper in a tree overhead) and swim at a stunning waterfall pool, tilapia fishing, horseback riding, and a lunch with the best arroz con pollo I’ve ever tasted.












Another day, we did a “Tortilla Tour,” which took us behind the scenes at Arenas del Mar and introduced us to the Costa Rican tradition of making fresh homemade corn tortillas.  After the ever-patient Carmen taught us how to press our corn mixture into a perfect circle and cook the tortillas on a very hot pan, we followed the traditional Tico afternoon snack by having great conversations with several resort employees about travel, government, culture and much more.

CarmenMaking Tortillas












The kayak paddle quietly hits the water, propelling me through the mangrove.  I get too close to a tree trunk that suddenly seems alive – a hundred crabs start to move, as startled by my presence as I am theirs.  Mile stops to explain how the mangrove seed takes root in the midst of this brackish water.  Maneuvering through tree roots and hanging branches, I suddenly feel eyes upon me.  A curious capuchin monkey follows me through the branches as I glide through the current.

Kayaking in the Mangrove










We are no longer sitting on a beach waiting for a tropical drink (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  We are not just guests here anymore, but active participants.  We feel true connections, from learning how to salsa dance with resort employees and other travelers, to meaningful conversations with our guides.  A security guard points to a sloth in a tree, and this turns into a thirty-minute conversation in Spanish about where we are from, our families and travels.  Friendships are forged.  Relationships are made.  The connections we make, the people we meet…this is what authentic travel is all about.  Pura vida!

Surfing Playa EspadillaMany thanks to all the friends we met and the staff at Arenas del Mar for a most welcome stay and wonderful adventures we had in Manuel Antonio, including Mile and Mau (Avenatura), Danny, Alexandra, Roger, Carmen, Priscilla and Sergio (Arenas del Mar), Johan, Enrique and Roxana (Santa Juana) – ¡Muchas gracias!

View a video of fun adventures in the Manuel Antonio area.


Eat well.  Travel often.  Live your passion.


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