One of the main reasons tourists flock to Costa Rica is to see its wildlife. I was no exception. After being on the road in a camper for ten months, turning around on the other side of the Panama Canal, my boyfriend, Mark, his two dogs and I were on our way back north. So far, we had been lucky to see plenty of colorful birds (yes, even toucans and scarlet macaws), coatimundi families and groups of Howler Monkeys, but… I needed to satisfy my curiosity about the sloth. This is one of those species I’d never seen before, not even in a zoo.
About a month earlier, I joined an organized tour to a nature reserve. When the guide heard about my disappointment over not encountering a sloth during that trip, he made the driver slow down. We peeked into any suitable tree that might host the animal. No luck. Later on, Mark and I saw this furry thing in a palm tree at one of the campgrounds. It must have been a sloth, but it wasn’t moving. I was not satisfied. I found myself becoming a bit obsessed by this intriguing creature.
The Worst Main Road
We crossed the border and entered Costa Rica for a second time, with one destination in mind – Manuel Antonio National Park. Soon enough, it would become clear why this park was so popular with locals and tourists. First, our sturdy truck had to endure the challenge of “the worst main road” in all of Central America. The potholes were huge and plentiful on the coastal stretch between Dominical and Quepos. The “road” surface was a mix of sand, dirt and gravel. The rainy season only made things worse. The distance? Thirty five miles! It took four hours to complete this shaking part of the journey. With the heavy load of the camper on the back, we had to drive slowly. Our heads hurt, our stomachs were upset, we had to stop once to let our organs and bones settle. To top it off, tractors and bikes passed us!
The town of Manuel Antonio did not have a campground, but we managed to park our camper next to a hotel, close to the beach. It was hot and humid, since we hadn’t obtained electricity for our air conditioner, Mark had to stay home with the dogs. They would spend the morning in a shady spot on the beach, while I set out on my exploration of the national park.
Entering Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
The sun was already glowing strongly at 8:00. I walked along the ocean to reach Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. A couple of local entrepreneurs had strategically placed two wooden canoes across a small stream so tourists could use them as a walkway and reach the entrance without getting wet feet. Of course they expected a small tip for this service. I politely declined and enjoyed the cool water running along my already steamy ankles. The entrance fee for this coastal park is $7.00. Even though I was on a tight budget, the money proved to be well spent.
Inside, hordes of people congregated around their perspective guides to start their tour. I took advantage of this for a few minutes to gain some information about the park’s inhabitants. We found ourselves on a long, white beach, with plenty of rocks and little green isles right off the coast. One of the men pointed to a large brown lizard with three combs on its back. I glimpsed quickly at the map, escaped the crowd and went into the forest.
On the Trail
I followed one of the well-marked paths and saw crabs disappear in their holes. When I took a closer look at their bright blue and orange bodies, I noticed an agouti eating some kind of nut. This rabbit-sized animal has long ears, a smooth skin and tiny eyes. It’s a bit funny and fragile looking. I tried to take some pictures, but they came out blurry: the crabs were too fast and the environment too dark.
I continued on, saw two more agoutis playing in the brush and a group of monkeys moving through the trees. The humidity in the jungle was unbelievable, even standing still, I could feel the sweat running down my body. Walking almost felt better, it created some wind movement.
I passed a few “teasing” bays. They looked pretty, but because of the coral, it was impossible to take a refreshing dip. Then I came to sandy Manuel Antonio Beach, the most suitable one to swim. People were scattered in the water, on the soft sand and at the picnic tables. Big, colorful lizards lazed in the sun. They almost looked like miniature dinosaurs, with their pointy curvatures. Interesting creatures!
Back on my trail of choice, I heard the branches rustle. When I looked up, a family of white-faced monkeys was approaching. Despite my excitement, I managed to quietly sit down on a rock, replace the batteries of my camera. The monkeys gathered around me. A couple of youngsters chased each other from tree to tree, two group members were picking fleas, a female slowly slipped by with a baby on her back, a dominant male checked me out and stretched on a branch above my head, legs dangling down. We looked at each other with a mutual curiosity, I enjoyed this special experience. The camera snapped away. My private show lasted until a group of tourists showed up with a banana. The magic moment was broken. I continued on.
I found a shady log on the next deserted beach, dug for a snack in my backpack. After making sure there were no monkeys around, I placed the package of cookies next to me, started deleting pictures. Understandably, my memory card was full, I had to do something about that. Then… I felt a presence behind me. I turned around and stared into the face of a raccoon. It swiftly moved closer, nose sniffing in the air. Startled, I grabbed my stuff together and moved away from the rodent. I wasn't afraid, more protective of my cookies. The “masked” animal followed me around for a bit, until I scared it into the foliage. I decided to eat and delete while walking, slowly making my way through the park.
At an intersection, a guided group was looking at something high in the trees – a tiny dark dot, called a sloth. I tried to sneak a peek through one of the massive binoculars set up by the guides. I felt a sharp pain in one of my toes. A one inch ant didn’t agree with my “cheating” to get a closer look and had punctured two holes in a toe! Blood gushed out of the wounds, I retreated.
Drenched in sweat, I made my way up a slippery hill to the mirador – a beautiful viewpoint, looking out over a few bays, beaches and the jungle. While catching my breath and watching some playful butterflies, I was once more aware of the time flying by and the pictures running out. I had to save some memory, in case “my sloth” showed up. On my way down, a few rare squirrel monkeys were playing in the branches.
Taking another trail back to the beaches, I found myself alone with the jungle again. Something must have caught my attention, or … I got lucky. I turned my head to the right, saw something descending a tree. A sloth! I could barely believe it! As quickly as possible, I got my camera ready, snapped a few. I was astonished to find the memory card full again, the spare batteries flat. I allowed myself one minute of sadness and disappointment.
I snapped out of it, to enjoy what was taking place in front of me. By that time, the sloth had reached the ground. Each arm was holding a branch above his head, his feet were firmly placed on the bottom. His black eyes looked at me, apprehensively, trying to figure out why I was observing him relieving himself. The dark line on its furry back told me it was a male. He was so close, I embraced every second of this amazing encounter. Minutes later, he slowly made his way back up the tree, arm by arm, foot by foot. His claws clamped around the branches, while his funny-looking body followed his cautious movements. He leisurely climbed out of sight, leaving me behind with a blissful feeling.
I finished my visit with a quick splash in the warm Pacific waters. I felt fortunate to have had this experience. I couldn’t wait to tell my boyfriend. I succeeded in my quest! The refreshing part came when I rinsed off under the “public shower” – a metal tube with ice cold water flowing out of it. To see an abundance of wildlife, you have to endure an abundance of sweat!
Manuel Antonio Park is the best place to see plenty of wildlife. It was established in 1972, one of the smallest parks in the country. Because of its popularity, it gets crowded. Most people come on a guided tour (from San Jose) and stick to the main trails. It is possible to avoid the crowds, by taking smaller trails, coming early in the morning, during weekdays. The entrance fee is $7.00 U.S. or colones. Park hours are from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Closed on Mondays. Bring lots of water, sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
There are many hotels in the town of Manuel Antonio. From there, you can easily walk to the park. Cheaper accommodations can be found in the town of Quepos. Most backpackers stay there. Every half hour, you can take a bus to the entrance of the park for a small fee.