It’s 7:30 a.m. and a green Mercedes 12-seater crunches up the gravel in the hostel’s driveway. Henry Pizarro, my guide for the morning from HP Tours, beckons for me to get into the van.
That morning he is running a few minutes late from a flat tire. “I am never late,” he apologizes, checking his mirrors as he pulls out onto the road leading to Manuel Antonio National Park. I believe him. Henry has been running his tour company, HP Tours, for only a few years, but it’s clear that he’s a professional.
The Road to Manuel Antonio National Park
As soon as we emerge onto the main road from Quepos to Manuel Antonio, lessons on biology begin. He tells me the bright yellow flowers scattering the road are a welcome to me. This golden tree is a protected species; people cut it down for its flowers, which are the most vibrant yellow blossoms I’ve ever seen.
We chat about Costa Rica, and what it means to be a licensed naturalist guide. Courses on flora and fauna of Costa Rica are required, and a certified guide carries an identification from the ICT (Instituto Costariccense de Turismo). “It’s important to get a licensed guide because they care more about whether you actually learn something,” Henry expounds. His actions speak as loudly as his words, as he manages to spot a rare stick bird with its baby perched in a tree. We haven’t even entered the park yet!
We cross the threshold between protected and unprotected land, and Henry emphasizes the importance of following the rules: we do NOT feed the animals, we do NOT go off the path. The former for the animals’ sake more than ours–human hands carry bacteria that can be potentially fatal to critters. Authorities have posted grisly signs with photos of monkey autopsies near the park entrance that proclaim: A FED MONKEY IS A DEAD MONKEY.
We stay on the path because, who are we kidding, Mother Nature always wins in a fight and without the proper knowledge, most of us wouldn’t last very long in the jungle. Further, Manuel Antonio National Park is part of the 25% of Costa Rican land that the government officially protects in order to preserve the country’s biodiversity.
Spotting Wildlife in Manuel Antonio National Park
Over the course of about four hours, I begin to believe Henry must have some sort of super powerful x-ray vision. Through the dense foliage he spots iguanas, crabs, a perfectly camouflaged frog. A Tiger heron, two-toed sloths, three-toed sloths, and a snake chilling on the roof of the ladies’ room.
A few howler monkeys and white-faced Capuchins make an appearance, although fewer than normal because the full moon from the night before meant the same thing for monkeys as it did for many of us: a night spent up late partying.
We admire a Purple Crown hummingbird hovering near its home in the shade, watch a mischievous pair of fearless raccoons swipe a kid’s sandwich, and we learn that a whiptail lizard can reproduce female offspring without the aid of a male lizard.
As we walk, Henry also tells us about the natural medicinal uses of some of these plants. This one’s good for parasites, that one’s good for hangovers. You can crush the limoncillo berry and rub it on your skin to repel insects. If you pay close enough attention, by the end of the day you’ll have enough info to just maybe make it out of that place alive–if you got lost, that is.
The morning flies by, and soon we have passed the pristine beaches within the park (some of the country’s best swimming spots), have sipped coconut water straight from the source and made a snack of its meat, have waded the murky waters near the exit of the park to arrive back in the green van. Henry drops me off at my hostel, and I think about all the things I would have missed had I not seen the jungle with the help of his eyes. All of it, probably. Well, maybe I would have seen the raccoons…
How to Get There:
Manuel Antonio National Park is located in Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Park hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. Entrance fee is $10. Public buses run frequently from Quepos (cost: 280 CRC) or you can get a cab (about 2,500 CRC).
HP Tours is owned and operated by Henry Pizarro Espinoza, a certified tour guide. For personalized private and group tours to Manuel Antonio National Park, Rainmaker Reserve, Nauyaca Falls and more, call Henry at (506) 2777-1555, (506) 8345-9963, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tour prices for Manuel Antonio National Park cost $40 USD. Price includes park entrance fee ($10 USD) pick-up and drop-off at your lodging, a hearty snack & water/juice, and a guide with a great sense of humor and desire to teach!
Special thanks to Henry Pizarro Espinoza for subsidizing our tour. All opinions are my own.