It is one thing to go to the beach and watch a sea gull fly off with your bag of Doritos.
It is something else entirely to go to the beach and watch a white-faced capuchin monkey scamper off with your banana.
This is life in Manuel Antonio, where the rain forest touches the seashore. And for families looking for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that will not necessarily break the bank — though it might bend it — this may be the place.
Our family trip to Manuel Antonio, an alluring beach hamlet on the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica, was not born of some Groupon deal or a sudden exotic whim. We went because we missed our daughter.
My wife, Evelyne, our 14-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and I were visiting our 18-year-old daughter, Rachel, who is spending a chunk of her “gap year” before college as a volunteer English teacher. We thought that this trip would be mostly about reuniting as a family. Instead, it quickly became something more like Family in Adventureland. We immersed ourselves as best we could in a daring culture that sent us on catamaran rides, snorkeling, white-water rafting, banana-boating, even parasailing.
Quite honestly, these are not the sorts of things our family does on any given Sunday in Falls Church.
The central choice we made on Day 1 was this: Sea beats land. Sure, there are heart-pumping active volcanoes to see in Costa Rica, along with treks that will take you and your family zip-lining through the jungle. But with spring daytime temperatures in the high 90s — and the humidity level often at the breaking point — we chose to be in, near or around various bodies of water for all five days of our vacation.
Near the end of most days, we’d typically find a way to regroup on the tree-shaded part of Manuel Antonio’s spectacular public beach, where monkeys and wild raccoons are common visitors. Here, many locals stay until sunset and celebrate the colorful explosion of the evening sky with high-fives and repetitions of what seemed to be Costa Rica’s single most popular phrase: “Pura vida,” or pure life, the full enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures.
Another important key to our trip was the near-flawless travel advice we got from Máximo Nivel, the Miami-based international study abroad, cultural exchange and travel group overseeing Rachel’s gap year. It connected us with M&J Travel Services in San Jose, which offers relatively reasonable half-day and full-day tours ranging from $59 (Manuel Antonio National Park ) to $175 per person (jet skiing) — prices that included one or two meals and adventure aplenty.
They also included transportation — the company even picked us up at our hotel — but we never regretted renting our own car. Yes, as we’d been warned, the roads can be rough. The drivers can be aggressive. Specific addresses are nonexistent — really. And an SUV with full insurance can cost $100 a day. But it gave us the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted — not to mention access to instant air conditioning, which was no small thing in the relentless heat.
But the single best decision we made was our hotel choice in Manuel Antonio: Hotel San Bada. We were traveling, of course, at exactly the wrong time: spring break. Rooms were hard to get, and prices were sky-high. Rates were based on the number of people staying in the room, and for the four of us, it was about $300 per night — and worth it. San Bada is nearly flawless.
For one, it’s perfectly located at the entrance to the national park. Every morning, when I stepped out onto our fifth-floor balcony, I looked not only out at the ocean but also down at trees dotted with wild monkeys and colorful toucans. (Sure, the shrill sounds of monkeys chanting from the jungle sometimes awakened me at night, but, hey, I could think of far worse sounds to wake up to.)
The 67-room hotel is beautifully designed. Then, there were the little things — like the hotel maid, who doubled as an artist, engineering every day’s clean towels into playful animal sculptures, from monkeys to bears to rabbits.
The breakfast included in our cost was laden with fresh fruits and other local treats and was big enough to serve as lunch, too. And the hotel has three pools — a kiddie pool, a decadent pool with a fountain and a swim-up bar in the courtyard, and a sixth-floor rooftop pool where many guests go to toast the sunset. Finally, the San Bada is just a five-minute walk from the town’s tiny commercial area, where street vendors offer hand-sliced coconuts and hand-carved wooden toucans — an adventure in itself.
A more exciting adventure was parasailing. We went with Aguas Azules, which will lift you up for rates starting at $75 per person for 15 minutes. Melanie Moss, an American lawyer who owns the business along with her Costa Rican husband, told me that she’s never looked back since trading the corporate world in Manhattan for a beach-based business that “makes people happy every day.”
At 63, I may not seem like a perfect parasailing candidate, but what the heck, what better way to see the vast, blue Pacific Ocean? My wife and I went together, strapped into a special harness attached to a parachute. Biggest surprise: the silence. I was expecting the sound of rushing winds, but as we were towed high above the sea, there were no sounds at all, unless you could hear our stomach flips. This is the sort of thing we probably would have never let our teenage girls do on U.S. soil, but in the midst of a Central American vacation, we had no hesitation whatsoever. We both claimed temporary vacation insanity.
Far more tranquil was our visit to Manuel Antonio National Park. For this, we saved money by skipping the guided tour and buying our own tickets for about $16 per person. On the trail that leads down to the park’s beautiful, unspoiled beach, we came across monkeys, raccoons, iguanas, snakes, lizards and a sleeping sloth glimpsed high in a treetop. The beach — about a half-hour hike from the park’s main gate — ranks as one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. But bring your own sandwich, pre-peeled fruit, water and sunscreen because absolutely nothing is for sale inside the pristine park, and tourists aren’t allowed to bring in items such as chips (because empty bags might get left behind as trash) and unpeeled fruit (because tourists might be tempted to feed peels to the monkeys).
The following day, we embarked from the pier at the nearby town of Quepos for a $79-per-person catamaran and snorkeling trip, and a group of dolphins followed our boat for several miles. Being nearsighted, I’d brought along a prescription mask, so I was actually able to see all the colorful angelfish right in front of my face.
Our favorite excursion was the $98-per-person, three-hour white-water-rafting trip down the Savegre River, including a stop to hike to a natural pool beneath a waterfall for a swim. For novices such as us, it’s always the guide who makes — or breaks — the experience. Our guide, Miguel, was the feistiest of the lot. Whenever the waters calmed, he kept inventing ways to dump each of us out of the boat. At the end of the trip, a tourist in another raft noted, with some envy, “I think your family spent more time in the water than out.”
Not everything about our trip to Costa Rica was perfect. The heat was intense. The drivers created their own rules. The toilets were not toilet-paper-friendly. And the last catamaran tour we took to Tortuga Island initially seemed too much like pre-manufactured fun.
But wait. On that same catamaran ride back to Puntarenas, the captain spotted the four of us at the boat’s bow, watching our final family Costa Rican sunset. He must have sensed our sadness. Somehow, he found a way to make us laugh — then snapped a Christmas-card-worthy photo of us. That jarred us out of our family funk, reminding us that the shimmering gift in front of us was there to be relished. Or, in Costa Rican lingo: Pura vida.
Horovitz is a freelance writer and marketing consultant.
More from Travel:
Hotel San Bada
Adjacent to Manuel Antonio National Park
One of the few hotels next to Manuel Antonio National Park, this four-star hotel has three pools and is a short walk to the beach and to town. Rooms start at about $200.
Calle Principal, on the road to Quepos
Delicious falafel offerings in a casual atmosphere for under $8.
In front of the entrance to Orotina on the main road to Quepos
A lively cafe and bar across from the ocean. Authentic Costa Rican meals for under $12.
Sol Frozen Yogurt
On the road from Manuel Antonio National Park
Serves creative ice cream concoctions and frozen drinks. (I recommend the “Orange Dream”) for about $6.
Aguas Azules Costa Rica
On Manuel Antonio beach next to Mary’s Chairs
Parasailing sessions start at $75 for one ($140 for two) for a 15-minute parachute ride attached to speedboat.
Rancho Los Tucanes
White-water rafting — moderate, 21/2-hour raft trips start at $98 for adults and children age 8 and older. Bring a throwaway camera, not your phone.