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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Pura Vida

It has been fourteen years since I visited the country of Costa Rica until going last week.  I wasn't sure what to anticipate in terms of how the country had changed.  Selfishly, I hoped everything was the same - every restaurant, lack of hotels, kindness of the people.  Costa Rica did not disappoint.

This trip was different from the first as I brought my three children with me this time. And though the first trip was magical with visits to Lake Arenal, the Monteverde Cloud Forest and a marriage proposal, I thought it best for this trip to be simple and relaxing.  So I chose a fantastic house to share with my family and a few friends in Manuel Antonio, the beautiful rainforest/beach region of the country.  About 3 hours south of San Jose, and a very bumpy long car ride away, Manuel Antonio remains the true Tropical Paradise.

House chef made wonderful local food, and the breakfast fruit was always a hit
The house sits atop a small mountain, overlooking the splendid views of the warm Pacific and many beaches of Quepos and Manuel Antonio.  With four master bedrooms on the ground floor and 2 below, the house is like a mini hotel that you have all to yourself.  The setting of the house is focused on nature, so the dining room sits outside alongside the living room (though there is another one inside for rainy days) and the pool is a few steps down amongst the palm, chocolate, and mango trees.  

Right outside the kitchen
Toucan in a tree at the house
If you don't mind sharing quarters with white-faced monkeys, toucans and other bird friends, howler monkeys, iguanas and random stray cats, then this is the house for you.  And to be clear, the weather in December/January is a perfect 80 degrees with light breeze blowing when you arise with the sun to the sounds of the howler monkeys.  There is also a fitness area with yoga mats, a massage table and light fitness equipment on the upper level if you needed a little namaste.  

Mary's Chairs
Snow cone cart on the beach
What's fun about Manuel Antonio is that regardless of its small size, the beaches are all different and equally as nice.  For a more touristy beach, head over to Playa Escondido and see Mary's Chairs.  Mary is a tour de force and houses many chairs and umbrellas.  She also delivers food and drink from the nearby restaurant directly to your chair if you so desire.  You can also find parasailing there and the banana boat ride that we enjoyed.  Never thought I would EVER ride on a banana boat, but I never thought I would do a lot of other things in Costa Rica as well!  And it should be noted that I was able to see a large sea turtle while on the banana boat ride.

Table at Playitas Restaurant and Bar and the beach
A nice semi-private beach is Playa Playitas.  The beach is at the bottom of the beautiful Arenas del Mar Resort that sits down in the forest and shares space with sloths, howler monkeys and the usual suspects.  The resort is a wonderful version of how to co-habitiate and gently use land in such a pristine area.  If you call ahead and get a lunch reservation at the "snack bar", Playitas Restaurant, go ahead and ask if you can also use their chairs and umbrellas.  They also have food service there, but it's much nicer to sit under the trees and sloths and enjoy fresh fish while looking out at the ocean.  If I hadn't rented a house, I would most assuredly have stayed here.
Polizia making its way through the hike to the Manuel Antonio Park beaches

The absolute best are the beaches at Manuel Antonio Park, with 1700 acres of land mass and 135 acres of marine reserve.  You must enter the park through the official park entrance and pay a modest entry fee - this was one thing that had definitely changed over fourteen years.  But, the light hike is nice and the sites are great.  There are guides that you can hire to take you through the rainforest to the beaches, but don't bother - just eavesdrop if they stop to see something of interest.

It was right before the entrance to the park where we were able to come very close to the wonderful and endangered squirrel monkeys.  They are super friendly and slightly aggressive if there is a banana near - don't feed the animals!

Sunning with friend Pamela Balk
King of the Beach
Once you finish your hike you can choose which beach you'd like to visit - or move around, they're all tight together.  There are no chairs, no restaurants, no cars.  Just calm, barely-wave beaches to relax on and swim in.  I felt as if I were a ship-wrecked beach-comber with a beach practically all to myself.  For sure a tropical paradise and the pure life.  Another afternoon we took a catamaran ride with Planet Dolphin and anchored fifty yards from an even more remote beach, truly being the only ones there.  Land of the Fiddler Crabs and White-faced monkeys.
A peak at another beach on the walk back
One day we took a break from the beach scene and took a horseback riding tour with Valmy Tours through the rainforest close to Quepos.  This one has a river that runs through, and our horses gently walked along.  Apparently the forests of Avatar the movie were created of these very woods.  After an easy uphill hike, we found ourselves at a waterfall, complete with butterflies and tree frogs.  We finished the tour with a gallop up some hills to the clearing towards the stables.  At one point I found myself galloping on my horse in a clearing all alone.  In Costa Rica on my horse.  Now, that's something that doesn't happen a lot in one's life.

Sunset at Terrazas Raphael
Whole Red Snapper: a must have

Manuel Antonio is indeed a special place full of peace and love. All the restaurants are "local", the people of Manuel Antonio are beyond nice.  (Terrazas Raphael has the best ocean sunsets and Red Snapper!) If you're looking to shed your city skin and bask in the life of the jungle, this is the destination for you.  Pura Vida.

A big thank you to Pamela Balk, fellow beach comber, rum drinker and photographer

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