Guided Tour of Manuel Antonio National Park with Iguana Tours
It’s entirely possible to experience the full Manuel Antonio experience in one weekend. Visiting the Manuel Antonio National Park is a must, and guests of the Villa Bosque Hotel are in luck – the hotel is only a few steps away from the entrance.
National Geographic ranks Costa Rica’s smallest (geographically) national park as one of the most beautiful places in the world. That says a lot about this little slice of heaven that somehow packs over 90% of Central America’s biodiversity into its less than 500 acres. People travel from around the world for a glimpse of this unique, breathtaking region.
Tourists can choose to walk the trails alone or with a guide, but it is nearly pointless to go it alone unless you have an exceptionally keen eye and a phenomenal binoculars. The guides are exceptionally knowledgeable and have an eye for spotting rare wildlife hidden in the trees or camouflaging in the brush.
Unlike many other wildlife preserves, the entrance to Manuel Antonio is directly in the middle of town. If you hotel is located up on the hill, dont worry, Iguana Tours offers hotel-direct pick up and the perks of high-tech binoculars while a local expert points out and explains some of the more unusual species that call this park home. The guides are very well informed and many have lived in this area their entire lives. They know all of the ins and outs of the flora and fauna.
Keep in mind that this is no ordinary hike...The hike starts along what many of us consider “normal” hiking trail conditions with plenty of stops to check out the wildlife. Only the first half of the trip is along dirt and rock trails with the canopies overhead and plenty of brush where locals “hang out.” About a mile down the road is the picturesque Manuel Antonio beach. Guests are given 30 minutes to enjoy swimming in the warm waters and relaxing on the beach before moving on.
My three hour tour included sightings of hawks, two- and three-toed sloths, vipers, raccoons, dart frogs, and numerous species of iguanas. This is truly a birders heaven with thousands of species of birds in the park. Vultures and hawks are especially common and are often one of the first animals to be spotted. The raccoons are particularly “friendly,” so don’t let any bags (with food) sit on the ground.
It can be very difficult to spot many of the wildlife, even when they’re right under your nose. Depend on guides to point out some exotic creatures that are likely to be missed. Poison dart frogs (the bright green variety that flank many Costa Rica souvenirs) were spotted on my trek, blending perfectly into the leaves.
Guests that have their own binoculars should definitely bring them. Sloths can often be seen lounging on the tree tops. They’re one of the few creatures that (might) respond to whistles and survey the crowd below them. For travelers with nice cameras, this is a can’t- be-missed opportunity to snap some unforgettable photos.
The halfway point of the hike suddenly becomes a water lover’s paradise. Manuel Antonio Beach is a paradise that graces the covers of postcards. Bright blue waters, an intimate bay, and perfect white sand beaches is exactly what we all picture in our heads when we think of Costa Rica. Now is the time to slip off that hiking gear and spend half an hour body surfing or simply sunbathing on the beach.
There is plenty of wildlife along the beach trails, too. Iguanas are particularly fond of the sandy areas and might join visitors for a nice sun soaking session. Raccoons know this is prime picking for leftovers, or any unguarded treats. Don’t worry about putting those hiking boots back on – the rest of the trail is all sand and beach from this point on.
Part of what makes Manuel Antonio so unique is the miles of perfect beaches. Not many people think coastline when considering parks, but this is the exception. Guanacaste trees provide some shade on the sandy trails where reptiles and “leaf cutter ants” are common. There are plenty of stops at more secluded beaches along the way. Chances are, at many of the locations, your small group will be the only people there.
There’s an option to enjoy a lunch or dinner on the beach from the famous Marlins restaurant. If this is the case, the tour will drop guests directly on a quiet beach for a once in a lifetime experience. Many restaurants might offer beach-front service, but not in the quiet, romantic location offered on this trip. Travelers looking to continue on have an unusual option for some refreshment, too.
Most of the time, guests are welcome to take a little dip in the water. However, at one of the last stops, crocodiles roam so it’s necessary to climb a small hill to avoid these massive creatures (and get some great photos). A lot of people enjoy some cold lemonade on a hot day, and the Costa Rican alternative is some fresh, cool coconut water. A local sets up shop next to the crocodiles and slices up this incredible drink with a machete. Have a little cash on hand to indulge in one of the freshest drinks of your life.
The rest of the hike includes stops at numerous beaches along sandy trails. Those who are stuck with tennis shoes may suffer with sand-in-sock syndrome, so coming prepared is crucial. The guide regularly sets up a high tech binocular on a tripod so that everyone can get a close-up view of the wildlife. The tour concludes back at the park entrance where a man is selling cold coconut water that he shaves up with a machete.
It’s easy to think that civilization is a world away, but in actuality the park surrounds the little town. The tour ends directly on the bustling highway adjacent beach that you drove in on. The tell-tale signs of umbrellas, kayaks, and parasailing are a giveaway. Spend some time at the tide pools on the outskirts of the beach before heading back to reality. And don’t worry – for those wishing they had opted for a Marlin’s lunch, the real deal is situated right at the end of the tour.
Tips: There are a few key items that are “must haves” on this trip. Wear a swimsuit underneath clothes and be generous with the sun block. A wide brimmed hat is a smart choice. Pack a snack and some water shoes or flip flops. The first half of the trail is what many of us think of when we consider “hiking” with rocky dirt trails. Sturdy shoes are the best bet for navigating this terrain. Enjoy some light shopping at some of the street markets before or after the tour. Ask questions.
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