Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is a treasure chest, dotted with jewels of natural beauty, from the plethora of bays and precious beach towns of the northwestern Guanacaste province to the wild and remote jungles that spill onto the paradisiacal southern coast.
The central Pacific is perhaps the most accessible part of the Pacific coast for both Central Valley residents (more than half of Costa Rica’s population) and visitors arriving at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela, northwest of San José.
It is no surprise, then, that ManuelAntonioNational Park was the second most visited national park in Costa Rica last year, after Póas Volcano. Its vivid and accessible wildlife makes the walk between protected and inviting beaches an adventure in itself, and the abundance of hotels – from backpacker hostels to luxury resorts – makes a stay in the area all the more inviting. However, just north of Jacó, a lesserknown park sits beside the highway, waiting to be discovered.
CararaNational Park, just south of where the TárcolesRiver empties into the ocean, comprises a total of 5,742 hectares (14,188 acres) and harbors a unique selection of flora and fauna in what is called a “transition zone” reflecting both the arid north and the lush, humid south. The park receives 2,800 millimeters (110 inches) of rain annually, and the average temperature is 27 degrees Celsius (78 degrees Fahrenheit). March and April are the driest months of the year and the most recommendable time to visit, as heavy rainfall at other times of year turns some paths into small rivers.
One of the principal attractions of Carara is that it is much less visited than Manuel Antonio. On a recent three-day weekend in July, Manuel Antonio was filled to capacity Sunday morning as tourists stood for more than 20 minutes in line waiting to enter the park.
The day before, at Carara, park tour guides sat around waiting for visitors who trickled in one car or busload at a time. And while it was difficult to walk three minutes without passing another group on the trails of Manuel Antonio, Carara felt empty, and solitary footsteps down a muddy trail stood out against the deep buzz of jungle life.
In fact, walking through Carara has a much more adventurous feel. And a variety of trails, including a specially designed, handicap-accessible trail, offer several options for different ideas of adventure.
The Tico Times was taken on a tour down the Laguna Meándrica trail, the entrance to which lies a few minutes north on the highway from the park office. It is highly recommendable that visitors rent rubber boots and hire a park guide. On our mid-July visit, much of the trail was under water, between a few inches to a foot; however, reporters found that this added to the sense of adventure and wilderness.
Carara – which was originally Coyolar Hacienda, one of the largest concentrations of land in private hands – protects a large swath of Costa Rican primary forest. Park guide Freddie Villarreal pointed out one massive tree that he said was at least 600 years old.
Among the ancient giants and thick plant life of the park lives a wide variety of animals, including some of Costa Rica’s rarest, such as the scarlet macaw, the American crocodile, the great anteater, the ocelot, the Central American spider monkey, and the black and green poison dart frog. All of these species are in danger of extinction and have reduced populations, according to the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC).
Despite what can sometimes feel like crowding,ManuelAntonioNational Park has much in the way of nature, flora and fauna to offer to visitors as well. There is a reason, after all, that it had 215,538 visits in 2005.
Manuel Antonio offers a much more developed system of trails that are wellmarked, accessible and intersect with each other, making it easy to see the entire park – if one is up for it – in a single day. This, however, would mean a lot more walking, and less time lazing on the picture-perfect beaches that abound in the park.
Besides the beaches, many people come to Manuel Antonio to see the wildlife. Most prominent are the iguanas soaking up the sun on the sandy beaches alongside the tourists, the sloths living life at their slow pace, munching on vegetation in the treetops, and the monkeys scampering between branches.
With decades of visits (it was pronounced a national park in 1972) and a high concentration of tourists, the monkey populations have become accustomed to humans, allowing for opportunities to see these fascinating little creatures up close.
While this is a pleasure for many park visitors, it has a dark side. The monkeys, particularly the white-faced capuchins, have grown accustomed to receiving food from people, a practice that is dangerous in many ways. It increases the risk of diseases and bacteria being passed from human hands to the monkeys; the diseases can then spread and decimate an entire group. Human food is high in sugars, salts and other substances that are not healthy for monkeys to eat.
Feeding can also lead to aggressive behavior in the monkeys, which puts human visitors at risk. For these reasons, ManuelAntonioNational Park has strict rules about not feeding the monkeys, and they are rigorously enforced by park guides.
Each offering something different, Manuel Antonio and Carara national parks are two jewels in the midst of the central Pacific that are worth a visit, particularly with a park guide.