The visitors gasped in delight when a troop of white-face monkeys suddenly appeared in the trees along the road, swinging, playing and seemingly mugging for the cameras.
“That’s why this is the most popular park in the country,” said Leo Godinez, who has been leading tours of Manuel Antonio National Park since 1982, “because of the wildlife.”
The monkey photo op went down right after the sloth sighting, when a smiling three-toed perezoso turned his face our way as Godinez expertly snapped pictures with our phones through his telescope.
“Aw, he’s horrible!” said one woman in a group from the U.S. “He’s a monster!” Another disagreed: “He’s beautiful.” Yet another, trying to spot it in the viewfinder, was told by her friend to look for “a big furry thing with a face.”
Meanwhile, a drama was developing on the other side of the road as an arachnophobic woman was asked to approach the web of a huge golden orb-weaver spider.
“She’s not going to jump or do anything,” said the guide. “Come. Come, you’re going to stand over here, and I’m not going to make jokes or do anything.”
A little later, we heard an “Oh, Jesus!” and a blood-curdling scream and saw the woman dashing for safety.
“The spider jumped a little bit,” an onlooker explained.
The young spider fearer put her hand over her mouth, laughed and said, “I’m really sorry.”
We saw a gorgeous toucan, so big and so close that even Godinez got excited, shouting to the other guides.
The other guides returned the favor when they spotted a green vine snake in the ditch. Like the monkeys, it didn’t appear the least bit bothered by the tourists crowding around for pictures.
We saw an iguana, the kind of lizard sometimes confused with an iguana and a Jesus Christ lizard, known for its ability to run on water.
I also spotted a Central American agouti. And of all the animals you wouldn’t expect to see when you go to the beach, here was a raccoon scurrying in the sand from backpack to backpack, looking for snacks.
This being the most visited park in Costa Rica, of course, the species you will see most is Homo sapiens. But nobody should let that keep them away from this incredibly biodiverse park — which, by the way, contains beaches commonly ranked among the most beautiful in Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio is not as wild as Corcovado, but it’s far more accessible, and it’s compact and fairly flat, so there’s nothing about the hiking that you could call grueling. It’s a great park for families with children.
You can see plenty of wildlife without hiring a guide, but for the $20 expense of a guided tour you’ll see plenty more. The guides have an uncanny eye for animals, and their skills at taking pictures through their telescopes will give you the money shot of that sloth or toucan to send to your mom.
“I always find it fantastic how they can spot animals, those guys,” said Charles Vigneault, 29, a stonecutter from Montreal. “You have to have a guide because we lost this vision that those guys have.”
Julie Gravel, also 29, a veterinarian from Montreal, said, “In Monteverde, the cloud forest, at first we didn’t have a guide, and we didn’t see much, and then we hired a guide and it was a totally different experience.”
Godinez noted that Manuel Antonio National Park has been the most visited park in Costa Rica for several years (surpassing the No. 2 Poás Volcano National Park).
“We’re the No. 1 place for people … disappointed from other places where you haven’t seen much,” he said. “Here you really see animals.”
Contact Karl Kahler at [email protected]