11 Lessons From Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

In May of 2019, myself and two friends - Annie and Leesh - took to Costa Rica after jumping on a $300 round trip flight from Philly. Budget airlines can be a move. With less than a week on the ground, we decided we'd spend the entirety of our trip on the western coast in Manuel Antonio. Google Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica - I mean come on! Me being me, I forewent the extra charge of a carry on and stuffed all my belongings into a backpack. Not good for the back, but excellent for the wallet. This was my first time in Central America and I was captivated by the welcoming, warm and generous people. And finally... a chance to use my below average Spanish abilities! A short visit left us craving more time in the warm paradise of Manuel Antonio and certainly with a desire to discover other corners of the country. Until then, this trip stays fresh in my mind, along with the lessons we learned along the way. Pura Vida!

Villas De La Selva is the loveliest 2-star stay with 5-star views and hospitality.

Manuel is the wonderful owner of these villas and though he spoke very little English, and us very little Spanish, he made our stay memorable and unique. Each morning we walked out into a jungle paradise. Some nights we didn't sleep because howler monkeys were literally screaming but how SPECIAL is that!? And each day we found new creatures all around us. A steep walk down the road and we arrived at a gorgeous beach where we sipped coconuts and coronas (and also politely declined buying a number of handmade wooden bowl souvenirs (lo siento, no lo siento... your girl has NO spare room in that backpack).

Up the road, we ate breakfast at the same place every morning - the Anaconda Cafe on an outdoor patio with ocean and treetop views. We developed a craving for plantains for breakfast every morning. And lucky us on our very last day, we were joined by a monkey in search of sugar packets.

Chaffing - it will happen.

I won't name names, but someone in our party of 3 can attest to this one the most. If you plan on hiking, biking, partying or walking up a hill to breakfast in jean shorts - actually, any shorts - get yourself some body glide. You won't regret.

Visit the local markets.

The town of Quepos is considered the gateway into Manuel Antonio National Park and was only a 10- 15 minute bus ride from our villa. We'd been told about a local farmers market that was worth visiting. And how wonderful it was! We weaved our way through the fruit and vegetable stands, some of which had alien looking foods. Among them were crafters with brightly woven fabrics, hand-crafted wooden pieces, and our favorite, the handmade stone jewelry. We chatted (yeah, take that term very loosely) in broken Spanish with the woman who made the necklaces and each bought one with a different stone. We also headed home with juicy mangos, fresh, MASSIVE avocados, a tomato, and an onion to make guac later. The people and atmosphere were so welcoming and warm.

Eat the mango - all of it. Those mangos that we bought? The. best. ever. Like fall off the bone, juicy mango - if that makes sense? We don't get mangos this good in the United States because in order to be imported, the fruit needs to undergo a treatment to be sure no fruit flies or other insects come along with them - resulting in dulled tenderness and flavor. Ugh. So soak up as many fresh, juicy mangos as possible.

Don't feed the monkeys. I repeat - DON'T FEED THE MONKEYS.

I feel it is my civil duty to make this known after making the mistake myself. Our little villa, nestled cliffside and next to Manuel Antonio National Park, had monkeys of all kinds roaming around. Having picked up bananas from the market, it seemed like the perfect snack to lure the monkeys to our rooftop. And it was. Until I was monkey-shamed the next day by a local running our catamaran booze cruise. Here's why it's harmful to feed the monkeys bananas (or anything):

  • Bananas are only native to Australia and South Asia. Until humans began to farm them, they were never present in the Americas. The monkeys here do not have the proper digestive systems to properly process them.

  • Disease can easily transfer from human hands. Monkeys are highly susceptible to the foreign bacterias that can be present on our hands - bacteria that can be transferred through feeding.

  • Feeding diminishes monkeys' abilities to survive on their own. Feeding monkeys creates a dependency that robs them of their survival skills. It can also create unhealthy patterns that result in aggressive behavior from the animal when they learn to assume a human will feed them.

Snorkeling is a p r o b a b l y a no.

Okay, this will depend where you are, but in our experience on the western, central shore, the waters are murky. We booked an ocean kayak + snorkel tour on a free afternoon (Pro tip: If you make no plans, all of your afternoons are free). Turns out, we were the only people on this "tour". Three girls and an awesome, local guide. We were led down to a private, movie-like beach where we paddled past the crash zone one by one. We kayaked until we reached a lagoon area. Here we "snorkeled", lol, aka swam around with big goggles and our heads in the water. Nothing to see but our hands in front of our faces but when you're surrounded by gorgeous rainforests - who cares.

Sloths are really that slow.

And they also love mango trees so that's where you'll want to check first. Our villa owner would know. He knocked on our door around 10 p.m. to shuffle us to the nearby mango tree (so thoughtful) where he then spotlighted a seriously slow sloth with his flashlight. There we stood for 20 minutes and counting just watching. Amazed.

Do not doubt the Central American sun.

I thought I was over my naive high-school days of allowing myself to bake in the sun, but alas I was not. During our catamaran ocean cruise I figured I'd go sunscreenless, therefore resulting in a nice even bronze, right? Wrong. I mean really this lesson applies to any outdoor activity, anywhere but most especially on an open boat in the ocean in the summertime in Costa Rica.

Rain means rainbows!

I relive jumping fully-clothed into the villas' pool in the torrential rain every night in my dreams. The aftermath of the downpour? Stunning, beautiful rainbows. Look at this double rainbow that appeared over the ocean outside of our villa.

Ditch the makeup.

Let the sun color your face and the rainforest greens brighten your eyes because any makeup will likely melt off as quickly as it was applied. We enjoyed frolicking in this living breathing sauna. Braids are a MOVE for long hair. And if you happen to have a super-chic bob like Leesh, let the sea salt style that ish.

Make the travel part of the journey.

To reach Manuel Antonio from San Jose, and vice versa, we had to shuttle. The first shuttle ride was at night and consisted of me using Leesh's hotspot in the back of the bumpy ride to get onto my online master's class. Not ideal, but an adventure nonetheless. However, the ride back to San Jose was filled with conversation between us and the local driver. He made special stops to allow us to discover Costa Rican treasures along the way including cashew trees and a mob of alligators in the River Tarcoles. If you don't rent a car, become friendly with the shuttle driver!

Until next time, CR... pura vida!

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