Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea

Pack up the family and head to Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio National Park for a vacation filled with hiking, snorkeling, viewing wildlife, and flying through the forest on a zipline.
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Manuel Antonio National Park
EASY BEING GREEN: Manuel Antonio National Park's stunning beach stretches along the Pacific Coast, bordered by cliffs and rainforest  (Photodisc)

Face it: as a parent, you can spend heaps of money on the latest PlayStation, only to discover that your child could be just as content skipping rope outdoors. Transfer this to the world of travel, and you may find yourself forking over big bucks on airfare to Costa Rica, only to watch your kids get sidetracked from viewing monkeys in the wild to stare intently at a small stick-bug on a leaf.

"Amazing. It really does look like a stick," said my eight-year-old daughter, Melanie, as Jake, ten, touches the little critter.

We're nestled in a sliver of rainforest bordered by a sublime stretch of Pacific Coast sand. Rugged cliffs hang precariously over the crescent white beach, a parcel of paradise called Manuel Antonio National Park. More than 1,600 acres, and one of the most popular travel destinations for families in Costa Rica, the small national park allows only 600 people to visit each day. Pack a picnic lunch, bottled water, sunscreen, binoculars, camera, snorkeling gear, and beach towels, and arrive when the gate opens at 8:00 a.m.

Located near the town of Quepos, Manuel Antonio National Park is a 3.5-hour drive or 30-minute flight from the capital city of San Jose. With its blend of rainforest and beach, the area works perfectly as a family travel destination. Plan at least three days to see Manuel Antonio and the numerous other sites in the area.

Begin your first day by hiring a naturalist to take you around for an hour or two. As Jake cleverly pointed out (I can say this because I'm his father), "Most places sell you souvenirs, but in Costa Rica they want to sell you on their country." Indeed, Costa Ricans take great pride in the natural beauty of the rainforest and its inhabitants. Our guide pointed out a large night heron hidden in the upper branches of the mangrove tree, spiny lizards that dine on hermit crabs, the red-legged honey creepers with their long beaks, and yes, stick bugs.

We didn't have to search long to find the white-faced monkeys. They chased one another, wrestling, scratching, and jumping amidst the twisted web of vines alongside the main trail. As we neared one of Manuel Antonio's four beaches, Playa Manuel Antonio, we spotted a two-toed sloth atop a tall palm tree inching along, at a glacially slow speed, as she protected the baby clinging to her stomach.

Arriving at the beach, we planted our feet in the soft sand before snorkeling along the rocky shores, where we saw just as many sights underwater as we had on land. A kaleidoscopic school of fish, including blue and yellow queen angelfish and orange trumpetfish, scurried to and fro while small hermit crabs raced around on the ocean floor.

After huffing and puffing for the half-hour hike up the side of a bluff (to my astonishment, the kids never complained), we reached a spectacular overlook where the dark green hills of the rainforest plunged into the Pacific below. While venturing back down, Melanie jumped into her mother's arms when the jarring roar of the aptly named howler monkey echoed through the trees. They say the cry of the howler can be heard up to three miles away and is second only to the blue whale as the loudest animal on the planet.

Published: 31 May 2007 | Last Updated: 5 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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