It is one thing to go to the beach and watch a sea gull fly off with your bag of Doritos.
It is something else entirely to go to the beach and watch a white-faced capuchin monkey scamper off with your banana.
This is life in Manuel Antonio, where the rain forest touches the seashore. And for families looking for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that will not necessarily break the bank — though it might bend it — this may be the place.
Our family trip to Manuel Antonio, an alluring beach hamlet on the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica, was not born of some Groupon deal or a sudden exotic whim. We went because we missed our daughter.
My wife, Evelyne, our 14-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and I were visiting our 18-year-old daughter, Rachel, who is spending a chunk of her “gap year” before college as a volunteer English teacher. We thought that this trip would be mostly about reuniting as a family. Instead, it quickly became something more like Family in Adventureland. We immersed ourselves as best we could in a daring culture that sent us on catamaran rides, snorkeling, white-water rafting, banana-boating, even parasailing.
Quite honestly, these are not the sorts of things our family does on any given Sunday in Falls Church.
The central choice we made on Day 1 was this: Sea beats land. Sure, there are heart-pumping active volcanoes to see in Costa Rica, along with treks that will take you and your family zip-lining through the jungle. But with spring daytime temperatures in the high 90s — and the humidity level often at the breaking point — we chose to be in, near or around various bodies of water for all five days of our vacation.
Near the end of most days, we’d typically find a way to regroup on the tree-shaded part of Manuel Antonio’s spectacular public beach, where monkeys and wild raccoons are common visitors. Here, many locals stay until sunset and celebrate the colorful explosion of the evening sky with high-fives and repetitions of what seemed to be Costa Rica’s single most popular phrase: “Pura vida,” or pure life, the full enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures.
nother important key to our trip was the near-flawless travel advice we got from Máximo Nivel, the Miami-based international study abroad, cultural exchange and travel group overseeing Rachel’s gap year. It connected us with M&J Travel Services in San Jose, which offers relatively reasonable half-day and full-day tours ranging from $59 (Manuel Antonio National Park ) to $175 per person (jet skiing) — prices that included one or two meals and adventure aplenty.
They also included transportation — the company even picked us up at our hotel — but we never regretted renting our own car. Yes, as we’d been warned, the roads can be rough. The drivers can be aggressive. Specific addresses are nonexistent — really. And an SUV with full insurance can cost $100 a day. But it gave us the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted — not to mention access to instant air conditioning, which was no small thing in the relentless heat.
But the single best decision we made was our hotel choice in Manuel Antonio: Hotel San Bada. We were traveling, of course, at exactly the wrong time: spring break. Rooms were hard to get, and prices were sky-high. Rates were based on the number of people staying in the room, and for the four of us, it was about $300 per night — and worth it. San Bada is nearly flawless.
For one, it’s perfectly located at the entrance to the national park. Every morning, when I stepped out onto our fifth-floor balcony, I looked not only out at the ocean but also down at trees dotted with wild monkeys and colorful toucans. (Sure, the shrill sounds of monkeys chanting from the jungle sometimes awakened me at night, but, hey, I could think of far worse sounds to wake up to.)
The 67-room hotel is beautifully designed. Then, there were the little things — like the hotel maid, who doubled as an artist, engineering every day’s clean towels into playful animal sculptures, from monkeys to bears to rabbits.
The breakfast included in our cost was laden with fresh fruits and other local treats and was big enough to serve as lunch, too. And the hotel has three pools — a kiddie pool, a decadent pool with a fountain and a swim-up bar in the courtyard, and a sixth-floor rooftop pool where many guests go to toast the sunset. Finally, the San Bada is just a five-minute walk from the town’s tiny commercial area, where street vendors offer hand-sliced coconuts and hand-carved wooden toucans — an adventure in itself.
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