Trip Report - Manuel Antonio April 2008

Old Apr 27th, 2008, 01:52 PM
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Trip Report - Manuel Antonio April 2008

(This is a probably too-long trip report considering we didn’t do even one tour the entire time, but it’s my first – so please allow me this indulgence! It may be a bit boring for most.)

16 April to 21 April 2008 – Manuel Antonio – Buena Vista Villas

First of all, let me say that this was my first time out of the country in almost 14 years. Way, way too long. I bought these tickets to CR way back in October, almost spontaneously. A great price came up ($260 round trip from NYC with US Airways), and I just bought them, without even really knowing anything about Costa Rica or whether or not I’d really like to go there. That’s so out of my character, but I’m so glad I did it. I got the tickets as a birthday present for my partner, whose birthday we celebrated in Manuel Antonio.

My only regret is I wish I had known there was so much to see in CR before purchasing the tickets (but that’s why it was spontaneous), and I wish I had known that a decent amount of extra travel is required after landing to really get anywhere. If I had known that, we would’ve stayed longer and gotten in at least one other location. As it is, we only scheduled ourselves to be there for 5 nights, so we decided to pick one location so we could also relax a bit instead of having to travel internally anymore than we did. If I could do it over (and hopefully I’ll have the chance!), I would’ve stayed for at least 8 nights and gone to Arenal also – or just had more time in MA.

I want to thank everyone on these sites (Trip Advisor and Fodors) for all the valuable information. It made planning this trip so much fun – an adventure in itself. And very informative. It would be an understatement to say I became a bit obsessive in the planning and researching! I also relied heavily on the Lonely Planet guide, though I found it a bit contemptuous in tone - especially the section on Manuel Antonio. I understand the area is way over-touristed, but there’s a reason why (it’s so beautiful). I also found Harry Pariser’s book Explore Costa Rica very helpful, as well as the New Key to Costa Rica and the Moon book. Quite honestly, I spent a lot of time in the travel section of Barnes and Noble, using it as my travel library – I think they were getting suspicious of me toward the end!

Just to give a quick idea of who we are: I’m 39 and my partner is 51. We live in NYC, so we walk A LOT. We don’t own cars and we use the subway and public transportation – but we mostly use our feet to get around. We’re not athletes or fitness freaks, but we’re in pretty good shape. We’re on somewhat limited incomes which is why we haven’t traveled much. We do care about the environment, but we also know our limitations. Honestly, for this first trip to a tropical climate, I was afraid to stay in a hotel without a/c (for sleeping at night), and I really wanted the option of a pool (which we ended up using only once – so go figure). It WAS a vacation, and I wanted a few creature comforts. We also wanted both the rainforest experience and a beach experience.

After struggling with where to go – we seriously considered the Puerto Viejo area first – we settled on Manuel Antonio mostly because it seemed like it involved a bit less travel time. Since we only had 5 nights total, we wanted to get to our final destination that first day. I wasn’t initially entirely happy with this decision – I didn’t really want to add to the overly developed tourism industry in that area – but I’m very happy we went to MA, and I will definitely return.

Day 1

We arrived at SJO on US Airways at 1:15 PM. Our flight was actually 15 minutes early and we made it through immigration and customs in about 15 minutes (we didn’t check luggage). Our driver (Manuel Acuña, 506-8-332-8726, [email protected]) was there with a sign as promised, and we were on the road to Quepos by 1:45 PM. I hadn’t even expected to be out of the airport before 2:15 or so, so this was a great start. As commented in someone else’s trip report, none of my fears of what could’ve gone wrong were realized – it all went off way more smoothly than I could’ve hoped for.

Manuel was a great driver, a rich source of information about the country and extremely nice, and I’m very glad I decided to hire a driver and Manuel specifically. I had gotten his name and number from the Banana Azul (in Puerto Viejo) website (thank you Colin!). I’m a pretty good driver myself (so I’ve been told!), but I just didn’t know what to expect – so I was afraid to rent a car and do it myself. Now that I’ve been there, I still don’t know if I’d do it myself. The roads were all fine, but I would’ve missed so much if I had been driving. And the lack of signage – I just know I would’ve taken a couple wrong turns. Plus, since this was my first trip to CR and to Central America, we were overwhelmed with all the newness – it was sort of like a major case of sensory overload. As we drove along, we were constantly saying, “Oh, look at that! And that! Wow, what is that?! Look at the COLOR of those flowers!” There was A LOT to see and take in.

After a quick stop at the Pali supermarket (owned by Wal-Mart – ugh!) in Quepos, we made it to Tulemar and Buena Vista Villas at around 5:30 PM. We were SO tired and overwhelmed by the time we got there, that we basically went to our room, eventually ordered room service and died for the night by 8:15 PM. You can read my full review of BVV on Trip Advisor.

Day 2

Having gone to bed so early the night before, I was up and out on our balcony by 6 AM the next morning. This is VERY early for me! But it felt right and I was so excited to get outside and see what I could see. I immediately spotted a basilisk lizard on a branch of a tree right in front of our balcony, and soon after I spotted a blue morpho butterfly fly by – so much more beautiful than in photos! I let my partner sleep for a while since it was his birthday, but at about 6:45 AM a troop of squirrel monkeys with babies on their backs started coming through. I got my partner up and dragged him out to the balcony. He was so glad I had. What a great welcome and what a special birthday present! Before the squirrel monkeys were gone, a troop of capuchin monkeys came by also. It was the best welcome wagon we could’ve hoped for. Of course, I was out on the balcony at the crack of dawn every morning the remaining four days, but we were never graced with another visit quite like that. It was fine though because we saw a lot more wildlife in the coming days.

We spent that first day down at the beach of the hotel and on our balcony, soaking up the peace and beautiful air.

That night we walked out of the “compound” – as we started calling the grounds of Tulemar – and went to dinner at Barba Roja just down the street. We got a great table to watch the sunset, and it did not disappoint. Super beautiful. And the food was great too. I had a salad and the Aztec Chicken, and my partner had the ribs – all very tasty and affordable (at least by NYC standards).

Walking back to Tulemar was fairly easy in the dark, but I’m glad we brought flashlights with us.

Day 3

This day we caught the bus and went down to the park. The bus was a very convenient and quick (and cheap!) way to get down to the park – and it stops about a block up the road from Tulemar.

We didn’t hire a guide for the park. I don’t regret this decision for this day but I wish I would’ve gone back another day and done the hike with a guide – I think it would’ve been completely worth it. I don’t regret this decision though because when we got to Playa Manuel Antonio we were so seduced by the water (and the low tide – this was at about 9 AM – and the lack of people) that we decided to go swimming immediately. When we walked by the beach later as we were leaving the park, the tide had come up significantly, and it didn’t look as appealing – and it was much more crowded. The water was wonderful! So clear and warm! The only bad thing – and I guess this comes from the tourism – was the little bits of paper and plastic bags in the water. Not a lot, but enough to remind us we weren’t in an unspoiled area. Also, the capuchin monkeys came down as predicted, trying to steal food and items from people. And, of course, people threw food at them. Why do people keep doing this?! I think everyone knows not to feed them at this point, but they just keep doing it – it’s a real shame.

Soon after leaving the beach to continue on in the park, we spotted a young sloth coming down a tree to defecate. Since they only do this about once a week (I think), this was truly a special experience. It made my day. After that, we attempted to take the path to the mirador, but after making it up about ¾ of way, we gave up! By that time we were getting very hot and probably needed to take a break – and we were being a bit lazy. On the way back down, we were sort of cornered by two or three capuchin monkeys on the trail. They meant no harm, but it was sort of scary there for a few seconds – they can be intimidating! We eventually just passed them and moved on.

We made a quick stop at the 3rd beach on the way out. Very beautiful but it didn’t seem very swimmable – a very strong current – so we didn’t get in. On the way out of the park we saw many other creatures – spiders, lizards, more monkeys & sloths, plants and trees. Again, I wish I had had the chance to go back to the park and do a proper guided hike – next time for sure.

After leaving the park we ate at Marlin Restaurant which was very good and inexpensive, and we took the bus back to Tulemar. When we got back to our room, my partner spotted a pizote sleeping across from our balcony. That night, we were pretty tired and ended up ordering from room service and lounging around on the balcony listening to all the amazing sounds.

Day 4

After breakfast, we walked to Si Como No to go to the butterfly garden. We hadn’t called ahead, and when we got there it seemed like they maybe weren’t totally prepared for visitors. We felt sort of strange and decided not do this – another of my regrets. Again, next time (and I really want to do the night tour here). We then walked down the hill to Playa Espadilla – the public beach. It was a pretty easy walk and allowed us to look at lots on the way. Down at Playa Espadilla, we walked around a bit, played in the water and found a shady bench to sit on to people-watch for about an hour or so (and we spotted another basilisk lizard). Afterward, we took the bus back up the hill and ate at Angel, a great little restaurant across the street from the Super Joseth, the supermarket about 3 blocks up the road from Tulemar. We had the most amazing black bean soup I’ve ever tasted in my life, a huge delicious avocado salad, and the chicken cosado. Yum, yum, yum – highly recommended.

Afterward, we went shopping at the Super Joseth and got caught in a rainstorm on the way back to the hotel. But it was all fine – it felt great. Later we took our one and only dip in the Villas pool, but it just didn’t measure up after being in the ocean. That night we went out to eat at Salsipuedes, right next door to Tulemar, but they were having a private party. Since I didn’t have my list of restaurants with me, we just went back to Barba Roja again and had another great meal (we’re such creatures of habit!).

Day 5

This was our last full day. We went down to the hotel beach again and had fun with the boogie boards. After saying a farewell to the beach, we headed out of the compound again. We stopped in at Café Milagro down the hill from Tulemar and had iced coffee in the back patio/yard. We were the only people there, and it was so quiet. After a while we heard the bushes behind us rustling, and I assumed we would see yet another iguana. But, to my delight, an armadillo was making its way through the bushes! It was so exciting. They’re so interesting looking – almost rabbit-like. Right after that, I decided to look up into the trees and lo and behold, I spotted a large, sleeping sloth! We had just gone in to have some coffee and relax and we ended up seeing so much wildlife. I guess if you live there you see these creatures all the time – I assume it’s like seeing squirrels and pigeons for us – but it was so novel for us.

After that, we walked the road down Punta Quepos for a bit, but I didn’t know where the trails were and the road was quite dusty and not very scenic. I thought we might be able to hike some trails, but I never found any – I’m sure they’re there though. The amount of development along this road was somewhat depressing – at least two large hotels or condo buildings going up. Again, I know we were contributing to this development by choosing to go here as tourists, but it just seems like there’s enough in the area already – is there really a need for more hotels at this point? I don’t know what the answer is – do we stop going to this beautiful part of the country because it’s over-developed – or is there something we can do while visiting to help the situation? Obviously, I do have some mixed feelings about this.

After getting caught in a downpour, we finally made it to Salsipuedes for an early dinner. They were just opening up, and we were escorted in by Marcella, one of the owners. She was great. We talked with her for a long time, and she made us feel okay about getting there right when they were opening (and maybe not entirely ready for us!). The food was exceptional – again, an amazing black bean soup – and again, very affordable. I wish we had gone there earlier in the trip.

Day 6

Manuel met us at 8:30 AM for the drive back to the airport. We sadly said goodbye. On the way back, we made the obligatory stop at Tarcoles Bridge to see the crocodiles and it did not disappoint. They were huge! Since we were doing so well with time, we also stopped at El Cafetal in Atenas for coffee over-looking the valley and mountains. We saw so many wonderful bougainvillea flowers on the way back – those colors are out of this world! We got to the airport at 12 noon. We had an uneventful trip through the airport, paying our departure tax and going through security.

I know the typical trip to CR seems to include many tours and adventure jaunts, but we really needed a restful vacation without the pressure to do a lot. Choosing Manuel Antonio and Buena Vista Villas/Tulemar allowed us to do just that but without sacrificing wildlife sightings. I saw so much wildlife just walking around the grounds of the hotel, hanging out at the beach and walking along the road – when I least expected it – that I feel very satisfied (though we heard howler monkeys, we never saw one – and I didn’t get to see a toucan or a poison dart frog – but everything else I was hoping to see, I did). It has definitely left me with a burning desire to return, and next time I will allow more time to do some of those guided tours.

I also think the southern Caribbean coast may offer many of the same elements as Manuel Antonio (the wildlife, the rainforest and the beach) but without the over-development (yet) – so we may make a sincere effort to go there next time. The fact is I am a tourist when I go there, and my presence has both a positive and a negative impact – but I’d like to find a way to do it decrease the negative if possible.

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Old Apr 27th, 2008, 02:51 PM
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Thanks for the detailed report, we are going to MA next month, and will try some of those restaurants.
Good to hear you saw so much wildlife, I am really looking forward to that!
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Old Apr 28th, 2008, 05:33 AM
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Yeah, we didn't have one bad meal there - it was all very good. And we ended up at pretty inexpensive places. If I could do it over, I would've gone to Angel more often - it was really, really inexpensive and I believe it was pretty much "authentic" Costa Rican dishes.
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Old Apr 28th, 2008, 06:06 AM
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Sounds like you had a wonderful time. And have just wet your apetite for more.

Thanks for the restaurant recs. My daughter will be at MA for the month of June and I have been searching for inexpensive restaurants. Marlins I knew about, Angel I will put on her list of places to search out.

As for not doing any tours - well sometimes when we return from a trip, I wonder what did we do with all our time? Sometimes it is just as you, we simply were there enjoying the nature and our time together. Sometimes that is just what we all need.

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Old Apr 28th, 2008, 04:48 PM
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Thanks fo your review on Buena Vista Villas. We're staying in a one bedroom villas in June. The property and beach area sounds wonderful!
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Old Apr 28th, 2008, 05:56 PM
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Excellent report, plum; thanks for sharing!
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Old Apr 28th, 2008, 06:20 PM
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Yes, it was all great. Of course, now I have the Costa Rican disease very badly! I can't wait to go back, and I'm already plotting my next trip, trying to figure out a way to get back there as quickly as possible! Is this what it does to everyone?!

Though I loved the MA area, I've pretty much decided on the Puerto Viejo area next - specifically Punta Uva and points south. I know most of the accommodations are a bit more "rustic" but I think I can deal - especially now that I've been once. The payoff is more pristine water and beaches, and hopefully lots more wildlife... I'm addicted, that's for sure...
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Old Apr 28th, 2008, 08:03 PM
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Puerto Viejo area actually has some very nice accomodations. At $70, one of the best values is Azania Bungalows. Of course, I'm quoting green season prices since that is what we usually are looking for.

Cabinas Casa Verde also gets good reviews--in Puerto Viejo. We are thinking of staying there for a couple of nights at $30 per night. Not bad! That's with shared bath. It's about $45 for private bath.

If you want to avoid rustic, though, there are several excellent hotels. Check out Almonds & Corals Tent Camp (expensive), Azania, Caribue, Shawanda, Aguas Claras (great beach access here) to name a few. . .
also La Costa de Pepito.
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Old Apr 28th, 2008, 08:04 PM
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By the way, most of the accomodations i mentioned are between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. La Costa is nearer Puerto Viejo, and Almonds and Corals is almost to Manzanillo. The others are various places in between.
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Old Apr 29th, 2008, 05:47 AM
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Thanks for the suggestions! I'm actually also seriously considering Pachamama House and Bungalows. I had been in contact with the owners back in October when I first started planning this past trip, and they're amazing. I love the location too - it's a very short walk from Punta Uva (looks beautiful!), but it's tucked away in the forest so it's apparently cooler and shaded - with lots of opportunities for wildlife sightings. Looks lovely and gets stellar reviews on TA.

I will also look at Cariblue a bit more - and Azania. A pool might be nice, though we ended up only using the pool once on this last trip. I think once I've been in the ocean, a pool is very boring for me! I like the aliveness of the ocean.

Definitely many, many choices...
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Old Jul 21st, 2009, 03:41 PM
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Plum - I know this report in a year old, but its wonderful. I love your writing style, maybe because I get all that subtle NY salty wit. I live in Cali now, but am a NYawker by birth. DH and I are planning (or rather I am planning for DH and I) our first trip to CR and this provides me some really good information. I totally get your ambivalence about MV, but I think it makes sense to go there for our first trip. I def want some beach time too. Prelim planning has me thinking Arenal 4 nights and MV 4 nights.
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