Manuel Antonio, COSTA RICA — It’s a jungle out there. Life is a beach. Combine the clichés and contradictions with paradise and you’ve got the Manuel Antonio region of Costa Rica. The country’s universal theme and common greeting — “Pura Vida” (pure life) — says all there is to know about the Costa Rican culture.
While impossible to take for granted the spectacular sunsets, there is plenty to do during the 24-hour stretches between.
Residents and visitors equably share the expansive (and remarkably clean) ocean beaches of powdery soft sand. Not far off shore, whale and dolphin sightings are routine. The mystically lush jungles are teeming with monkeys, sloths, deer, racoons, toucans, parrots, scorpions, snakes (some venomous), red-eyed frogs and other strange amphibians, and more.
And in spite of a glimpse of a somewhat frightening giant rodent, reminiscent of the ROUS (rodent of unusual size) that inhabited the Fire Swamp in “The Princess Bride,” there is a sublimity with which the myriad creatures and their human guests comfortably intermingle.
THERE’S MORE. For those who imagine Costa Rica’s exceptionality but have yet to appreciate its color first-hand, here a few subtle shades to add to the portrait.
ENTREPRENEURIAL SOUL. Some tourists find the onslaught of street vendors unnerving. I’m impressed and inspired by their ingenuity and work ethic. (By contrast, no one is begging for a handout.)
This enterprising commerce is mostly “zoned” to the beaches, where on the streets above you’ll be greeted by car parkers, protectors, even door openers. On the beach you’ll be hailed by renters of lounge chairs and umbrellas ($10 for the day) and snorkeling gear. Once situated, the colorful umbrellas of the spirited armada of rolling carts catch your attention — offering snowcones, ceviche, coconuts and more.
Also hustling amongst the beachcombers, there’s the industrious solo operators selling everything from sunglasses, friendship bracelets and shell necklaces, to wooden bowls and cups, to the ever-present (melodious sounds of) hand-carved wooden toucan whistles.
COMFORT WITH CREATURES. Many of the famous jungle creatures — monkeys, iguanas, frogs, lizards, parrots — roam unaffectedly, creating cageless zoos amid the street sides and hotel grounds. A local favorite, the sloth, however, takes skill or luck to spot. Of course, the stuffed-doll versions are everywhere, but the real deal is nocturnal and spends days mostly hanging motionless from tree branches or utility wires.
THIS, TOO. Be aware of the not pedestrian-friendly streets … or sidewalks. | My favorite souvenir shirt design reads, “No Army Since 1948.” | Eating out, you are welcome to enjoy your dining experience all night long — or until the second or third time you signal to pay la cuenta, with your stash of colorful 5, 10, 20-thousand colones bills. Try the “(Son of) Big Ass Burger” or any fresh fish entrée at Café Agua Azul. Or, there’s the popular El Avion bar/restaurant, built inside a historic cargo plane with connections to the CIA and notorious Iran-Contra arms sales of Col. Oliver North. And finally, this aural alert: prepare for the omnipresent, nonstop sounds of eighties disco and pop classics and reggae-fied covers.
Simply put, the best Costa Rican adventure takeaway: Pura Vida!