Where’s the best destination for a nature-obsessed family eager for action and kids crazy for creatures? Toss in some breathtaking flowers to please a garden-loving Traveling Mom and Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica is the place, of course!

Costa Rica Magic

Spying a baby monkey in Costa Rica.

White Faced Capuchin Monkeys with baby Costa Rica. Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf

Costa Rica possesses a magical allure. There’s something primordial about the country. From volcanoes to tropical rainforests to abundant flora and fauna, the country entices, luring travelers to explore its mysteries and experience its adventures.

Bucket List Destination 

My bucket list placed Costa Rica firmly in first place. More than a decade ago, a friend shared stories over lunch about her travels to Costa Rica. Hiking in the rainforest. Kayaking with crocodiles. Whale watching in the Pacific. Add in the prominently promoted eco-tourism, abundant wildlife, lush landscapes and beautiful beaches, and every family members’ desires could be satisfied.

After all, when your family’s favorite shows are “Jeff Corwin” and “Planet Earth,” and one kid aspires to become a veterinarian and other a marine biologist, how can you go wrong in a land filled with biodiversity?

One of many sloths to see in Costa Rica.

One of many sloths to see in Costa Rica. Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf

Unlike most bucket-list destinations, our trip to Costa Rica occurred as a fluke. Originally, we planned to visit my sister-in-law, who lives in Malta. However, when we couldn’t find airfare for less than $3,000—per ticket—we opted for Plan B. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Plan B.

Instead, while on a garden writers’ trip, I spent evenings and breaks Googling destinations, sending links and profiles to my husband, Peter, messaging back and forth. Somehow, the bucket-list gods smiled on me: I found reasonable airfare and accommodations 10 days before our vacation.

It was kismet.

Planning Travels to Costa Rica

Normally, planning a trip to a destination like Costa Rica should be fairly simple. After all, there are dozens of reputable companies offering all-inclusive tours. Companies will plan your family’s itinerary, organize your flights, pre-screen your hotels, and book your activities.

Sadly, we are not that family.

Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf

Veer off the beaten path to a secluded beach and cove. Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf

We like to create our own adventures. We search for the least-crowded beaches, the paths less traveled. We try to experience as much local culture as possible. That means all-inclusive resorts and strict itineraries aren’t an option for us. We’re the ones who will hike five miles through a jungle to find the perfect secluded cove to snorkel, rather than hop into a shuttle to a tourist beach.

If you prefer out of the way, authentic adventures, we’ll be great travel buddies.

Sometimes, though, we’ll join a tour, then return later to explore on our own, which is exactly what we did when visiting Manuel Antonio National Park.

Hire a Naturalist Guide—and then Explore on Your Own

When you first arrive at the entrance of Manuel Antonio National Park, you’ll find a swarm of guides awaiting you. My recommendation? Ignore them. You want your experience in this beautiful park to be led by a certified naturalist. Many of the freelancers lingering at the entrance will show you wildlife through their spotting scopes—but they won’t offer the knowledge that a naturalist provides. Our hotel concierge at La Mariposa arranged our fabulous guide. Most hotels will know the best naturalists and will help you book them in advance of your excursion.

We met our guide bright and early, as the tours begin at 7:30 a.m. It’s an ideal time to view the wildlife, before the temperatures rise. Also, because Manuel Antonio National Park is only three square miles, park rangers limit the number of visitors inside the park to 800 at a time.

A regal iguana poses in Costa Rica.

A regal iguana poses in Costa Rica. Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf

Our guide reviewed a few rules with our group of 10—the maximum number allowed by our guide. (We saw quite a few larger groups with the freelancers.) Mainly, he reminded us to remain on the trails, avoid disturbing the animals, not feed the wildlife, and take lots of photos.

Scary spider hiding in Manuel Antonio Park in Costa Rica.

Scary spider hiding in Manuel Antonio Park in Costa Rica. Glad I had a long lens! Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf

No problem.

As we began our hike, our guide awed us with his ability to spot wildlife camouflaged beautifully into its surroundings. He would tell us a bit about what we would see as he set up his spotting scope, then each member of the group took turns experiencing an up-close view of the specimen. It was interesting to listen to other guides and watch the reaction of their tour groups. They looked through the scope–and moved on. As our guide spotted insects, birds, bats, and mammals, he’d not only identify them for us, he’d also give us background about them, then show us related species in his guide book. He spoke at length about the symbiotic relationship between animals and plants.

 

It’s worth the effort to hire a naturalist.

Our guide provided plenty of time to view the animal or insect before moving on to the next stop. After everyone took turns with the scope, he then helped our son use his iPod to take a photo of the animal through the scope.

Perfect souvenirs for an animal crazy kid!

Our guide’s knowledge, patience, and personality created a perfect experience in the park. Please, I beg you: hire a naturalist guide. You’ll be so glad that you did.

Wonderful Wildlife

Magical Costa Rica: Flora and Fauna Fun in Manuel Antonio National ParkOur guide entertained us with tales, but the wildlife stole the show!

 

If you love animals, you will adore the National Park. Sloths. Monkeys. Iguanas. Land crabs. Snakes. Insects and arachnids galore. In fact, the park is home to more than 180 species of mammals and 350 species of birds.

The diversity of wildlife is phenomenal.

And of course, you know I fell in love with the tropical flowers. Hummingbirds flitted to the blooms. Occasionally, though, I’d be surprised by something not quite as lovely as the plant I tried to photograph.

During the hike with our guide, we found that we felt a bit rushed. While our group was small, there were dozens of guides leading groups throughout the park. We’re lingerers, at least where wildlife is found. Also, as we headed to the end of the trail toward the beach, we suddenly found ourselves in quite a crowd.

It wasn’t pleasant.

Our kids, wildlife advocates that they are, watched—horrified—as tourists fed chips and Cheetos to monkeys and raccoons. The monkeys caused quite a ruckus, as a turf battle appeared ready to explode. We stayed for a bit, then headed back on the trail, determined to return to the park on our own.

I’m so glad we did.

Exploring Off the Beaten Path

Beautiful bird of paradise in Manuel Antonio Park in Costa Rica.

Beautiful Bird of Paradise in Manuel Antonio Park in Costa Rica. Wish I could grow this in South Carolina. Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf

Our second visit found us on a much quieter trail. Knowing where and how to look for wildlife, thanks to our guide, we spent more time really searching the trees and undergrowth for animals.

It was fabulous.

As we hiked, we explored a different trail, leading us away from the tourists toward a stunning, nearly-deserted beach.

We’d brought snorkeling gear along for the hike, and the cove proved perfect. Peter and the kids snorkeled while I stalked wildlife with my camera, then I joined them in the ocean.

Bliss. And not a wildlife-feeding tourist to be seen.

(Of course, while I stalked wildlife, I found plenty of fabulous flowers, too.)

Details, Details…

Manuel Antonio National Park is a must-visit destination. It’s open Tuesday-Sunday from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. and closed on Mondays. September/October is considered the “green” season, which is actually marketing-speak for “rainy season,” so try to plan your visit accordingly. When we visited in 2015, admission was $16, and children under 12 are free. Tickets can be purchased at the park entrance. We paid $51 for adults, $35 for children for our guided tour. The tours last approximately three hours. I’d recommend wearing hiking boots, sunscreen, and mosquito spray (or long sleeves), especially in this time of the scary Zika virus. You’ll definitely want to add a camera and water to your backpack, as well as binoculars if you’re on your own.

I’m ready to return. Anyone need a tour guide?