Manuel Antonio National Park

If I’m being honest, one of the major reasons we visited Costa Rica before any other Central American country involved a certain three-toed creature. Sloths have played a central role in a long-standing family joke and it felt only appropriate that we should trek some down while stationed in this region. I had harbored grand illusions of crossing paths with a slow-moving sloth in the road, at which point we’d have no choice but to pick him up and help him along his journey. That never happened, but Costa Rica didn’t disappoint.

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Low-hanging sloth, one of the few low enough to enjoy without a zoom lense.

If seeing a sloth is a must on your itinerary, Manuel Antonio National Park is the place to be. (Pro tip: Go early! You can’t really beat the crowds, but the park limits entrances to 600 people each day.) We read countless reviews chiding anyone foolish enough to enter the park without a guide, so we went ahead and coughed up the money for a private guide. We’re not ones for organized tourism, cringing at the sight of tour buses, but hiring a guide was well worth it. The thing about sloths, if you didn’t know, is that they live in trees. Really, really tall trees. While we saw some low-hanging sloths on our own, the majority couldn’t be spotted without a telescope and the keen eye of a guide.

The guides were as amusing as the animals. Our guide, Alvin, would stop dead during a brisk walk, pause mid-sentence, snap his head to the side and have his scope set up at Clark-Kent-in-a-telephone-booth speed. We’d be searching high and low in the canopy finding nothing at all until Alvin expertly pointed us in the right direction. There’s an interesting dynamic between guides as well; they don’t compete for clients (not necessary with the huge influx of people clamoring to see sloths), instead choosing to share their finds and give one another tips on where to look.

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Worth about $20, this is the best souvenir.

Also refreshing was the guides’ attitude towards the park. They threatened to report tourists straying from the trail and demanded respect for the animals. Whether they truly care for the environment or simply understand that preservation is crucial for the country’s tourism industry (and thus their job security), they weren’t messing around. The entire country seems to understand the massive draw of Costa Rica’s biodiversity. Sloths abound, from the currency to store signs and logos, and there are countless monkey tours, bird sanctuaries, and whale watches.

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Tired after ransacking the bags of beach-goers.

 

It’s not only sloths, of course; in the park we saw all varieties of lizards, monkeys, something described as a “giant guinea pig,” and some mischevious raccoons sneaking across the beach towels of unsuspecting tourists. As if dozens of fuzzy mammals running around isn’t enough, the park empties out into a stunning whitesand beach, where many visitors set up shop for the day after a tour through the paths. But with nice waves awaiting us back in Jaco, we didn’t linger too long.

Manuel Antonio was just another one of the magical places that seems to good to be true. We joked that park rangers were only there to kidnap unsuspecting sloths and place them close enough to the path to be enjoyed by flocks of tourists. Either that or the grass really is just greener in Costa Rica.

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