The flaps go down, the wheels descend out of the body of the aircraft and suddenly the tiny plane shudders to a halt. The light is golden and I am surrounded by palm trees as far as the eye can see.
“Welcome to Quepos Manuel Antonio!” exclaims the handsome young pilot over his shoulder. It’s the first leg of my five-day excursion into Costa Rica’s southern and less-explored villages and jungles; a vagabond’s dream come true. I arrive in Quepos Manuel Antonio not as a tourist, but as a chronic itinerant. I’ve come to look at this place as bit of an obsession; it is as if some vortex constantly pulls me back.
With a long history of massive banana production run by the mega United Fruit Co., the Quepos area has long attracted foreigners traveling for business and for pleasure. After nearly fifty years of prosperity, labor strikes, fungal diseases, and a general upheaval in the banana industry caused the United Fruit Company to shut down all operations, leaving the vast majority of townspeople suddenly unemployed. The abandoned banana plantations were then converted into the palm oil plantations one can find there today, covering the majority of the land surrounding Quepos.
What most attracts tourists, homeowners, and young backpackers to Costa Rica, however, is its incredible bio-diversity. Just over the hill into Manuel Antonio, you are guaranteed to see at least two types of monkeys, if not three, as well as sloths, anteaters and scads of iguanas fleeing into the sand. For this reason, the national park of Manuel Antonio, founded in 1972, is the second most frequented location in the country. And, while some might find it overly touristy, others sacrifice rubbing elbows with fellow camera-clad foreigners for the opportunity to observe an abundance of wildlife.
The snaking road connecting the flat and bustling sport-fishing town of Quepos, to the lush and thriving Manuel Antonio beach and national park is flanked with restaurants, language schools and hotels, each boasting their own private mini reserves, sunset views, and secret margarita recipes. Prices and comfort-levels range from backpackers’ hostels, to private house rentals and high rise condos. Want Indian food? Tacos? Chinese? Sushi? It’s all there. How about just a good old “casado”? Done. In fact, you could spend days wining and dining in the abundance of restaurants and bars, which crowd with relaxed tourists and bronzed surfer boys every night.
Some suggestions: Visit the “chicken lady” right on the wooden picnic tables at the Espadilla public beach. She prepares the best traditional casado in the area, hands down. “Chicken lady” Doña Cecilia and her flock of sun-capped, gold-toothed girls flip crispy chicken legs and shish kabobs over a charcoal fire grill. Sit down, dig your toes in the sand, and don’t forget to try her homemade bbq sauce; it is mouthwatering. Looking for something a little more chi-chi and a little less sandy? Try Kapi Kapi or the Barba Roja for sunset mojitos, or my personal local favorite, a michelada - beer with lime and salt.