I went to Manuel Antonio National Park for straight nine days: it's the only way to go to a beach that resembles a good Caribbean beach. A Costa Rican habit is to try to gouge you at every transaction, and no less with the National Park fee. That is not to say that some of the people I met were very good at their jobs. Especially a particular driver who saved me from driving in a country where traffic cops, backed by Draconian traffic laws (a cop can confiscate your vehicle for speeding, for instance), they extort hundreds of dollars daily from tourists driving rentals.
Fine amounts are going to triple, pending legislation, so the public cow milking will soon start with a $500 negotiating base. How good can you negotiate ... a traffic ticket....? Are you willing to attend two court hearings month's apart, miles away to fight the extortion?
The Park Fees were $7 per day per person but went up recently to $10. Nationals and residents pay ~$3.
Still, it beats staying on Beach One (Playa Uno), a wide front conspicuous for rip tides, and the hotels' storm drains emptying into it. This beach has a pretty good road running its length with a few bars and shops facing the sea.
Things get better in Beach Two (Playa Dos): It's a wide receding bay with pale sand, remarkable rock formations, and pretty green trees down to the tide line. Under the canopy a wide trail runs the length of Playa Dos never far from the sand. The pretty trees the water touches first are rows of "Manzanillo" -- a dangerous tree due to the large quantities of caustic sap contained in its leaves, twigs, bark, and fruit. "Don't touch, Wash Your Hands If You Have."
The next beach is Playa Tres. Though smaller, in shape and size it resembles St. Thomas' Magens Bay. About 1/4 of the bay's length at its center faces the open sea; in the enclosed sides the beach has less surf and no rip tides. On the white sand you find armies of hermit crabs carrying the borrowed shell of rock snails or some other empty shell. They are harmless, bad food, and good pets.
Playa Tres has the fewest Manzanillo trees. It's the beach to go.
All beaches, however, lacked qualities many find desirable in a beach. water depth increases sharply within 50feet of the beach, expanses of sand mix with rocks and stones litter the floor much like in inland secondary roads.
I much prefer a long tapering soft beach like Miami's South Beach of the beaches of Formentera, Spain. I am not alone.
Visibility under water is a big problem. Never see your feet again as soon as water reaches your waist. Forget snorkeling. Snorkeling tours are available for $35, and take place elsewhere. A friend of mine was quite happy with it.
Of all the ecology I liked the trees and other vegetation best: incredible forms and trees I've never seen before. Tarzan stuff. The fauna is different. You may not feed them, but it's hard not to: monkeys steal the lunch of idle bathers every time they try, dropping what they don't value from the a tree top.
Lots of iguanas and Jesus Christ lizards
It's remarkable for a tropical country but I never saw a cockroach, in or out of the park. It must be all those lizards of all shapes and sizes making whole lower species scarce.
You can hire a certified park guide for a negotiable price to see the forest in more detail. They use binoculars on tripods to spy up the canopy. It was worth it for us.
The park closes at 4 PM, which a bit early since there is no tearing down to do because the park is almost bare of services.
The fact that there is a dedicated corp of rangers working at the park speaks much of Porto Rican priorities when it comes to the environment, they do care and are relatively well organized.
On leaving over came the sense that the Manuel Antonio National Park biological treasures, even with adequate conservation efforts ongoing, the park is being poorly stewarded. Too many cars are allowed in. Staff should be given electric cars. Some easy distance outside the park their should be a seafront with cool places to congregate for the evening and start up some night life.
The park has potential to rival most parks if only it were made to live up to the best of its possibilities, and meet the expectations of people who have enjoyed the parks Orlando, for example, or other real natural parks.
They need good access roads, well-maintained trails, enhancing if not staging beauty spots. The park would have its authenticity over all artificial parks, and some splendid services could be established without negative impact.
Yosemite has a hotel after all and it remains a beautiful wild place.
Do yourself a favor before leaving, drive to Orotina, Fruit City, and eat a very ripe 'zapote.' It's a fruit the size of a cantaloupe but of an unremarkable earthy brown color. When ripe it peels like a cold cooked yam. Local artists use the seed in crafts. It is a delight to discover a great new fruit you didn't know. This one's taste is sweetly characteristic and hard to put down.