Let them fly free in Costa Rica

Exploring Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park reveals so many animals… but what happens when some are stolen?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

There’s a commotion ahead of me. I am distracted from the jungle, where I’m trying to spot monkeys, and instinctively head towards the sounds.

A group of tourists has congregated around two police cars and I fear the worst. But when I arrive and peer over the heads of those already gathered, I realise there is nothing to worry about.

I’m here in the Manuel Antonio National Park, about halfway down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

It is a wilderness paradise, full of some of the country’s most iconic animals, and that is what has brought the police here today.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

For decades, Costa Rica has been a leader in conservation and ecotourism. That means not just acting green but constantly having to demonstrate to people what that means.

A few days earlier, police had caught some locals who had illegally captured some local birds. The animals were destined to be used as pets or smuggled overseas.

Rescuing the birds and punishing the perpetrators is not enough, though. The authorities want to make a statement.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

That’s why they have come here to Manuel Antonio National Park to release the birds they rescued. One by one, they are taking small wooden cages out of the back of their truck, opening the doors, and letting the birds fly free into the wild.

None of the birds seems to go too far – they fly to a nearby branch and sit, looking around them, trying to get their bearings.

It’s not clear how long they have been in captivity but they are taking a few moments to appreciate their freedom.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Symbolically, the police crush the cages with their feet after the birds are released. The tourists clap and the police smile with pride.

This may be a small action in the grand scheme of wildlife conservation in Costa Rica, but it’s representative of the larger culture and it’s something tangible that visitors can see.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Visiting Manuel Antonio

This is the perfect setting for an activity like this.

Manuel Antonio is the smallest of Costa Rica’s 26 national parks with an area of about 2,000 hectares. But with its easy accessibility and wide variety of animals, it is one of the most popular in the country.

I have never been to Costa Rica before and I’m finding it to be a good introduction to the wildlife and vegetation this part of the world is so famous for.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

The entrance to the park, about five kilometres from the town of Quepos, is relatively nondescript. There’s a small car park and a simple gate and hut where your entrance ticket will be collected (it costs $10 to get in and, if you don’t already have a ticket, you can buy it at a booth nearby).

Then there’s a single trail you will follow most of the way to the coast. It’s a wide path, enough for a car, although only official vehicles are allowed along here.

If I hadn’t known better, I might have walked along at a decent speed to find where the path was leading. Thankfully my guide makes me take it slowly and we study the trees as we walk.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

A branch nearby shakes. To me, the uninitiated, that just means a branch is shaking. To my guide, it means there are animals nearby.

We stop to watch and within a minute a whole troop of squirrel monkeys appears. They swing from branch to branch, stop to grab food from the trees, and then all screech in unison when they spot a large predatory bird nearby.

Some of the monkeys are high in the foliage and hard to spot but others come down a bit lower and are just metres away from me.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

I see more animals as I walk along the trail but it’s not until the path takes me down to the beach that certain species appear.

One of the most beautiful things about Manuel Antonio is the way the jungle reaches all the way to the coast and many of the visitors are here to lie on the sand or swim in the waters.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

The animals know this is where scraps of food will be left at the end of the day so many of them are waiting patiently just out of reach.

I see more squirrel monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, raccoons, crabs, lizards, birds and butterflies.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Some seem to be living quite independently and irrespective of the homo sapiens. Others are wary but know there’s the chance to source some food from this strange species.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Seeing the raccoons sticking their heads into the bins is a bit unsettling but it’s probably hard to avoid.

Thankfully the paths where visitors are able to walk make up just a very small part of the park and most of the area is just for the animals to live with each other without man’s interruption.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

For the most part, intervention by man is actually helping to keep the natural balance in the park – such as the release of the native birds.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Before I leave, I meet a local ranger who tells me that just this morning he saw a crocodile eat one of the raccoons just metres from where a group of tourists are currently taking photos of an iguana on a tree.

I guess ultimately it’s animal instinct that controls life here at Manuel Antonio.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Costa Rica but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

18 thoughts on “Let them fly free in Costa Rica”

  1. Fantastic story! It was so inspiring to read about these birds being released and the symbolic breaking of the cages is a gesture that is easy to appreciate. I am even more impressed by how many how many of these gorgeous animals you manage to capture on film! You portray Costa Rica and Manuel Antonio National Park beautifully!

    • Thanks, Mary. It was fascinating to see a real tangible example of ecotourism in Costa Rica. You hear a lot of people talking about the big picture but, when you see a small incidence like this, it helps you see how passionate the local authorities are about conservation.

    • It had happened earlier in the day so I’m not sure. But I guess it would have been pretty hard to miss if it was happening right in front of you. Would have been a bit scary, I can imagine!

    • Yes, even though it was done in front of visitors to the park, a lot of them were local people. It wasn’t just a PR exercise for foreigners. Presumably word starts to spread through the communities in the region and that stops some people from trying to poach birds themselves.

  2. Good post – you captured a lot of animals. A great initiative and, honestly, well needed – we were there a few years ago and were not at all impressed. HORDES of tourists (I would recommend not going there during the Christmas holiday period) and honestly the place felt more like a walking zoo than a national park. We were also warned about the water in the area, not so much in the park but along the edges where the little streams run behind the hotels. I was pretty critical of Manuel Antonio: http://bbqboy.net/manuel-antonio-coconut-filled-paradise-i-dont-think-so/

    Anything the authorities can do to help the animals is a move in the right direction. Maybe they should also think of having a cap on the number of visitors allowed in on a daily basis?
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • I went in the afternoon (didn’t arrive until about 2pm) and it wasn’t too busy at all. But I had been warned that there are a lot more people there in the morning when the tourist buses come in. I was surprised at how small the area you could walk in was, so limiting the numbers of visitors would probably be a good idea during peak seasons.

  3. I did my study abroad program in Costa Rica in 1997. I remember going to Manuel Antonio and I remember that exact beach you have pictured above! Sadly, I don’t remember spotting any monkeys but the birds were plentiful. One even pooped on my teacher’s head during one of our biology class excursions to the park! Oh how I’d love to get back there some day.

  4. Nice to see the work of these cops! I think this was not the first time they do something like this, a few years ago they released a few birds of the area that they took away from people that were not allowed to have them in captivity!
    I loved those pictures! nice work
    Greetings from Costa Rica

    • I imagine it’s something they do from time to time. Sadly it doesn’t stop all the poaching and illegal captivity. It’s great that they do it in public so the message starts to get out, though, isn’t it?


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