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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.