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MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK

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Once a banana shipping center, Quepos ("KEH-pos") saw its fortunes decline with those of the plantations nearby. The town is now languid and shabby, with a strip of dingy sand. Who would guess that the nicest beaches in Costa Rica are just over the ridge? Read on.

Seven kilometers beyond Quepos are the perfect beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park, each an arc of sand curving around a bay strewn with islands of rock, and shaded by green bordering forests. All are backdropped by dramatic cliffs. Manuel Antonio beach is one of the few places in Costa Rica where unspoiled primary forest grows right to the high-tide mark, allowing visitors to bathe at times in the shade.

South Espadilla is the northernmost of the park’s beaches, followed by calmer Manuel Antonio beach, offshore of which are some coral spots. Third Beach has tidal pools where brightly colored fish and eels are intermittently stranded. Last is Puerto Escondido, access to which is made difficult by the bordering rocky promontory.

Some of the most frequently observed animals at Manuel Antonio are marmosets -the smallest of Costa Rican monkeys- white-faced and howler monkeys, raccoons, pacas, opossums, and two-and three-toed sloths. Easily sighted seabirds includes frigate birds, pelicans, terns, and brown boobies. A network of trails winds along the sea, and all through the forest.

Despite the sometimes frenzied activity at Espadilla beach, things turn peaceful as soon as you cross a stream (wading in the rainy season) and enter the park. Check the depth by watching others cross. If you plan to swim, leave your camera and valuables at your hotel desk.

Visiting hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Take a good look at the map posted at the entrance, and plan your route - trails are not well-marked. Take note of the illustrated signs warning of the manzanillo de playa, a tree with poisonous, apple-like fruits, and sap that irritates the skin.

Caution is advisable when swimming here. Red Cross personnel are hand at busy times, but otherwise, there are no provisions for beach safety, and the currents are notoriously tricky. Stay out of water deeper than your waist.

If you continue straight after entering Quepos, past the left turn for Manuel Antonio, and go down toward the docks, then take a half left, you can climb the hill to the old banana company residential compound, a suburb of pleasant, uniform, tan clapboard bungalows with red tin roofs, set behind fences on well-manicured grounds shaded by huge palms. There are sport and community centers, including one of the largest swimming pools around, and views that rival those available from the resort hotels of the area.

The houses are owned by Standard Fruit, and populated by Costa Rican managers, not gringos. It’s all quite a contrast to the town below. By the way, the roads are private, and you’re not supposed to enter the compound, but foreigners who can’t read the signs are not chased away.

Down below the fruit company homes, if you continue along the shore and around the bend about a half-kilometer from town, you’ll come to Paradero Turístico Nahomi, which is a sort of public-resort-complex-without-hotel, a series of concrete-and-stone terraces on a rocky point of land almost surrounded by water. Here you’ll find an inexpensive and pleasant shaded outdoor restaurant, open from 11 a.m.; and two pools and dressing rooms, which you can use from 9 a.m. on for a small fee. The surroundings are palms and plants, and except for some nearby warehouses, the scene is as pleasant as you’ll find in the area.

Slightly off the tourist track is foggy Londres ("London"), a farming village which you can reach on a driving or mountain-bike excursion through scenery more hilly and interesting than what you see as you travel down the coastal highway. To head to London, take the turn north, about four kilometers past the first entry to Quepos, near the airstrip A dirt road meanders through palms, pastured hills, and sugar-cane plantings. About ten kilometers on is a steel suspension bridge, more impressive than those right on the highway, over a river that rushes over boulders even in the dry season. And just beyond is Londres proper, an out-of-the-old-days hamlet populated by barefoot peasants of no pretense, with whom, if you choose, you can raise elbows with a refreshment at the Club Social Londinense.

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