San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

From Hidden Tropical Gem to Tourist Hot Spot

AFTER visitors first set foot in Manuel Antonio National Park, two questions invariably pop into their heads: How can nature have come together to produce this scenery of serene and sublime perfection? And who is Manuel Antonio?According to park administrator José Antonio Salazar, that is the ¢80-million question.Although no historical record exists and explanations as to the mystery of the origins of the park’s name abound, the most accepted version tells of days when the park’s neighboring port city of Quepos, on the country’s central Pacific coast, was a banana-company town, Salazar explained.“Back in the 1930s, Quepos was a center of banana production. The town and harbor were dirty, its waters were sharkinfested, and people from the town had to look elsewhere for recreational spots,” said Salazar, who has been the administrator of Manuel Antonio Park for 16 years.WHEN they finally discovered the beautiful beaches of what is now Manuel Antonio, Quepos residents had to trek for hours through a trail-less, overgrown jungle to reach them, and when they did, there was not a restaurant or refreshment stand in sight to appease their thirst, according to Salazar.An old man with a keen eye for business took advantage of the situation and started selling water and coffee to the beaches’ weekend visitors. His name was, of course, Manuel Antonio.“You know how we Costa Ricans are; after a while, people started saying, ‘Let’s go visit Manuel Antonio’ every time they wanted to go to the beaches, until finally the old man’s name stuck for good,” Salazar said.MANUEL Antonio became a national park in November 1972, as a result of the “indignation and mass fervor” of area residents, Salazar said.A Costa Rican family by the last name of Zúñiga, with ties to the banana companies, first owned Manuel Antonio, and in the 1960s sold the property to a U.S. citizen and a man from France, who barred outsiders from entrance to the beaches and chased them out with guns and dogs, according to Salazar.A group of Quepos youth decided to take matters into their own hands. Luis Alberto Bolaños, owner of Hotel Kamuk in Quepos, organized a group of Quepos youth to tear down the house of one of Manuel Antonio’s owners, which was under construction.“Our disgust grew until a group of almost 50 young men went down there in a rage,” said Bolaños, who was in his 20s at the time. “We always felt our beaches are for Costa Ricans to enjoy, and what we did was give these people a scare. We ended up paying the damages.”BECAUSE of efforts by the angered youth, the Municipality of Quepos and Pedro Gaspar, the legislator for Quepos at the time, the land was expropriated from the foreigners and the site declared a national park, according to Bolaños.In 2000, Environment Minister Elizabeth Odio passed a decree adding a 14- kilometer stretch of coast called Playa Rey to the park, making it the 1,700-hectare expanse it is today, park administrator Salazar said.Manuel Antonio currently houses wetlands and populations of crocodiles, monkeys and sloths, and is a nesting site for two species of turtles, the olive ridley and the leatherback, which nested at Playa Rey for the first time in 2004, according to Salazar.ERIC Ash, Quepos resident and vicepresident of Grupo Manuel Antonio, a society of 25 local businesses, said the park and its surrounding area is not just a tourist hot spot, but also a sprouting Hollywood hangout that attracts frequent clandestine visits from Francis Ford Coppola, Nicolas Cage and, recently, Antonio Banderas, Tom Cruise and Madonna.The movies “Spy Kids 2” and “Death of a Supermodel” were filmed at the park, he added.According to Ash, a vast tourist-oriented infrastructure was built in the area to complement the national park, including a butterfly farm and the Rainmaker Conservation Project – a rainforest reserve located 22 kilometers from Quepos – as well as options for scuba diving, rafting and horseback riding.The Manuel Antonio area is also well known for being gay-friendly.“This is a very cosmopolitan area,” Ash said. “People here, we don’t discriminate. Many hotels around here identify themselves with little rainbow flags.”

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