San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Manuel Antonio: A Natural Oasis on the Central Pacific Coast for 35 Years

Celebrations last month marked the 35th anniversary of ManuelAntonioNational Park, one of the country’s most treasured sites of outstanding natural beauty and ecological significance.

The central-Pacific-coast communities of Manuel Antonio and Quepos came together for a week of cultural and sporting events, including volleyball and soccer competitions, photography and art exhibitions, theater and dance performances, and joined in a ceremony on the beach to honor those who fought to have the land protected 35 years ago.

Though relatively small at 1,980 hectares, Manuel Antonio is one of the country’s most visited national parks, attracting more than 200,000 visitors a year.

The park was established in 1972, narrowly saving the land from being developed into a tourist resort by its North American owner, Arthur Bergeron. He had gravely offended area residents by blocking public access to the beaches. One night an angry group of residents tore down the gates and, the story goes, his house. What followed was a successful campaign led by the community to have the area declared a national park.

For Javier Herrera, environmental education coordinator for the park service, it is this story that must be remembered.

“The anniversary is important, not because it’s 35 years, but to commemorate what happened in 1972,” he says. “That was an achievement of the people, brave people, not the government.”

Behind the celebrations, the serious message of conservation is as pertinent now as it was more than three decades ago. The park is an oasis surrounded by conflicting interests of agriculture and tourism development, Herrera says, which could threaten the sustainability, ecology and character of the area.

As the volume of visitors steadily increases, the area is developing something of a reputation for being overcrowded and overdeveloped.

Though it may be true that you won’t find much in the way of solitude here, the park itself remains a tropical paradise.

Famed for its string of pristine white-sand beaches with clear, calm waters flanked by lush rain forest, breathtaking views across the scalloped bays and incredible biodiversity, this is an eco-wonderland worth sharing.

With 55,000 hectares of marine reserve in addition to its land area, the park is teeming with life. The habitats of primary and secondary rain forest, mangrove swamp, beach and marine resources are home to approximately 350 species of birds, almost as many species of flora, more than 100 species of mammals and abundant aquatic life.

Despite the snap-happy crowds, a great variety of animals, including howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths, iguanas and coatis, can be spotted and heard while traversing the well-defined forest trails. According to Herrera, this is also the country’s only protected habitat of the critically endangered citrinellus subspecies of squirrel monkey.

To control the impact of heavy tourist traffic on this complex ecosystem, access is restricted to a maximum of 600 visitors at a time Tuesdays through Fridays, and 800 on weekends. The park is closed Mondays to allow the park service to clean the beaches and the paths, and, as Herrera says, to give the animals a rest.

Visitors must abide by a long list of regulations to limit the disturbance they cause, not least of which is the plea, heard everywhere like a mantra, not to feed the monkeys.

“People come here, are reminded of the Tarzan movies and want to feed bananas to the monkeys. But those are chimpanzees in the movies, and chimpanzees are not monkeys,” Herrera says.

“Monkeys shouldn’t eat bananas; the bananas people buy from the supermarkets contain chemicals that interfere with their digestion,” he goes on to explain, among many other reasons why feeding the animals is a bad idea.

Budget Woes

Staying on top of control and conservation is both a physical and financial struggle for the park’s team of 18. Volunteers, many of them foreigners, provide vital assistance to the park guards, but Herrera says at least six more rangers are needed to maintain adequate control.

“The park is not only the beaches but also the forest deep inside, and we need to keep away hunters who go after the paca (tepezcuintle in Spanish), a large rodent prized for its tender meat, and also the hueveros who steal turtle eggs. This still happens because we lack personnel,” he says.

It’s a situation that frustrates Herrera. The park takes in a lot of money, more even than the country’s most visited national park, Volcán Poás, because it receives more foreign visitors who pay a higher entrance fee.

“But the money is not ours to use,” he says, explaining that of the money collected, half goes to the Ministry of Finance and is redistributed to the park as its budget, while the other half goes to a trust fund used to pay off what is still owed for the land.

“Our budget is very, very poor – much too small for our needs,” he says. “So we have bad vehicles, no personnel, no water equipment, no boats or engines. So the fishermen fish, even though it’s prohibited, and we cannot control them.”

And what can be said of control and protection beyond the park boundaries? As imposing condominium and hotel developments continue to appear, towering above the otherwise seamless sea of greenery, residents are voicing concerns for the future.

Anita Myketuk, TT Community Connection contributor and owner of Casa Buena Vista B&B and Buena Nota store, came here 33 years ago, when, she says, she found the “perfect beach.” She thinks Manuel Antonio is not yet overbuilt, but the danger exists.

“There’s still a lot of beauty here,” she says. “But they do have to limit the construction.”

If anything can limit future development, it may be the persistent water shortages that affect the whole area every summer, leaving hotels and those residents who can afford it to depend on cistern truck deliveries.

And the Next 35 Years?

Inside the park, approved proposals to develop tourism infrastructure with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank include a visitor center, exhibition space, new showers and toilets and a bridge to allow access to the park for people with disabilities.

Daily cleaning, maintenance and management programs will continue alongside longer-term projects such as the reforestation program under way in the once heavily logged areas around Playa El Rey, the newest sector of the park to the south.

Possibly the most important factor for the future protection of the park is environmental education. Herrera says there are plans to expand the park’s role in this area.

Herrera regularly visits area schools to talk to children about the ecological importance of their surroundings. He asks them to try to imagine what the area would be like now if 35 years ago people from their own communities had not done what they did.

He feels strongly about what happened that year and what that action represents – the rights of ordinary citizens to access the beaches of this country, and resentment at private ownership that may restrict such access.

When you stand on the soft sand ofManuel Antonio beach and gaze across the azure waters, or stroll though the verdant forests spotting cute furballs in the trees, you can only be grateful that this idyllic spot was saved. It is certainly worth celebrating.

“ManuelAntonioNational Park is unique, it’s beautiful, it’s a paradise,” Herrera says.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

Getting There, Info

To get to Manuel Antonio by car, take the

Inter-American Highway west

from San José, turning off at the exit to Atenas and Jacó. Follow the signs to Jacó, and keep going to Quepos/Manuel Antonio. The drive takes about three hours.

Direct buses leave downtown San José’s Coca-Cola station at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (¢2,495/$5, 223-5567).

ManuelAntonioNational Park is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is ¢1,000 ($2) for residents and $7 for nonresidents. Discounts are offered for students and senior citizens. Guided tours are available. For information, call 777-5185.


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