Friday, August 8, 2008 - The theme the today was Pura Vida or Pure Life. This, apparently, sums up the Costa Rican perspective on living a 'good, relaxed, and peaceful life'. For some, that might mean a quiet day at the beach listening to the whispered philosophies of crashing surf and windy palms. That would not be for us, however. It was a day spent hiking the broad, shady trails at Manuel Antonio National Park.
We started the Arenas golf cart process at 8am - which would take The Gang to our waiting bus at the top of the cliffs. Manuel Antonio is just minutes away from Arenas del Mar, down those winding roads that offer such magnificent Pacific vistas. Upon entering the little town that owes it existence to the Park, I noticed two things: (1) the beautiful public beach was sparsely populated and (2) this didn't matter much given the impenetrable wall of vendors who all but hide the beach from the roadway. I was already dreading the fact that we'd be walking this gauntlet late in the day, and I could only imagine the hilarity that would ensue should I need to haggle with any of these beach-side Vendors.
The road into Manual Antonio literally ends at the Park gate, and this is where the bus disgorged The Gang. Rae and Fico handed out water and snacks to those who wanted them. They also handed out beach towels for those interested in swimming at the park's beach area. We were prepared for this, and easily fit the towels into one of our backpacks. We had also elected to wear our bathing suits under our clothes (on Rae's advice from the day before).
We were split into 2 smaller groups - some of us would be following Fico while the rest would be following a Park naturalist. With a little bit of Sun overhead and gentle breezes to make the humidity bearable, we headed through the gate and down the Park trail for a 90-minute hike. Fico proved to be a great guide (again). With the aid of our own binoculars and Fico's scope-and-tripod affair, we were able to spot scores of animals. I lost count of how many sloths we encountered high up in the forest canopy. The iguanas and Halloween Crabs were also plentiful - as were the variety of frogs hiding in shades of green.
Coming off the trail we found ourselves at the Park's small beach area. Here we had an hour or so to wash the forest humidity from our skin in the warm Pacific waters. JediBoy elected to stay on land with Dee (he felt the waves were too small to warrant his time). BandGeek and I, however, decided otherwise and headed into the water. One of the Junior Adventurers found a coconut shell on the beach, which we used for a spirited game of 'catch' out in the water.
On land, the non-swimmers (including Dee and JediBoy) generally hung out with Rae and Fico around a few shady picnic tables were The Gang's packs were piled. As we had been warned, commando squads of Capucchin monkeys and raccoons paid visits to the picnic tables in vain attempts to grab a pack or two. They have been acclimatized to the fact that 'packs mean snacks'. The monkeys understand how to use zippers while the raccoons take a more brute force approach by simply tearing open the packs. There were enough guards, however, to thwart any monkey offensives while the rest of us chased waterlogged coconuts.
Refreshed from our swim, BandGeek and I followed the signs down the beach towards the showers. We found the term 'showers' to be a loose translation of 'trickling pair of hoses nailed to a post'. If we ran only 1 'shower' at a time, we could almost wash the salt from our hair. We soldiered on towards the change rooms which Rae had labeled as 'ill-maintained'. She was being quite generous as it turned out. The change facilities were merely a line of 8 or so washroom stalls - 6 with foul-smelling toilets and 2 without toilets (but foul-smelling all the same). All were in need of cleaning and repair. Fire or dynamite would have worked well, too. Nonetheless, BandGeek and I waited for a chance to use the 'non-toilet' stalls where we would both employ Olympic-caliber balance to quickly change into dry clothes without actually touching the walls of the stall or the ground underneath us.
The Gang proceeded back onto the beach trail to (eventually) exit the Park. Here the Capucchin monkeys came out in force - a crowd of small furry escorts to guide our way. Other Park residents joined in - raccoons, iguanas, and some manner of Costa Rican rodent that was the size of a dog. There was even a Howler monkey or two observing from the tree tops. As the Park path exited into Manuel Antonio, 2 enterprising local old-timers had set up a bridge for us across a tidal creek by parking 2 rowboats bow to bow. It was only when I was fully across the makeshift span did I spy the tip jar - too late to pay these ferrymen.
The rest of the afternoon was more or less ours to enjoy. There would 3 hourly shuttles back to the hotel in order to accommodate those who wanted to look around a bit. Alternatively, it was a 20-minute walk to Arenas if one simply followed the beach. We elected to hang out in town for a bit. After grabbing some lunch at The Marlin, we strolled up and down Vendor Row looking (apparently) for just the right souvenirs. I, however, was looking for just the right patch of shade against the hot Sun. The Vendor trinkets were interesting enough and the Vendors, themselves, were never pushy. As a result, Dee and BandGeek managed to find a number of items to add to the inevitable Customs declaration.
Our original escape plan was to walk the beach back to Arenas. The intense Sun and tired legs said otherwise, and we caught the final shuttle back to the hotel. Humiliation was waiting for us in the form of the youngest Junior Adventurer (age 5) who informed me that she had walked back to the hotel with her Mom along the too-hot-for-Crazylegs beach route. I congratulated her with a smile that said, "I could stay up late eating junk food if I so choose and nobody cares that you can walk in the hot Sun. So there.".
With a few hours until our Farewell Dinner, we joined many of The Gang down at Arenas' beach for one last romp in the ocean. Everyone has a great time body-surfing, boogie-boarding, or just hanging out in the surf. After an hour or so, the tide started to come in and the high waves got higher. Rather than risk having bathing suits permanently ripped from our bodies and whisked out to sea, most of us retreated a hundred yards or so to the relative safety and calm of the (lower) hotel pool. The kids played with beach balls while some of 'adults' soaked the salt water away Disney War Stories. I ended up answering a lot of questions about our 2007 ABD London/Paris trip.
Soon it was time to retire to our rooms and prepare for the evening ahead. All luggage had to be waiting outside our rooms by 9:30pm - they would be leaving for San Jose early to await our arrival the next day. We also had the evening's Farewell Dinner ahead of us. By 6:20pm we had our bags packed and in place and we were making our way back down the trail to the beach-side pavillion where Dinner would be served.
The seating area was well-decorated with long tables covered in cloth and fine china. Wine, beer, and softer beverages flowed freely. As we found a place at one of the tables with our friends from St. Louis, I realized that I would genuinely miss many of the folks on this tour. Saying good-bye in the morning would be a little tough. I made a point of tracking down Rae and Fico to casually hand them their tips and give them my heart-felt 'thanks' for the week behind us.
Dinner was a delicious buffet consisting mostly of Arenas del Mar specialties. I can whole-heartedly recommend the Black Bean Soup! With dinner out of the way, Fico presented the inevitable slideshow - a slickly-produced montage of the bazillion pictures that he and Rae had taken throughout the tour. I marvelled (again) that our Guides ever got the chance to sleep! As the lights went up after the show, Rae and Fico gave their onw thanks to The Gang, and even offered a few personal comments on the importance of preserving the Earth in all her natural glory.
One last surprise was waiting for us. One of The Gang - as it turned out - was a young lady of 21-ish years of age who was training to be an opera singer! For our entertainment, she sang a selection from Pirates of Penzance and simply wowed the audience. It was almost a Hunter S. Thompson moment - sitting by a Central American beach on a warm Summer night listening to crashing waves and a beautiful operetta. How freakin' cool was that?
And so it was that we collected our sleepy Adventurers and trudged one last time up the switchback trail to our room. We would need our sleep, form tomorrow would prove to be a very long day.