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A Manuel Antonio Walk in the Park

Destination: Manuel Antonio

Today was the quietest day our guide had experienced in his entire four years leading tourists through Manuel Antonio National Park. Go figure.

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The park is incredibly biodiverse, boasting 380 species of plants, 109 mammals, 185 birds and 78 species of fish within its 137,605 land and marine acres. On a typical day, we should have spotted at least a few sloths, monkeys, iguanas or toucans within minutes of the tour. Our guide, Miguel, claimed 15 as the record number of sloths he had seen in the first half mile of the park's Sloth Trail. Today, the animals remained out of sight until the moment someone in our group commented, "Well, I guess if we wanted to see guaranteed animals we'd have gone to the zoo."

Unsurprisingly, the deluge of wildlife started with a three-toed sloth. It was covered with greenish-brown algae that helps it hide from the harpy eagle, one of its major predators. Miguel was a genuine encyclopedia on sloths, and he knew all sorts of interesting tidbits -- like how they are related to the anteater, and sleep for up to 17 hours per day. They also eat a completely vegetarian diet, and only tolerate one male per tree at a time.

Perhaps the most entertaining fact he shared had to do with waste management. Sloths leave their trees once a week to defecate, doing their business at the base of the tree they are about to depart in order to confuse predators. The one exception to this rule is when two males are fighting for territory (in slow motion, of course), when the victor will push the loser to the ground and poop on its head.

Moving on, a skittish agouti flitted across the path, followed by a mother and baby white-tailed deer. We then saw a family of howler monkeys and a gigantic blue morpho -- a short-lived butterfly that graces the world with its presence for a mere 72 hours before perishing.

Our guide explained that if we ever lost our way in the woods we could survive with the help of icky termites, both as a protein source and a natural insect repellent when crushed and applied to the skin.

Because I have visited so many places in Costa Rica, including the Osa Peninsula, I was not expecting to find any flora or fauna that I had not seen before. I was thrilled when Miguel pointed out the rainbow grasshopper, also known as the green and gold solanum grasshopper.

This toxic bug's bright colors serve as a defensive mechanism that warns other species not to eat it. I was shocked to discover that my ATV tour guide last Monday was not entirely joking about the existence of poisonous grasshoppers.

By the time we reached the beach, everyone had lost count of how many animals we had observed. Perhaps the most precious of them all were the adorable squirrel monkeys that in Costa Rica can only be found in two locales: Manuel Antonio and the Osa Peninsula. These primates are particularly curious and intelligent -- and they watched us just as intently as we watched them.

Once we reached Manuel Antonio's stunning beach, the cove beckoned me to snorkel. Friendly park rangers patrol the coastline, warding off mischievous mammals -- namely raccoons, coatimundis and monkeys -- trying to rob snacks from visitors' bags. As I left the park, a couple of rangers were in hot pursuit of three of raccoons that had stolen a woman's purse, presumably containing food. A crowd applauded when the handbag slipped from one of the racoon's paws as it scampered up a Guanacaste tree.

It was Saturday and I decided to meet some friends and explore Manuel Antonio's nightlife. A number of locals had recommended Raphael's La Terraza, and I made my way down the winding hill toward the water. After befriending all of the waiters, I met a special trio that included an airline pilot and two mechanical engineers from Quebec: Francois, Vincent, and Pascal.

The group affectionately took me in as their fourth Musketeer -- D'Artagnan -- and we played a friendly game of Texas Hold'em with peanuts back at their pool. We laughed and swapped stories and card tips well into the night -- my favorite being the tale of how Pascal won large sums of money playing poker with his sister one summer. Because she would wear sunglasses to hide her pathetic poker face, hand after hand he was able to see her cards reflected in the metallic shades.

I don't know if it is the sun, the surf, the "pura vida" culture, or a combination of all three, but it never ceases to amaze me how Costa Rica attracts so many easy-going and gregarious travelers from all over the world.

A Manuel Antonio Walk in the Park in Pictures

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