Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 1: Sun, Surf & Fabulous Cuisine

Destination: Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio coastlineLocated on the idyllic Central Pacific coast, Quepos and Manuel Antonio attract sun-lovers, wildlife enthusiasts and outdoor adventure seekers. Seven years had passed since my last trip to the country's top vacation destination, and I was eager to re-visit the rainforests and unspoiled beaches of this tropical retreat.

In my week of travels, I hoped to get my sea legs while offshore fishing for marlin and sailfish, ride horseback to hidden waterfalls and come face-to-face with a troop of capuchin monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park. Our first destination was Quepos, a coastal town celebrated for its world-class sport fishing and gateway to the pristine beaches of Manuel Antonio.

Quepos marinaVincent, our photographer, and I departed my Central Valley hometown of Atenas and headed for the lush coastline dotted with coconut and African palms. Along the way, we stopped at the Tarcoles River Bridge to view enormous crocodiles basking in the sun on the river's edge.

The Tarcoles has one of the largest populations of American crocodiles and is part of Carara National Park. As I leaned over the rail of the bridge, I noticed a couple of the crocs sported radio collars, put in place by local biologists to monitor their activity, which today seemed to involve lying in the mud.

I caught glimpses of the sea as we passed the beach towns of Jaco and Playa Esterillos en route to Quepos. The three-hour drive was easy, with decent roads, plenty of signs and minimal traffic except in Parrita where a rickety, single-lane bridge was in disrepair.

Sleeping crocodilesWe crossed a second ancient metal bridge just before Quepos and arrived in time to catch the tail end of the Saturday market, or feria. Local vendors sold fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, flowers and more along the boardwalk by the sea.

Quepos has a mixture of friendly locals and ex-pats and is chock full of hotels, tour operators, surf shops and restaurants. Despite recent development, a small-town atmosphere is apparent, where residents are on a first-name (or often a nickname) basis and the sense of community is palpable.

Quepos waterfrontWe drove past the marina, following signs up a curvy, mountainous road to Las Cascadas Condotel, our home for the next two nights. Located in a quiet, residential area, the condos were tucked amid three acres of rainforest and had brilliant ocean views. The owners, Gary and Catalina, who live onsite, greeted us warmly upon arrival. This was my first experience staying in a condotel, and I was delighted by the hospitality of our friendly hosts.

Recently renovated, Las Cascadas has an intimate atmosphere with all the modern amenities of an upscale resort. Our two bedroom split-level condo featured a fully-equipped kitchen, spacious bathrooms and colorful art painted by Gary himself. We were offered agua pipas, or young coconut waters, and sipped the refreshing juice from the freshly-opened fruits.

Sara, the resident guard dog/lover of all humans vied for my attention by affectionately rubbing against my legs. We walked up to the swimming pool where fellow guests and their kids played in the water, while a pair of pet ducks splashed in their own pool nearby.

Manuel Antonio hotel poolLas Cascadas is children and pet-friendly, an attractive combination for families in search of moderately-priced alternatives to a standard hotel.

I unpacked a little and changed for an evening on the town. Quepos and Manuel Antonio are known for their eclectic restaurants, and La Hacienda had come highly recommended by locals and travelers alike. Located in Plaza Yara, on the road that connects Manuel Antonio and Quepos, La Hacienda features a mixture of Mediterranean, Nuevo Latino and Asian cuisine.

Candlelit tables, lofty ceilings and great music all contributed to a romantic ambiance. After drooling over an extensive cocktail list which included key lime martinis, we started off with a mojito and a house red to accompany our appetizer of grilled calamari. Fresh and tender, the calamari was prepared with a spicy mango glaze and sprinkled with lemongrass -- perfectly seasoned and delicious.

Manuel Antonio patio restaurantEntrees like coconut curry and strip steak encrusted in black peppercorns made the main course decision a tough one. After much debate, I chose the savory and sweet chicken marsala, cooked in a mushroom and pepper wine sauce.

I traded bites with my partner in crime who ordered the seafood taglietelli, a pasta dish with jumbo shrimp, mussels, fish and calamari in lemon sage cream sauce. The fresh, local ingredients, beautiful presentation and warm atmosphere (not to mention reasonable prices) impressed us both.

Gracious proprietors Bill and Tracy Maue were on-hand and explained that La Hacienda often hosts wedding parties as well. With its ideal location and sublime food, it seemed the perfect choice. After dinner and our long day of travel, we decided to forego the live music and dancing on the beach and headed home to the comfort of Las Cascadas for some much needed rest.

Day 1: Sun, Surf & Fabulous Cuisine in Pictures

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