No More Monkey Business

We’re back in Costa Rica for the third time. The first time was six years ago and then again in 2022 when we were first traveling as the pandemic became more manageable. We planned this year’s trip to take us to some new places and revisit our favorite “been there & done that’s.” The repeat visits generated comparisons — Is the traffic worse here? Are the prices higher this year?

Probably making such comparisons is inevitable and probably largely guesswork. But without a doubt the pandemic left it’s mark on Costa Rica.

One of Costa Rica’s biggest tourist attractions — Manuel Antonio National Park — is not the biggest park in Costa Rica, but sits reasonably close to the capital with gorgeous beaches. Six years ago, the beaches in the park were packed with families and tourists — and outnumbering the human visitors were the ever vigilant White-faced Monkeys (also known as Capuchin). Notoriously clever thieves, they were constantly on the lookout for bags or purses that might contain food. We were warned never to set our bags down as the monkeys were lightening fast at stealing them — often carrying them up into a tree and disdainfully throwing down all the non-edible items inside. As we walked the paths, we stepped around and over the mama monkeys and their babies. You had to get dozen of yards away from the beach and the picnickers to get a sense of the real park. On our visit this year, we struggled to see even one White-faced Monkey.

Why the change? The pandemic. The park was closed that first year. The park naturalists noticed monkeys began dying from starvation. Many of them had lost the ability to forage for food when there were no tourist backpacks to raid. This triggered a re-examination of park procedures. Now entry is limited and requires a reservation. Visitors are checked at the entry gates to make sure they don’t bring in any food that might attract the monkeys. As a result, the park is less crowded and is cleaner and, most importantly, the monkeys have reverted to their more natural state.

Without the monkeys lurking about, and with the help of our guide, we were able to focus on the other critters of the park. An immature sloth sleeping in a tree with mama watching from not too far away.

A lizard and a Fer de Lance snake patiently waiting for their meals to wander by.

An agouti mom and her two little ones, playing in the underbrush.

Anyone planning a trip to Manuel Antonio needs to remember the park is closed one day a week for repairs, cleaning and to give nature a chance to rebound — unless, of course, you can pay $36,000 as film production crews (scenes from The Castaway with Tom Hanks were filmed here) and the famous (Steven Spielberg, and Will Smith to name a few) do in order to have the beaches to themselves.

Costa Rica takes its natural beauty seriously. Roughly 28% of the country’s total land is set aside as national parks or nature reserves. School tour groups get in the parks free and we were told by our guide that annual visits to the park are a routine part of the curriculum to build a national sense of pride and consensus to preserve the bio-diversity.

Yes, it is different here now after the pandemic but some of the changes are definitely better for both tourists and the animals. Pura Vida!