When you can't swim and you are paranoid about bug bites and heights, going to the beach and jungle to do zip lining aren't on top of your list of ideal vacation activities.
Having said that, I had been hearing about how great Costa Rica is for many years from everyone who has been there. So when our Chicago friends Paul and Nicole asked us to go to Costa Rica, I said "We are there!". As many of us do, I try to experience things at least once even though I don't love the idea 100% (or am a little afraid).
The house we rented was on the highest hill in Manuel Antonio (2.5 hours away from San Jose Costa Rica) with a 270º majestic ocean view. You have to go down a very steep hill for a few minutes to arrive at the house. Once you get in the gate the long stairs surrounded by tropical plants lead up to the front door where we encountered at least 3-foot long Iguanas everyday. The most entertaining part of the house turned out to be the daily visits from the same 4-6 white faced Capuchin monkeys
They would make their grand appearance by flying and landing on the trees that are right in front of the outdoor living room where we hung out, and making loud sounds from moving and breaking branches by their fearless and what appeared to be careless but precise landing on these thin long branches. The first time they appeared, nobody was home except Nicole's mother and she screamed out loud prompting the monkeys to run away. But the second time, we were all there to witness the act of these cute and unpredictable animals in their natural setting without metal bars between them and us. They moved around near us cautiously, touching the camera, dipping their feet in the pool, standing straight with stretched necks, peeking into the kitchen area, etc..... Oh boy, do they love to steal, cups, T-shirts, anything that is accessible. All in an effort to find food, and when they realize what they just took is not eatable, they drop the stolen goods within seconds while flying from tree to tree. Everyday, we couldn't wait for the monkeys to arrive and entertain us.
Zip Lining was super fun! After seeing the monkeys fly all around you, you wish you could fly between trees too. Here was our chance. Yes, i'm afraid of heights and even with the acknowledgement of my undeveloped and inadequate athletic abilities, I decided to go for it. I'm so glad I did! The only regretful thing is that during the whole 2.5 hours of the 9-line Zip Lining, I was so focused on following the rules and not have any accidents. I was only concentrating on the line of sight right in front of me while holding onto the gears with my dear life. Therefore I didn't get to enjoy the full view of the amazing forest surrounding us. Nevertheless it was well worth it.
Going on a Catamaran is one of the most peaceful and relaxing activities you can do I think. Manuel Antonio is hot and humid in March. We were surprised when the ship (which normally carries over 70 people) left the docks with only 11 people... which was great for us. Being in the ocean's tranquility with just right amount of breeze, watching dolphins swim and snorkeling makes you feel as though you are at the utmost peaceful surrounding you can create for yourself. The unexpected delicious lunch with grilled mahi mahi and vegetables served with pasta made our day even more enjoyable.
Here comes the food.
Costa Rican cuisine is relatively uncomplicated, as most of the Caribbean dishes - rice and black beans are a staple of most traditional meals.
I always enjoy Mexican breakfast like Chilaquiles, or Huevos Rancheros so I was quite happy with their traditional breakfast "Gallo Pinto" which is black beans and rice with eggs. Ceviche is another dish that I love and very popular here and you can find it on almost every restaurant's menu.
For the first night dinner, we had a chef cook for us in the house which was good since we were all tired from traveling all day. The served food was steak, lobster, shrimp, and scallops. It was little too much on the plate after a long day but over all it was good.
Starting the second day, we started to explore the neighborhood's restaurants. It seems that most of the "tourist" restaurants served meals that we were all familiar with. If you want to try 100% authentic Costa Rican food, you will have to go search out a place where only Costa Ricans go.
Cafe Emilio had the best breakfast and sandwiches! I think Carlos said at least 10 times "Let's go to Emilio!". This is the kind of place that you want to keep going back and try everything on the menu. I was surprised how good the simple Prosciutto sandwich can be with fresh bread, wow!
Unfortunately, we didn't have the luxury of time and wanted to try other places so we only had breakfast and lunch here. But dinner at Cafe Emilio is highly recommended, mostly for their curried fish, lemon grass beef, and tuna with soy sauce dressing, etc. Also they have music performance on certain nights, giving you even more reasons to visit.
Barba Roja (red beard): Don't dismiss it just by looking at their sign or the decor of the place. It was probably one of the best meals we had in Manuel Antonio. The Churrasco steak was tender, tasty, and seasoned just right. The Seared Tuna was done to perfection as well. Their Friday specialty is ribs but I think you can pass on the ribs. Our second visit was just for the ribs since we love them but it wasn't as good as we expected. Ceviche is one of the most popular Costa Rican dishes. Barba Roja is only one of the two places that serve sushi in the area.
El Gran Escape (by the Marina in Quepos): It's a new and modern place compared to all the other restaurants in the area. The view of the marina is always pleasant. The menu is extensive from Hamburgers to Seafood and Steak. I was pleased with my seafood saute but the people who ordered the hamburgers on our table were even more pleased.
Cafe Milagro: Its the second best place to have breakfast and lunch (other than Cafe Emilio). Its a small cozy venue on the main street serving good meals all day. Also has music nights with acoustic guitars.
La Luna: Supposedly the sunset view from the restaurant is amazing but by the time we arrived at the restaurant the sun was already gone, so get there early! La Luna is situated inside of Gaia Hotel - the only 5 star hotel in town. The food is just okay here and not too much to go on about. Its definitely worth going but not for the food but for the sunset and romantic atmosphere.
El Avion (air plane) : They have an international menu with unforgettable decor. You
can't miss this place from the street with its complete cargo plane sitting at the top of the hill. It acts as the bar and kitchen, with the building constructed around the full wing span. How the plane got there seems to be a mystery since nobody we asked knew the real story.
Cafe Emillio, Barbar Roja, Cafe Milagro, and El Avion are located all a few steps away from each other on the main street. This is crucial information. Since the places here don't have street address. We didnt' know how far or close places were from our house. Only to find out, by taking taxi and being dropped off right on the main street close to the house. After dinner, we walked home down the steep hill in the dark which was kind of fun and slightly adventurous.
One other observation is about the people. Absolutely everyone we crossed paths with was kind and helpful. Whether its their nature or their realization that tourism is a good source of revenue, either way it makes a vacation quite memorable and enjoyable.
Thanks Costa Rica for the pleasant memories and I'll miss the monkeys......... I"m sure If we lived there we could have been very good friends.