Carara National Park is a huge wetland park along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. If you're coming from well... just about anywhere other than Panama, this will be your first view of it. The Tarcoles River Bridge and the giant mass of crocodiles beneath it. Between the crocodiles below and the traffic whizzing by on the bridge, this is probably the most dangerous spot in Costa Rica. At least with small children in tow. You have great parking choices on either side of the bridge. You can either deal with something like a bribe to "watch" your vehicle on the north side, or take your chances with the common theft on the south side. If you can't arrive with nothing of value in the car, consider taking two shifts out on the bridge. The crocodiles are here because they were regularly fed in the past. This practice has supposedly stopped. Apart from this concentration though, there are crocodiles in the Tarcoles and just about every other estuary along the Pacific coast. Our general feeling on crocodiles is that they are not to be messed with so bridge viewing is perfect.
While just about everyone stops at the Tarcoles bridge, very few people stop at the actual National Park visitor center which is just about a mile or so south of the bridge on the inland side. There are hiking trails here, a small pay station, some guides, restrooms and about 12 million mosquitos. But wait, there's good news! We found that while the mosquitos were numerous and large enough to carry off small dogs, they actually respected DEET. It's nice to know that every once in a while, you're at least getting something out of spreading toxic substances all over your skin.
We took the accessible trail (it's orange on the map). It's short and flat and easy and it's a quick jog back to the parking if the thunder gets too close (there were ominous rumblings throughout our hike). Despite that and its proximity to the road, we saw monkeys. Quite a few of these white-faced capuchins. We heard a howler monkey and circled the tree it must have been in but were unable to get a glimpse of it. There was also one poison dart frog sighting and a variety of interesting insects. If we hadn't been staying quite so far away from Carara we would've come back for a longer hike.
We stayed between Quepos and Manuel Antonio which is one long stretch of hotels and restaurants with assorted spectacular views of the ocean. This was the view from our room at Costa Verde. The beach hidden down there in the trees is Playa Espadilla.
We had plenty of wildlife sightings directly from our balcony at Costa Verde including parrots, agouti, one sloth, monkeys on the roof of our room (rather annoying at 5 AM) and two aracari (toucan relatives) who liked to perch directly outside our window and keep an eye on us.
This is playa Espadilla from beach level. The south end of the beach merges into the Manuel Antonio entrance area which is a mess of people trying to get you to park your car for a fee which may or may not be official. We walked to the beach and avoided all that. This central stretch of beach is much quieter and the occasional vendor is unlikely to be aggressive. Fair warning though - this is not a safe beach for beginning swimmers. The currents are strong and unpredictable and there are a lot of rocks offshore. You can see some of them here at low tide.
The north side of Espadilla is also sketchy in terms of swimming but the surf is fine and the views are wonderful. There are limited facilities at this end though you could easily wander down to the public section at the edge of Manuel Antonio for food and densely packed people.
If you've been to Manuel Antonio in the past, notice the location of the yellow arrow on this map. The main entrance is no longer the beach-front river-wading area. Parking is now slightly inland and there are a couple of trails to connect to the beach and Cathedral Point (the near-island). It's worth noting that Manuel Antonio has a maximum limit of people at any one time and they close the gates when the limit has been reached.
There are two parallel paths to the main beach junction from the parking area. There's a gravel forest road which is less scenic although wide enough for people to easily pass one another in both directions, and a boardwalk (the sloth trail) which is easier walking and a bit more scenic but also quite narrow so you block all traffic into the park when you decide to take a picture of a mangrove crab. (Sorry about that)
We saw one sloth along the gravel road. It probably could be seen from the namesake trail as well. Once at the narrow strip of land out to Cathedral Point, we saw all sorts of critters starting with this coati (ok it's a little blurry). There are changing rooms and showers near the beach area but they are in heavy demand. There are some more remote beaches which we did not visit and are probably less crowded.
We spent most of a day here on Manuel Antonio beach. This picture is deceiving as the water looks rather calm. It is not. Much like Espadilla, the surf here is rough, or at least it was on our visit. There are some surprisingly big waves getting into this sheltered bay.
There are all sorts of thieves on this beach and we don't mean humans. We saw coati, raccoons and monkeys all attempting to steal food, clothes or anything else left unattended. Here a monkey (with baby!) sneaks up on some beach goers. As you can see, they are not shy and 'unattended' doesn't mean you've wandered off, it could just mean you looked away. We saw at least one raccoon successfully escape with lunch and sunglasses. One wonders how many pairs of sunglasses are sequestered away in a tree somewhere.
Also along the beach we saw at least one sloth. This one was kind enough to give us the one and only view of a sloth face we had on our trip. Most of the time they were just a ball of fur in a tree.
There is a trail around Cathedral Point which has a few historical markers, including a bit about how pre-Columbian peoples built turtle traps into the tide pools. Those would be well out in the distance in this view. The closer tide pools are worth some time exploring for sea-life.