We all have a fairy-tale fantasy of vacationing on an exotic beach.
Sipping juice from coconuts with the cute little cocktail straws as we watch the waves wash over the white sands. Relaxing in the harmony of finally getting away from it all.
That is until your paradise is interrupted by a scream. And then another, and another.
I was living that fairy-tale fantasy, and while the screams fortunately were neither a shark attack nor a coming tsunami, it was just the start of a strange day in which I got a firsthand look at a bad combination of nature and tourism.
After the first few screams, I could see tree branches waving wildly back and forth despite the otherwise calmness of the day, so I decided to check it out. And I wasn’t alone. By the time I got to where the commotion was, the whole beach had congregated in the area to watch the show.
A group of monkeys had climbed down from the trees and had stolen a backpack from one of the tourists on the beach. They were up in the trees going through everything. Watches, cell phones, books and panties all fell from the tree as the monkeys carefully examined everything, eventually discarding anything that wasn’t edible.
For a first-time visitor to Manuel Antonio National Park, this was quite entertaining. However, this ended up going on all day – screams coming from up and down the beach, large gatherings, followed by photos and laughter. It was like we were in the middle of a circus run by monkeys.
By the end of the day nobody could leave anything unattended on the beach.
It might sound fun, but it is having a damaging effect on the beach’s monkeys. Monkeys are not accustomed to chips and crackers, and they have lost all fear of humans, making them aggressive and unpredictable at times.
It’s a delicate situation, as this national park depends on the revenue from the visitors to protect not only this park, but other less visited parks in Costa Rica. As a result, it has catered to the tourists by building changing rooms and providing picnic tables for people to have lunch. And that has led to the animals becoming accustomed to a different diet, one that is harming their health.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s great tourists can come and see animals in the wild, but it’s too bad money-making opportunities are preventing better measures from being taken to not damage that very same environment.
With the massive tourism to the 5.5-acre park – about 150,000 visitors a year – money talks in the beach towns around it, as well. The day before our visit to the park (which charges $3 for Costa Ricans but $16 for foreigners), my wife and I had gotten an exhausting introduction to that, starting with a Spanish man pleading desperately with us.
“Just give me one opportunity, one opportunity! Come on man, one opportunity!” he said, hands up in the air.
Trying to get the two of us into his restaurant for dinner, he had eyed me up pretty quickly and had the sales pitch prepared.
He began to speak to us in English, highlighting that his restaurant was the only one in town that included all taxes in their prices. Then, after showing us the menu, he began to make remarks in Spanish to my wife – who he apparently thought was my tour guide or escort – suggesting that if she got me to eat there, he would give her a free drink.
His patience quickly grew thin, though, and he yanked the menu out of my hands to give to a bigger group of tourists walking down the street.
Unfortunately, this became the theme of the weekend. Everyone we talked to was working for some kind of commission and was ready to tell us anything to get us to buy at exorbitant prices. Even when checking into the hotel, they had to walk us through their tour packages before they would give us our keys to our room.
It was hard to even walk down the beach without being hassled. If I looked too long at a surfboard, they’d come after me. If we stopped under a beach umbrella to fix a sandal, we were frowned upon. Even sitting underneath a tree, beach chairs were placed strategically to tempt people to take a load off and start the meter.
The only conversation we had with a local that didn’t end in a sales pitch was with one who happened to be from the same town as my wife. Had that not been the case, I’m sure he would have been all over us to rent a beach chair.
As we departed the park area to head back to San Ramon we passed by many luxury hotels, condos, and restaurants, all touting the beauty of being one of the most beautiful beaches and national parks in the world.
I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy my weekend – despite all the less desirable aspects of a tourism buildup the park is still quite beautiful. However, I think will take my coco juice and sippy straws on to the next beach, where hopefully, I’ll feel like an outside observer instead of the center of attention.