The Costa Rica You See in Pictures…

I first visited Manuel Antonio on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific Coast as a newlywed back in 2005. It was everything I’d read about the country and seen in pictures:

White-sand beaches lined with palm trees and green-blue Pacific Ocean with jungle-covered mountains as the backdrop. And let’s not forget the wildlife. Capuchin monkeys. Three-toed sloths. And dozens of birds with vivid plumage.

Our days were spent hiking through the rain forest in the Manuel Antonio National Park and lounging on the beach. Then we’d watch the sunset from one of the ocean-view bars or restaurants lining the cliffs and hillsides of the town before turning in early—all that hiking and lounging can take a lot out of you.

Of course, back then I was just visiting.

Now I live just two hours by car to Manuel Antonio—perfect for weekend trips from my home in Escazu, a suburb of the capital city, San Jose. Like most expats in the Central Valley, with the modern highway (completed in 2010), I find zipping down to the coast a breeze.

During my recent visit I found that the area had changed…a bit. But I was gratified to see that though there were more hotels, restaurants, and shops…it hadn’t been overrun by development.

And much of the new development had brought convenience. A larger grocery store—with many imported items, for example. And the laid-back atmosphere was still intact.

Just as I had eight years ago, my family—larger by two now—was able to enjoy dinner with a sunset view. We tromped through the rain forest to a nearly deserted beach. And aside from the bountiful wildlife in the national park, we had the rare privilege of watching a troop of squirrel monkeys (an endangered species) cavort in our rented villa’s garden.

To be sure, this is a tourist town. The national park is the most visited in Costa Rica. But even on the weekends, when the park gets a lot of visitors it’s easy to find a quiet spot. Most day trippers stop at the first beach past the gate. Hike 10 more minutes through the jungle and you’ll have one almost all to yourself—except for the monkeys and coatimundis in the trees above you. (Watch your backpack—they know visitors bring snacks.)

This is a photo I took late morning on a Saturday.

Manuel Antonio also attracts a lot of long-term expats: a lot of business owners in the tourist trade but also retirees, younger folks working online, and families too. They seek a new life in the jungle, where looming trees, lush vegetation, and bright tropical blooms dominate. It’s a relaxed seaside town where you can be who want to be. And Quepos, a larger port city with services you need for long-term living like a public hospital, hardware stores, banks, a farmers’ market, and more, is a 10-minute drive away.

The geography—steep tree-covered hills and mountains down to the water—prevents any large-scale gated communities or high-rise condos. Not to mention there is a focus on preserving this beautiful natural area, even outside the national park.

The town has one two-lane road that winds its way along the hillside, with hotels, restaurants, and shops on either side. Rough access roads lead into the forest and then go up to the homes dotting the hillsides where many expats live. Most are hidden by jungle from the roadside.

A recent listing featured a modern three-bedroom home in the jungle. No ocean-view but you can walk to a private beach. It’s $149,000. A two-bedroom condo near the national park will run you $125,000. For any sort of ocean-view home or condo, expect to at least double those prices.

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