Once the enclave of the Quepoa people, later colonized by Spain and then the center for one of the biggest banana industries on the continent, the Quepos story is woven from many different elements. Today African palm oil has replaced the long gone banana exports, the coffee plantations in the surrounding areas supply the world with some of the highest quality coffee beans on the planet and a lovely new marina plays host to super yachts.
Quepos’ biggest draw is its close proximity to the magnificent Manuel Antonio National Park whose wildlife numbers are so high it is practically impossible to come here and not have encounters with some of the species which call it home which include monkeys, sloth, tree frogs and an astonishingly large variety of birds.
While exploring this incredible protected park environment tends to be at the top of most visitors list of things to see and do it is far from being Quepos’ only attraction. The charming and sleepy town preserves an authentically Costa Rican feel and has several interesting historical leftovers to explore. Other options within easy access include mangrove forests, a wonderful rescue and rehabilitation sanctuary which sprang from the vision of two 9-year-old girls and an exceptionally beautiful natural environment made up of waterfalls, estuaries, rainforest and idyllic coconut palm-backed beaches.
The ways to get acquainted with these jewels of nature are as diverse as the places themselves. Hiking is perhaps the most popular way to do things but you can also soar above the canopy on a zipline, head off into the rainforest on horseback, kayak your way silently through tiny mangrove channels or hop on board a boat. Also on the activity menu are surfing, white water rafting, sport fishing and snorkeling.
Quepos may be small but there is enough to see and do here to keep its visitors occupied for weeks at a time as well as offering a wonderful array of cafes, bars and restaurants to keep them fed and refreshed in between their adventures.
A Morning in Quepos
The port town of Quepos is tranquil and charming and small enough to be easily explored on foot. Because it has retained a typical Tico town feel a stroll around is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to it all and makes for a great start to your day of discovery.
After a coffee break you can head off into the mangroves by kayak or boat to start getting acquainted with some of the area’s incredible and exotic wildlife. Alternatively you can visit an amazing sanctuary that is working hard to impress the importance of preserving the rainforest habitat on both the country’s visitors and the Costa Ricans themselves.
Exploring Quepos Town
Tranquil Quepos is not big so it is easily explored on foot and with several points of interest and a population known for being especially warm and welcoming this is an ideal way to start your day. Originally an area occupied by the Quepoa indigenous natives, later under the control of the Spanish conquistadors from around the 1500s and then from the 1920s an epicenter for the banana industry, Quepos has several leftovers from its colorful past.
When the US-owned United Fruit Company took over control of the town’s banana production in the 1930s the face of Quepos changed dramatically as it became one of the biggest fruit operations of its kind along the Pacific coast. Thousands of workers arrived and as a result the facilities needed to meet the needs of the suddenly increased population – such as hospitals and schools – sprang up. This area, built upon reclaimed mangrove land, became known as the ‘American Zone’ and is today downtown Quepos where you can see plentiful leftovers from this bygone era.
Also around downtown are several art galleries and a range of shops selling everything from spices to cigars and are interesting to browse even if you are not specifically on the hunt for souvenirs and gifts.
Quepos has several churches although none perhaps is as distinctive looking as ‘La Luz del Mundo’ (Light of the World). This break-off Christian religion originated in Mexico where its flagship temple is located. Quepos’ super-modern blue and white version is a surprising inclusion in an otherwise traditional part of town.
The newest addition to Quepos is its very modern and quite lovely Marina Pez Vela located a little south of downtown. Almost circular in design, this marina is home to several restaurants and shops and the views here make for a pretty place to stroll, passing by luxury yachts as you go. If you feel like getting active the marina offers a host of activities too such as fishing charters, catamaran trips and stand up paddle boarding.
Morning Coffee in Quepos
Quepos may be small but it has a plentiful supply of cafes to choose from once you decide it is time for a pause in your morning.
- Café Milagro
As a coffee producing country you can expect high quality generally but arguably the number one choice for coffee connoisseurs is Café Milagro. This roaster’s main café and restaurant is a few kilometers out of down but they also have a simple café choice in downtown Quepos. While quality is a given with this well-respected roaster’s single-origin and blended offerings you can also enjoy your coffee knowing the company has high ethical and sustainable sourcing standards too with 1% of all profits handed over to worthy environmental causes.
- Brooklyn Bakery
If both quality coffee and a great choice of sweet and savory treats take equal priority for your morning break check out the Brooklyn Bakery. Freshly baked on-site are any number of mouth-watering treats, all created from old traditional recipes, with muffins, bagels and doughnuts particular specialties. Partially opened to the street, this cute cafe is a light and airy space filled with wooden tables and chairs and a general air of cheerfulness evident in both the décor and the attitude of the staff.
Touring the Mangroves by Boat
No matter in which Costa Rican city or town you find yourself the country’s incredible wildlife and pristine nature is never far away and Quepos is no exception. Just a few kilometers north of the town is Damas Island and its estuary which are an extraordinary and totally nature-made system of canals and channels, flowing lazily around numerous islets. These mangrove areas are a highly complex and fragile environment created by a mingling of fresh and salt water. Such surrounds have given rise to exceptional biodiversity and are simply teeming with life from the depths of the waters to the tops of the trees.
Only small-sized boats can truly explore this beautiful area and give you some incredible up-close wildlife encounters. The mangrove forest itself is fascinating, made up of trees which have evolved to survive in an environment which regularly floods them at each high tide. Normal trees would soon die with their roots permanently underwater but the mangroves grow aerial roots which are exposed at lower tides and allow them to take in air when the water levels recede.
These root systems are themselves micro eco-systems, colonized by crabs and in which caiman seek shelter during daylight hours. As you float calmly along, passing beneath natural tree tunnels, your boat guides will explain the various relationships between flora and fauna that has developed in this amazing environment and which allows everything to flourish as a harmonious whole.
As with so many other places in Costa Rica the wildlife is bountiful and the chances are especially high of seeing all kinds of exotic birds ranging from the tiny and insect-sized to large species suchas frigate birds, spoonbills, herons and egrets. Other commonly seen wildlife includes iguanas, snakes and monkeys with the white-faced monkeys having developed the habit of actually jumping onto tour boats to the delight of all on board. Tour lengths vary with those that go the deepest into the mangroves requiring a whole morning and which also will typically include a lunch. It is also possible to kayak the mangroves and the bonus here is that these smaller craft can enter channels where larger boats can’t and so increase your chance of wildlife spotting.
Lunch in Quepos
Quepos is small but that doesn’t stop it from delivering a surprising multitude of restaurants, cafes and eateries and what’s more the diversity is far greater than you might expect to find; from tiny venues which are nothing more than a room opened in a local’s house to internationally-flavored fine dining affairs, Quepos truly manages to cater for all-comers.
If you want to lunch on more traditional fare while also keeping the budget in check the wonderful array of sodas will give you just what you need. Sodas are small-scale no-frills places serving simple, locally-flavored plates which tend to be of the tasty and large portion variety. Quite what is available may change on a daily basis as these venues tend not to have set menus but rely on whatever is available on any particular day. Your choice might include empanadas, plantain and rice dishes, soups, salads, various spices and sauces and all kinds of meat and fish treats.
- Soda Sanchez
Soda Sanchez is the Quepos soda which tends to get the most attention but there are many others such as Soda Come Bien near the market whose specialty is a fresh fish dish served in a citrus sauce.
- De la Finca
Another wonderful choice for those who want to try the local dishes is De la Finca. Somewhat tucked away this is one of those places which you either very luckily stumble across while a little lost or only hear of by word of mouth. Once you do locate this little gem however you will find yourself wondering why everyone isn’t here and how it manages to remain something of a secret. It is hard to find a review for this restaurant which doesn’t mention the freshness of the food, the great value and the incredible taste with several happy diners declaring it the best meal had during their whole time in Costa Rica. De la Finca offers a highly varied menu and while its setting is humble the ambiance, attentive service and food quality easily match the best of anything else you might find in the area.
- La Lambretta
If lunching with fantastic views are your aim you might like to check out La Lambretta. This pizzeria is a little out of town but very close to Manuel Antonio Park which is where your afternoon will begin so is perfectly placed. Serving up gourmet thin-crust pizzas in an incredible number of varieties, your view here from the lovely wooden deck is over rainforest and then out beyond to the sparkling Pacific. La Lambretta is well elevated in the hills so your ocean panorama is unobstructed. This may not be the cheapest lunch choice but million-dollar views such as these are beyond value.
- El Avion
Another gorgeous lookout can be had from a restaurant close by called El Avion. Spanish for ‘the plane’ this is exactly what you get here – a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane to be precise. Quite how the plane arrived here at all is a story of intrigue and scandal centered around the Reagan US presidential era and the Iran-Contra affair. As one-of-a-kind settings go this is about as unique as you will find anywhere with the bars and restaurant spaces utilizing the plane interior as well as being built around and over it. Head up to the open-sided deck upstairs to feast on seafood while soaking up bird’s eye rainforest and ocean views as you dine.
An Afternoon in Quepos
Costa Rica has almost 30 national parks scattered around the country but none has quite the draw of Quepos’ neighbor, Manuel Antonio. Stunning in the extreme, you can spend your afternoon here walking the trails or combine the wildlife spotting with some swimming and sunbathing time at one of the parks idyllic beaches.
- Manuel Antonio National Park
Just 4.5 miles south of Quepos can be found the smallest of Costa Rica’s national parks but which despite its size is its most famous. Made up of lush jungle and idyllic tropical beaches Manuel Antonio is jaw-droppingly beautiful but that, as such, is not that rare in Costa Rica. What makes this small park the jewel in the national park crown and such a popular tourist magnet is the almost ridiculously large numbers of wildlife here. So packed is this area with animal and bird species it would be almost impossible to visit and not encounter one or more of its native residents.
Most famous for its white-faced capuchin monkeys, two species of sloth and toucans, Manuel Antonio is actually home to more than 100 species of mammals and almost 200 bird species while insects, reptiles and amphibians are found in quantities too numerous to count. To that you can also add 1,000 flora species. The densely-forested park is criss-crossed by a number of different trails some of which suddenly open out into spectacular viewpoints of the island-dotted ocean. It is impossible to forget as you stroll surrounded by bird song, a chorus of insect sounds and the call of monkeys that you have arrived in the tropics. Many of your wildlife sightings might be quick glimpses as monkeys move through the trees, sloths hang from high tree-trunks and all kinds of brightly plumaged birds fly past in a flash of color. At other times your encounters may be much more intimate and prolonged as deer casually trot past inches away or a howler monkey sits watching you from a branch within an arm’s reach of your head.
As if this wasn’t already enough Manuel Antonio also has four beaches within its confines. At each of them the jungle spills right down to the soft white-sand edge which in turn leads into perfectly still aquamarine waters. These are truly lovely spots to cool down after a hot tramp through the jungle and for that reason can get a little busy at certain times of the day. The quietest beach is Playa Biesanz which is a bit of a hike and then involves a rocky walk – two elements which keep the crowds away.
Wildlife is so plentiful and the trails well-enough maintained that many choose to guide themselves through this amazing environment. However, if you want to learn more about the delicate eco-system and the species you are seeing guided hikes are popular. Additionally, these guides who are highly familiar with the terrain will be able to lead you straight to hot-spots as well as being able to help you sight harder to see species with the help of a telescope. While Manuel Antonio is far and away the principal gem of the region it is not its only jungle environment choice. Because Manuel Antonio is small and so popular you are not likely to have it to yourself whereas other options may give you a less-crowded experience.
- Esquipulas Rainforest
One such is the private family-owned 200 acre Esquipulas Rainforest which has been made accessible to visitors who want sustainable and ethically-driven wildlife experiences of ultimate tranquility. Although the human species here are far fewer this area of primary jungle scattered around with crystal-watered creeks is, like Manuel Antonio, also filled to bursting with wildlife. Additionally, as this family’s primary income source has always been generated from coffee production, you can also experience a plantation tour and learn of the processes involved in coffee production during your visit.
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