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Western Beaches of Panama – Isla Boca Brava & Playa Las Lajas

While not exactly untouched, Isla Boca Brava and Playa Las Lajas are not nearly as visited as Panama’s more well-known beach destinations like the islands in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and that’s part of the charm of traveling to the western beaches of Panama.

Isla Boca Brava Hotels

To get to the 30 square mile (77 square km) island of Boca Brava you have to first get to the fishing village of Boca Chica. After leaving our truck under an avocado tree on the property of a family that’s decided to use part of their land as an informal parking service, we got into a water taxi for the ten minute ride to Cala Mia Pacific Hotel for a dose of secluded romance.

Cala Mia Hotel, Boco Brava, Panama

Plunge pool with a view at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in northern Panama.

Cala Mia’s 11 thatch-roof accommodations, private horseshoe bay beach and cliff side location make you feel like you’ve got the island to yourself. Rooms have all the mod cons including A/C and private patios with ocean views, especially nice from August through November when humpback whales migrate through.

Private Beach Cala Mia , Boca Brava, Panama

A shady perch on the private beach at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava, Panama.

When we were at Cala Mia a new owner had just taken over and we believe there’s been a new owner since then. Hopefully one of them upgraded Cala Mia’s dramatic Spa Cielo which is accessed via a swinging bridge which connect the mainland of the island to a nearby rocky outcrop but needed some serious TLC.

On the other end of the accommodation spectrum (and the other end of the island) is Hotel Boca Brava with 17 rooms ranging from privates (around US$30 double) to dorms. The food in the open air restaurant is almost as good as the view of the Pacific. Room #10 was our favorite with curved walls, a small private patio with chairs and a water view. Water can be scarce on the island in the dry season and the hotel’s gregarious owner, Brad, keeps occupancy to just half  in order to make sure everyone has enough water. Still, conserve as much as you can.

Boca Brava Office of the Day

Karen’s office of the day on the patio of or room at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in Panama, though we still don’t fully understand why hammock seats exist…

What to do around Boca Brava

Boca Brava, and more than 20 other islands, are all protected within the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park, so it’s not surprising that most of the things to do around Boca Brava involve getting wet.

As we already mentioned, August through November is whale watching season in northern Panama with migrating humpbacks crowding the water and plenty of tour companies waiting to take you out to see them. Isla Ladrones, 27 miles (43 km) from Boca Brava, is a SCUBA diving hot spot all year round with the chance to see sharks, rays and more. Our plans to dive around Ladrones were thwarted, however, by bad weather which created rough conditions and very limited visibility in the water so our trip was cancelled. The deep-sea fishing is said to be terrific around Boca Brava as well, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Iguana Boca Brava Panama

Local resident on Panama’s Isla Boca Brava.

Exploring Playa Las Lajas

Playa Las Lajas is most famous for its 12 mile (20 km) long stretch of beach. You can walk for ages and you’re likely to have the place to yourself except on weekends. Just don’t have your heart set on a funky beach bar or awesome seaside seafood shack. Playa Las Lajas was eerily free of any sort of service like that.

Las Lajas beach

Playa Las Lajas is 20 miles (12 km) long and at low tide this beach is incredibly wide as well.

If you ask us, the town of Las Lajas, inland from the beach, should also be equally famous for is flamboyant, sculpture-filled bus stops, each depicting a different marine scene. You almost hope the bus never comes.

Mermaid bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

This is a bus stop, Las Lajas style.

Swordfish bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

Another impressive bus top in Las Lajas. The roof reads “Looking for Paradise? It’s in Las Lajas.”

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened in Las Lajas in 2013, is not on the beach but it’s close enough and you can’t beat it for its style bungalows and small pool. The real reason to visit Naturalmente, however, is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage.

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows - Las Lajas, Panama

A bungalow at Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows near Playa Las Lajas, Panama.

If you’re making the very long haul on the Pan-American Highway between Panama City and David, Boquete, Cerro Punta or the border with Costa Rica at Paso Canoas or Sixaola, Playa Las Lajas makes a great place to break your journey.

Geographical note about the screwy compass in Panama

Countries in Central and South America unfurl in a tidy north-to-south trajectory except for Panama which takes a sharp turn and ends up sitting perpendicular to its neighbors.This means that, in Panama, “north” refers to the long Atlantic/Caribbean coast and “south” indicates the long Pacific coast of the country. If you want to talk about the end of the country nearest the city of David and the border with Costa Rica, as we do within this post, you’re really talking about the west end of the country.

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Whale Watching – Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

Within the first 25 minutes of our whale watching cruise on board the Tom Cat 1 Catamaran out of Quepos on the southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica we saw a full fluke and a full breach. Over the next three hours we saw at least two dozen humpback whales including mothers, calves and males in equally dramatic displays. We’d seen a few whales while hiking the newly opened Cathedral Point Trail in Manuel Antonio National Park, but nothing compared to the experience of being on the water with these huge animals.

Here are some humpback highlights.

Humpback Whale breach Costa Rica

This full breach of a humpback whale was an awesome way to kick off our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale breach splash Costa Rica

Humpback whales pretty much win every belly flop contest.

Humpback Whales Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

It wasn’t uncommon for us to see groups of humpbacks, not just individual whales, during our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke Costa Rica whale watching

An impressive full fluke.

Humpback Whale watching Costa Rica Manuel Antonio National Park

This humpback cruised past us not far from the catamaran we were on during a whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whales Breach & Fluke Costa Rica Whale watching

Either this is two humpbacks or we’ve got photographic evidence of a humpback version of the Loch Ness monster.

Humpback whale breach - Costa Rica whale watching tour

They make it look so easy and so fun.

Humpback Whale Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A humpback checking us out as we checked it out.

Humpback Whale flippers - whale watching Costa Rica

Spouting and showing off those powerful flippers.

Humpback Whale spout Costa Rica whale watching

A humpback spouting and relaxing in a small cove off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale tail fluke Manuel Antonio whale watching

Yeah, this fluke display got a round of applause from passengers on the boat.

Humpback Whale fin Manuel Antonio whale watching Costa Rica

A tiny bit of a massive humpback breaks the water as it travels by our whale watching boat in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke tail - Costa Rica

Our guide told us that the fluke displays and tail slapping that we saw were probably a way for male humpbacks to communicate and show off for the females.

We could practically see whales right from our room at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos. Built along an undulating ridge line, the 129 rooms at the Parador take advantage of some of the most spectacular coastal vistas in an area known for spectacular coastal vistas.

Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica Manuel Antonio

The Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica has one of the most spectacular views on the Pacific Coast, including parts of Manuel Antonio National Park and passing whales.

Opened in 1995 by the Schans family, the Parador is one of the largest and most resort-like accommodation in Quepos. Set on 12 ares, the Parador includes three pools, a petite but full-service spa, walking trails and beach access. You wouldn’t think a resort of this size could be very green but the Parador is consistently recognized for its eco efforts including composting, water and energy conservation, collection and use of rainwater and support of local reforestation and beach clean up programs.

Pool Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica

One of the three pools at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica.

With 129 rooms there are a lot of categories to choose from but our advice is to go big. The most spectacular rooms at the Parador are the premium plus rooms and the suites which earn every penny with spectacular ocean and coastal views, including portions of Manuel Antonio National Park. Want to do some whale watching right from bed? Book room #5532, which made our Best Hotels of 2012 list as “best bed with a view.”

 

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Get a Glimpse of it All – Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica has both feet squarely on the beaten path. Tens of thousands of locals and foreigners travel to this park on the Pacific Coast above the town of Quepos every year. There’s almost always a line to get in. Why? Part of the park’s popularity is its easy-to-reach location. It’s also home to one of the best beaches in Costa Rica and visitors are pretty much guaranteed to see both types of sloths, monkeys, frogs, migrating whales (in season) and more. Are there more peaceful, less trampled parks in Costa Rica? Absolutely. However, if your time is limited Manuel Antonio is a good place to get a glimpse of it all. Just don’t expect peace and quiet.

Baby Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

We are shamelessly luring you into this post with this adorable baby white-faced capuchin monkey spotted in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

Howler monkey Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

We have no idea why this howler monkey was sticking its tongue out.

Three toed sloth Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

A male three-toed sloth. All males have that black racing stripe down their backs.

 

The animals of Manuel Antonio National Park

The animal sightings start within minutes of entering Manuel Antonio National Park (US$10 per person, closed Mondays). As you walk in along the wide dirt access road keep your eyes on the trees and bushes on either side.

We saw a green tree frog almost perfectly camouflaged on the green leaf of a banana tree. A three-toed sloth was climbing up the trunk of a guaruma tree, hand over hand rope climb style. We spotted a nocturnal two-toed sloth sitting out the day in a tree a bit further along.

Three toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A three-toed sloth works its way up a guaruma tree in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. It may still be at it…

White-faced capuchin monkeys hang out in large groups near this road too, sometime even scampering across on the ground. And don’t even get us started about the insects.

Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio National Park

A young white-faced capuchin monkey swings over to check out Eric’s camera in Manuel Antonio National Park.

Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A white-faced capuchin monkey finds the perfect perch for some people watching in busy Manuel Antonio National Park.

Three toed sloth Costa Rica Central America

Sloths are often covered in mold and infested with insects and they spend much of the day carefully scratching with their impressive claws.

Warning: We’ve heard stories of visitors who didn’t hire a guide (like us) being accused of “eaves dropping” as guides with spotting scopes working with paying customers spot and explain wildlife along the roadway into the park.  But there’s only one way in and the road can get crowded and it’s often inevitable that you will end up in close proximity of a guide whether you hired him or not.

The trails of Manuel Antonio National Park

Only five percent of the three square miles (6.8 square km) that are protected within Costa Rica’s smallest national park are accessible via trails. Sadly, many of those trails have been closed for maintenance for more than a year, much to the frustration of Manuel Antonio rangers. When we asked park rangers what the problem was one simply responded “the government.” This made us grumble that for US$10 from every foreigner who visits you’d think they could find the funds to keep the small network of trails open. Sheesh. But we digress.

When we were in the park for the first time in January we were able to hike the Serruchu Point Trail up to a view point over Escondido bay.. However, this trail was muddy, slippery and in poor condition. It would not surprise us if this trail was closed for “maintenance” soon.

In January we were also able to hike the Gemelas Trail, which splits off near the base of the Serruchu Point Trail, to reach Gemelas Beach with its two small “twin” coves and dramatic rocky cliffs. However, when we returned to Manuel Antonio in September this trail was closed.

Playa Gemelas Manuel Antonio National Costa rica

The trail to Gemelas Beach in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica may or may not be open to hikers.

The looping, climbing coastal Cathedral Point Trail, easily the highlight trail in this park, was closed during our first visit in January but when we returned to the park in September the Cathedral Trail had re-opened thanks to private investment from a local car rental company called Europcar.

Yes, it’s sad that a Costa Rican national park had to seek a private sector partner to get this trail upgraded but at least, in this instance, the partnership worked. Cathedral Point Trail is now a delight with numerous miradors (view points) looking out over the Pacific Ocean with a prime views of migrating humpback whales in season. Want more whales? Check out the humpback highlights in this photo essay from the whale watching boat trip we did while we were in Quepos.

Humpback whale watching Manuel Antonio Quepos Costa Rica

We saw migrating humpback whales, including this mother and calf, from one of the view points on the newly upgraded and re-opened Cathedral Point Trail in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

The mostly-shaded trail which climbs up and over the headland is well-built and there are only a few discretely placed Europcar signs along the way. In this case we felt this was a fair and reasonable tradeoff: we get a killer new trail and Europcar gets a couple of tasteful, small ads.

One of the best beaches in Costa Rica

The hiking is good (especially now that Cathedral Point Trail is back online) and the animal sightings are fun but the real gem of Manuel Antonio National Park is its namesake beach, Playa Manuel Antonio.

You will see park visitors rushing right past loitering sloths and beckoning trail heads to make a beeline to the calm, protected waters, perfectly arcing expanse of white sand and shaded high water line of this beach. There are even nearby showers and toilets.

Playa Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

Playa Manuel Antonio, one of the best beaches in Costa Rica and one of the busiest.

This really is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica, as the expanse of bodies in the sun and shade will attest. Many of those people bring picnics and snacks with them, a fact that’s not lost on the park’s population of monkeys, racoons and coatis which have been turned into clever, lazy, fat and furry beggars over the years thanks to visitors who choose to ignore the park’s regulations against feeding wild animals.

Two toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A nocturnal two-toed sloth naps away the day in a tree just a few steps behind Playa Manuel Antonio.

White Face Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

The family that picks nits together…

Some of these animals have also become thieves, making off with unattended grocery bags and even entire backpacks. You really can’t turn your back on your belongings even for a second.

If you want to lose some of the crowd head a few hundred yards down the trail to Playa Espalda. Just be aware that the furry thieves are on this beach too.

Playa Espalda Manuel Antonio National Quepos

Playa Espalda, behind Playa Manuel Antonio via a trail that bisects the narrow spit, is nearly as beautiful and often far less crowded than its more famous neighbor.

Hotels around Manuel Antonio National Park

The area around the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park is a jumble of mid-range accommodations and a few budget places as well. There’s also a scary resort literally right at the entrance. 

For a wider range of hotel and restaurant options and a more relaxed atmosphere head downhill away from the park entrance. Before you get all the way down to the town of Quepos (where you don’t want to stay unless you’re really, really, really on a budget) you’ll find hotels and restaurants lining the road.

For example, we handled sleeping and eating by staying at Hotel Makanda by the Sea. This place has six villas with full kitchens, three smaller studios with kitchenettes and two deluxe rooms plus one massive, sexy, four bedroom house with a huge living room, gourmet kitchen, private pool, outdoor grill an

Makonda-by-the-sea-Hotel-Costa-Rica

Karen enjoying the infinity-edge pool at Hotel Makanda By the Sea near Manuel Antonio National Park.

There’s also an awesome infinity-edge pool with Pacific Ocean veiws and a steep trail leads from Makanda down to a small, rocky beach which disappears at high tide

We had great wildlife encounters all over the hotel’s 12 acre (5 hectare) grounds including endangered titi (aka squirrel) monkeys swinging through the branches above the walkway to our room.

Titi monkey Squirrel Monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

An endangered titi (squirrel) monkey in the trees above the balcony off our room at Hotel Makanda by the Sea near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

One evening we pulled into the Hotel Makanda parking lot and discovered that a big stand of bamboo fallen over the driveway. Imagine our surprise when our headlights illuminated a sloth in the jumble of leaves and branches. The poor thing was clearly uncomfortable on the ground where it’s vulnerable to predators and was doing its slothy best to “hurry” to safety up a nearby tree.

Beach Makonda Hotel Quepos Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Us watching the tide roll in on the small, rocky beach below Hotel Makanda by the Sea. Photo courtesy of Dos.

Manuel Antonio National Park Travel Tips

Your US$10 entrance fee to Manuel Antonio National Park allows for multiple entries in the same day just in case you want to take photos during morning and afternoon light or you didn’t see all the animals you wanted to see during your first visit.

If you arrive at the park in your own vehicle you will likely be accosted by parking touts on the side of the road who will claim that their lot is the very, very, absolutely last available place to park. They may even be wearing official-looking uniforms, but that doesn’t make them right. Some of these touts are located a mile (2 km) or more away from the actual park entrance. Just continue driving all the way to the park entrance and check on availability for yourself. We were able to park our very large truck mere steps from the entrance both times we visited.

And if you know who Manuel Antonio was, share the knowledge in the comments section below.

 

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