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THE CROWDS AREN'T A PROBLEM WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

At first, Manuel Antonio National Park seems to be an unlikely place for viewing Costa Rican wildlife. Buses, cars and tents cram the parking lots near the entrance. Restaurants and bars line the access road from Quepos. More than 100 hotels nestle into the surrounding hills.

Although we arrived at the park shortly after it opened at 7 a.m., there was already a long line of people waiting to get in. Most of the Ticos (Costa Rican inhabitants) and tourists were wearing bathing suits and carrying picnics to eat on the wide, sandy beaches in the park. As they chattered excitedly along the tree-lined path to the Pacific Ocean, our hopes of seeing wildlife diminished.

Our guide, Ovidio, knew better. "Don't rush," he advised us. "Take the time to look. Otherwise, the birds and animals will watch you walk by."

Several times, he motioned us back to point out something we had just walked by. Once it was a two-toed sloth, inching lethargically along a limb. Another time, it was a yellow-crowned night heron, cautiously frozen in position to disguise its presence.

There are four trails in the 1,685-acre park. The sandy El Perezoso (Sloth) Trail, along the beach, is the easiest but the busiest.

Surprisingly, the animals seemed oblivious to the traffic. Rodent-like agouti scampered across our path. A prehistoric-looking iguana basked in the sun, camouflaged by fallen leaves on the edge of the path. Giant golden orb spiders stretched their glistening webs between branches like lacy table cloths.

The Puerto Escondido (Hidden Port) Trail is the prettiest, but quite steep near the end, where it slopes to the water. Strategically placed benches offer welcome resting spots. Concrete block steps provide good footholds, especially when the trail is wet.

A side path leads to Playitas Gemelas, isolated pockets of sand, scattered with driftwood and rocks. Each little beach is just large enough for a couple to stretch out their beach towels.

El Mirador Trail, although only a third of a mile long, climbs unrelentingly uphill. It ends at a lookout above the green sea and rocky islets. At the top, we watched a V-shaped formation of black pelicans fly by. "It's the Costa Rican Air Force," joked Ovidio. (The country has no military).

Retracing our path back to the trail head, we looked down to see leaf-cutter ants, and up to see leafy stands of bamboo, as tall as palm trees. Frequently, we stopped to compare notes with other hikers about the location of the constantly roving wildlife.

One couple told us that they had watched a green snake swallow a yellow frog. As we spoke, a bright red land crab skittered by our feet, dragging a leaf into its hole.

Bands of white-faced monkeys patrol the beach, where they're attracted by picnicking families. Signs warn people not to feed the monkeys. But monkeys don't read signs. Mischievous primates sometimes steal bags off picnic tables, then scurry up trees to examine the contents, leaving the owners wide-mouthed with surprise.

By the time we made it to the beach, the simians had disappeared. Two hikers told us that they had seen a band of 15 white-faced monkeys on the Punta Cathedral (Cathedral Point) Trail.

We set off to explore the loop trail around a wedge-shaped piece of land that was once an island. Over the years, a sandbar built up, joining it to the mainland. Trees and shrubs now stabilize the connection, making it permanent.

Although the trail was steep, it offered rewarding views of the sea and lava rock islands. We regretted not bringing our snorkeling gear to explore the marine reserve part of the park.

Instead, we searched for monkeys. A peacock-blue giant morpho butterfly flitted by. White-tipped doves cooed in the branches. But we found no monkeys.

On our way back, we stopped at a beachside picnic table for a snack. We had barely pulled out the bananas, when a troop of tiny squirrel monkeys appeared in the surrounding forest.

Taking flying leaps from one branch to another, the primates squealed with excitement. A palm-size baby clung to its mother's back like Velcro as she catapulted from tree to tree.

Suddenly, the sound of stampeding of feet on the beach pavilion roof drew our attention to the arrival of a group of white-faced monkeys. One dangled from the roof, by an arm, peering through open walls at the amused visitors inside. We quickly ate our bananas, fearing the monkeys would swarm our table for handouts.

As the sun's last rays gilded the sky, the simians vanished into the foliage. In the distance, the haunting wail of a howler monkey rose to a crescendo and echoed through the darkening jungle.

In spite of first impressions, Manuel Antonio isn't such a bad place for viewing wildlife, after all.~ Travel information

Manuel Antonio National Park is on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, 98 miles south of San Jose and 4.5 miles south of Quepos.

The park is located in an area with high temperatures and humidity. The dry season is January through March. The average annual temperature is 80 degrees.

Park information:

Be prepared to wade across an estuary that crosses the beach in front of the entrance to the park. At low tide, it's only ankle-deep, but at high tide, it can be waist-high.

Bring bottled water, sunscreen, sneakers, bathing suits and snorkel equipment.

Camping, fires and soaps are not permitted in the park.

Do not feed the wildlife. They can suffer serious health problems if they consume the foods we eat.

Do not remove plants, stones, shells or other "souvenirs" from the park. Rangers check all bags as you leave and confiscate any contraband.