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This lonesome hamlet sits at the end of the road, 13 kilometers south of Puerto Viejo. The populace has lived for generations in what is now the wildlife refuge, living off the sea and using the land to farm cacao until 1979, when the Monilia fungus wiped out the crop.
Electricity arrived in 1989, four years after the first dirt road linked it to the rest of the world. The hamlet has since become a darling of the offbeat, alternative-travel set.
From Manzanillo, a five-kilometer coastal trail leads to the fishing hamlet of Punta Mona (Monkey Point) and the heart of Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
A local cooperative, Guías MANT (tel. 506/2759-9064), on your left as you enter Manzanillo, offers bird-watching, fishing, hiking, horseback-riding, and snorkeling excursions, plus nocturnal turtle-nesting trips.
Heading into Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge? Hire Carlos León Moya (tel. 506/2759-9070, http://manzanillo-caribe.com/carlos/carlos.html) or Abel Bustamante (tel. 506/2759-9043, http://manzanillo-caribe.com/abel/abel.html, $50 pp) as your guide.
Aquamor Talamanca Adventures (tel. 506/2759-9012 or 2759-0612, www.greencoast.com/aquamor.htm, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. daily) is a full-service dive shop offering dives ($35–95), PADI certification courses ($350), snorkeling ($8–35) and snorkel-gear rental, kayak trips (from $35), and a dolphin observation safari ($40). It’s also the best source of information in the village. The staff at Aquamor can tell you where’s safe to go; check out their Coral Reef Information Center. Simeon Creek, by the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge entrance, is a great place to kayak; expect to see all manner of wildlife.
Manzanillo Tarpon Expeditions (tel. 506/2759-9115, U.S. tel. 406/586-5084, www.tarponville.com) has sportfishing packages.
Local guide Peter Gascar will lead you to his lookout platform, the Observatorio Manzanillo (tel. 506/2759-9020, treehouseraj [at] yahoo [dot] com, $55), 25 meters high in a giant nispero tree. You ascend via a challenging rope climb (not for anyone suffering vertigo) to a two-story rainforest research platform acclaimed as the largest in the world. The five-hour tour is led by a native guide and includes nature study.
Hotels and Restaurants
No camping on the beach is permitted. You can camp under palms at Camping Manzanillo (tel. 506/2759-9008, $5 pp) and at the Casa de Guías MANT ($8 pp), which also has Internet access.
Cabinas Maxi (tel. 506/2759-9086, $25 s/d standard, $35 s/d with refrigerator and TV), adjoining Restaurant/Bar Maxi, has six modern, clean, simple concrete cabinas with TV, fans, bamboo furnishings, and private bathrooms.
Cabinas Manzanillo (tel. 506/2759-9033) offers similar rooms, but a bonus here is the delightful hosts, Sandra Catrillo and Pablo Bustamante.
You’ll fall in love with Congo Bongo (tel. 506/2759-9016, www.congo-bongo.com, $145 s/d), set in a former cacao plantation (now reverting to rainforest) and a 10-minute walk west of Manzanillo. Blending perfectly with its setting, it has an adorable agreeably rustic mood and motif to each of its six distinct cabins billed as “vacation homes.” All have batik fabrics, plus mosquito nets, kitchens, and broad shady patios with sofas and rockers. It’s just you and the jungle animals. A trail leads to the beach.
By far the nicest digs in the village are at the Dutch-run Cabinas Faya Lobi (tel. 506/2759-9167, www.cabinasfayalobi.com, $30 s/d), a modern two-story building with black stone highlights. It has four cross-ventilated rooms with stone floors and quaint bathrooms with hot water and mosaics. They share a simple kitchen and an open-air lounge with hammocks. The owners also rent a “jungle house” called Jungle Dreamz (www.jungledreamz.com, $90 s/d, two-night minimum), a cozy two-bedroom bungalow in a lush garden setting.
Another worthy house rental, the all-wood beachfront Dolphin Lodge (in North America tel. 406/586-5084, www.vrbo.com/18442, $175–200 nightly, $1,200 weekly low season, $1,400 weekly high season) is east of the river outside Manzanillo and inside the reserve. It’s a two-story three-bedroom, three-bathroom beach house with kitchen. No smokers are permitted. A caretaker and his family prepare meals.
Restaurant/Bar Maxi (tel. 506/2759-9086, restmaxis [at] racsa [dot] co [dot] cr, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, $5–15) serves típico dishes and seafood, such as pargo rojo (red snapper) and lobster. Bar Maxi is one of the liveliest spots on the Caribbean. The gloomy disco-bar downstairs is enlivened by the slap of dominoes and the blast of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley, and the dancing spills out onto the sandy road. The upstairs bar has a breezy terrace and gets packed to the gills on weekends and holidays, even in the middle of the day. Service can be slow and indifferent, alas.
Oh La La (tel. 506/2759-9184, ohlala.cr [at] gmail [dot] com, 7:45 a.m.–3 p.m. Wed.–Mon.) is a charming and simple open-air café and restaurant run by French couple Stephanie and Olivier Achenbaum. They offer breakfasts and lunches that include salads, crepes, omelettes, and sweet pepper tartines with cheese on baguette, plus chocolate cake, banana bread, and crême caramel.
Getting to Manzanillo
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition