Guided by Locals in the Damas Mangroves of Costa Rica

Tours are a tricky thing. You can easily find yourself in a large pack of people shuffling from one point of interest to another, straining to hear the guide while avoiding awkward conversations with the obnoxious couple from Indiana with no filter.

But tours can afford a better understanding of the historical, cultural, or environmental significance of a destination, enriching your trip by adding a story to the sights.

One way to better your chances of a good tour is by seeking out a local guide that can give a private tour. This one-on-one experience provides a personal experience and room for conversation instead of the one-way communication of a large group.

How do you find a private guide? I’ve found references on TripAdvisor or the sister site, Cruise Critic. I’ve also asked at our hotel once we arrive. That’s how we ended up with a private tour of the Damas Mangroves near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

William arrived at our hotel in a cab to take the two of us to his house on the shore of the mangrove, where the tour would depart. We were his only clients that morning. As we bumped down the dirt road through the neighborhood he grew up in, he explained his father’s life as a palm plantation worker, where William also got his start. But after college, William married and returned to his childhood neighborhood to start a business as a tour guide.

As we arrived at his home, we met his seventy-five-year-old father, who soon departed by bicycle, and William’s four-year-old son. As we paddled through the mangroves, William pointed out the spot where he takes his sons swimming. He shouted ashore to ancient local men might have been fishing, or possibly just pretending to fish. We learned about his twelve-year-old’s fascination with National Geographic instead of soccer and the father-son debates about which U.S. presidential candidate would be better for Costa Rica.

When we returned to shore, William’s wife had a typical Costa Rican breakfast of eggs, gallo pinto, and freshly brewed coffee waiting for us. We chatted about family (mothers-in-law are the bosses in Costa Rica, too) and work (it’s not easy running a business, a farm, and still finding time for the kids) before the cab driver pulled up to whisk us back to our hotel.

The purpose of the tour was to do some wildlife spotting—not a guarantee in the wilderness. And that morning, the monkeys and sloths were spending their time elsewhere. But rather than be a disappointment, the tour was a success because of the personal glimpse we got into real life in Costa Rica.