Manuel Antonio History
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Manuel Antonio's Hidden History

Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer whose futile search for the Fountain of Youth became his signature expedition, is rarely recognized for one of his greatest discoveries—Quepos and Manuel Antonio—which he put on the map in 1519.

So abundant are the riches of Costa Rica's Central Pacific coast, that he might have found his fabled fountain had he gone ashore and explored the region's mesmerizing beaches and jungles, its exotic wild-life and intoxicating treasure-trove of natural wonders.

Or, he might have been stunned by a blowgun dart tipped with deadly venom from a local frog and fired by a tall woman warrior. 

For what the Spanish captain and his crew of 40 could not have possibly known when they sailed into the scintillating waters off Manuel Antonio was that the Quepoa were not only the fiercest people in the region, but also the second-most feared tribe in all of the Americas. 

The sight of a thousand screaming warriors banging sticks together and waving at him caused him to refer to them as "Indios Bravos"He wrote of the area but decided not to land. 

From Colombia to Manuel Antonio 

The Quepoa, pronounced kay-po-uh, discovered the attractions of a Manuel Antonio vacation sometime between 900 A.D. and 950 A.D., according to Donald Melton and Anita Myketuk, archeologists  who attended the University of California at Berkeley and launched a full-time quest for Quepos' history more than 30 years ago. "They originally lived in the backwaters of the Amazon River, which flows out of the Andes through Colombia," says Melton.

In the emerald-rich region of eastern Colombia near contemporary Bogota, the feared Quepoa women were expert archers and fought even more valiantly than the men. On their trek from Colombia to Costa Rica, they also populated the islands off Panama's Caribbean coast and much of south-central Costa Rica. Upon reaching Manuel Antonio, the Quepoa made it their winter home; in the summer, they moved near the Naranjo River about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) north. Quepos (pronounced kay-pohs) owes its name to the Quepoa.

"We always knew there was a village near Manuel Antonio called Quepoa," recalled Melton, who discovered the main village in 1984 after a 10-year search. "What weI did was find some archeological sites and just start putting things together. The site, home to about a thousand Quepoa at the time of de Leon's arrival, overlooked the ocean and was spread out, centering on the area where the Mariposa Hotel and Si Como No are found today." The village consisted of circular houses made of cane and thatch. Monument near Turrialba, but the Quepoa did not build stone bases like those gracing the hills at Guayabo.

When the hilltop was scraped off to construct the Mariposa Hotel and other hotels and resorts, looters got away with most of the ceramics and other artifacts. But Melton was able to get a good overview of the lense, a cross-section of earth a little over a meter deep, which revealed evidence of human habitation from the earliest days until the end. They then bought land near the Mariposa and began exploring the area while building their own home, now Casa Buena Vista B & B> 

"I've explored every inch of Manuel Antonio and even found sites that pre-date the Quepoa," Melton said. The structures differ significantly: the Quepoa built round structures, while the pre-Quepoa sites feature rectangular buildings.

The Quepoa tribal shaman, living in a cave on Mogote Island just off the mouth of the Naranjo River, foretold the arrival of the turtles and important game fish in the area. Mogote, where the world record 57-pound Pacific black snook was landed in 1991, is the largest of a dozen islands strung along the coast like pearls.

Genuine pearls also abound in these waters, and the Quepoa were some of the world's top divers. Their version of diving was for a diver to clutch a heavy stone to his chest, roll off the boat and rapidly sink 21 to 24 meters (70 to 80 feet) to reach the oysters. Somehow, surfing never took off here.

When not fishing the fertile waters of the rivers and ocean, they employed wooden decoys to trap sea turtles in 70-meter (230-feet)-long stone pens that can still be seen at low tide on either end of Playa Manuel Antonio beach (northeast of Punta Catedral).

San Bernadino Mission

Melton and Myketuk located the ruins of the first mission to Costa Rica, the Franciscan's Mission San Bernadino de Quepos. It was established in 1571—almost 200 years before California's earliest mission. This mission introduced the first orange and other citrus trees to the Naranjo River region.

Mission San Bernadino de Quepos was founded and run for 10 years by Juan de Pizzaro, who had been dispatched by the King of Spain to oversee the settlement of Central America and Costa Rica in particular. Spanish interest in the area had commenced three years after Ponce de Leon's departure, when the King of Spain purportedly sent Gil Gonzalez de Davila to convert and baptize the local people in 1522. His true agenda was to evaluate the region's resources and wealth, which the King planned to use to finance its empire-building efforts throughout the New World.

Gonzalez found the Quepoa, with their pearls and gold, a wealthy tribe "...dressed elegantly in finely-woven garments colored with a purple dye," according to Melton. The dye proved more desirable than the purple dye from the Mediterranean that was so highly prized by royalty, and King Phillip issued an edict giving him a monopoly on the valuable product, which Spain began importing.

In 1563, Juan Vasquez de Coronado, younger brother of Francisco de Coronado, who discovered the American Southwest while seeking the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola, arrived to sign a peace treaty with the Quepoa. Backed by a hundred conquistadors and an equal complement of indigenous warriors, Coronado, Costa Rica's first governor, persuaded the tribe's cacique, or chief, to signed the treaty within days.

Soon after, the Quepoa's cacique was nearly defeated in battle while attempting to rescue his sister and other prisoners from the Coto Brus, another war-like tribe from the Talamanca mountains. Coronado's forces rescued the cacique and freed the prisoners. And though he was married to the Governor of Peru's daughter, living in Nicaragua at the time, Coronado was so captivated by the cacique's beautiful sister, Dulcehe (accent on last "e") that he had three children with her.

Trade expanded between the Quepoa and the Spanish, but eventually another cacique, enraged by news of church-mandated religious and social changes, murdered Pizarro in 1580 (shortly after Sir Francis Drake anchored off Caños Island for repairs on his around-the-world voyage). The sensationalistic murder—Pizarro was hung from a beam in the Mission San Bernadino de Quepos with a cinch from his own robe—immediately put a damper on the mission's membership drive, not to mention local nightlife.

When a Coto Brus cacique started killing Franciscan monks in the mountain missions, he triggered a rebellion that led to the closing of all missions in the area. The Mission San Bernadino de Quepos officially closed in 1746, due to the increased danger of attack by the Coto Brus and other Indians, and the Quepoa gradually vanished around this time, disappearing forever.

Since the Quepoa discovered Manuel Antonio between 900 A.D. and 950 A. D. and Ponce de Leon discovered it in 1519, the region has been rediscovered regularly — next by British pirates who used it for a base until the mid-1700s, then by banana farmers in the 1920s, and most recently by sportfishing enthusiasts and nature-lovers who make tourism and tours today's top industry. 

And even though the Quepoa vanished long ago, there remains an abundance of riches for you to discover on your own quest for Quepos.