Manuel Antonio National Park is a popular spot in Costa Rica for first-time and return visitors. It’s for good reason, too! The 3-square-mile park is situated along the Pacific Ocean and has an abundance of rainforest, beaches, and wildlife. The combination creates a lush green backdrop hiding hundreds of animal species overlooking expansive, blue ocean vistas.
As you plan your Costa Rican itinerary, make time to explore all the Manuel Antonio area has to offer!
How to Spend a Fantastic Day in
Manuel Antonio National Park
Set out to start the day off right. This means rising early. After all, you’re in the jungle. Do as the animals do at first light and get moving. 😉 Plan on arriving at the National Park when it opens. The animals are active and there are fewer people.
Before your day in the National Park, decide whether or not to hire a guide. As with anything, there’s a debate about whether or not this is necessary. But, I think necessary is the wrong word altogether.
Sure, you can walk through the park and guaranteed you’ll spot some monkeys in the trees and lizards on the beach. You might even see a sloth sleeping curled up among the branches.
It’s also a guarantee you’ll walk right past countless other animals big and small hidden right in front of you. Excellent guides are certified, passionately share about Costa Rica’s plants and animals, and have X-Ray vision. This combination means you’ll see more and learn more about the National Park.
I happily paid to join a small (5 people) group guided by a fantastic guide, named Johan Chaves. Like a great teacher, he showed his love for the National Park and, in turn, made us all the more curious and excited to learn.
So, is it necessary to hire a guide?
Do I strongly recommend you hire an excellent guide like Johan if you want to see and learn the most possible?
Yes! Your day and experience in the park will be that much more memorable because of it.
As you plan your day in Manuel Antonio National Park, think about these 2 tips.
- Don’t hire a guide the morning of your visit who is waiting just outside the entrance. Guides have to be certified, but they don’t have to be enthusiastic about giving tours. One such guide was overheard saying in Spanish that he was walking fast and couldn’t wait until his tour was over.
- If you choose to independently tour the park, then do just that. Be independent. Of course, you’ll see where guided groups stop and can easily look where they’re looking. But, be respectful and don’t linger within earshot of what the guides are teaching. Remember, you chose to be independent.
Regardless of whether or not you hired a guide, spend the morning hours looking for wildlife. From morning until midday, the rainforest is alive with the squawks and screeches of the animals.
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet and Manuel Antonio takes pride in its fair share of wildlife. It’s home to 3 types of monkeys, 2 and 3-toed sloths, coatis, agoutis, and hundreds of other species. Birding is also popular in the National Park. Manuel Antonio may only be 3 square miles, but it’s home to nearly 200 species of birds.
The park has several hiking trails, all of which are well-maintained and easily walked with an average comfortable shoe or sports sandal. A good guide will walk along several of these paths with you during a morning tour.
Traveling to Manuel Antonio soon?
If you’re on your own, veer off the wide path at the entrance and explore these trails at your leisure, as there will be fewer people and more animals. I highly recommend the Sendero Perezoso (sloth trail), which is the first left off the main path from the entrance. If you’re lucky like I was, you’ll spot a howler monkey, a toucan, poisonous dart frogs, and more!
Don’t let the walkable trails fool you. The park is full of wild animals and stepping off the path could get you hurt and whatever is hiding under the forest debris hurt, too. Better to keep your feet in the clear and focus on having your camera trigger finger at the ready!
As it gets closer to lunch, most guided tours finish along Playa Manuel Antonio. The views of the water, with green jungle on one side and the rocky coastline on the other, are among the prettiest in Costa Rica. So, it’s no surprise this beach is by far the most popular with park visitors who want to eat and cool off.
The white-faced monkeys have figured this out, too, and will take any opportunity to swipe sandwiches and lunch snacks from anyone not paying attention.
Walk further down the beach or follow the signs to Playa Espadilla Sur for a quieter spot to relax, have lunch, and to swim.
After a morning in search of wildlife and lunch under a shady palm tree on the beach, use part of the afternoon to hike the Punta Catedral Point trail. The trail is a loop that’ll take about an hour. The trail takes an upward path and opens up to scenic ocean view vistas.
You’ll also be able to access a remote corner of Playa Manuel Antonio if you’d like to swim or just put your feet in the tidepools. Always keep your eyes open for more wildlife. It’s along this trail that I saw a group of white-faced monkeys chomping on what used to be a lizard!
As you finish the loop, you should have a couple afternoon hours to laze on the beach. As these beaches are within the National Park, you won’t find chairs or umbrellas. So, bring a towel or just find your own spot in the sand. If you’d like to snorkel, bring your own gear in your daypack.
As the afternoon wanes and you make your way back toward the entrance/exit, notice the relative stillness and quiet in the rainforest as compared to the morning. The animals find cozy spots to snooze the afternoon heat away.
Manuel Antonio National Park is open every day except Mondays from 7am-4pm. The visitor’s entrance fee is $16 and $3 for residents of Costa Rica. Avoid Easter week, if you can. The park is notably crowded with visitors and locals, alike, who all have vacation during this time.
Food and water are not sold inside the park so it’s necessary to bring what you need for the day. The park does not allow foods like chips, nuts, and large cookies. Of course, feeding the animals is forbidden. Be careful along Playa Manuel Antonio where the white-faced monkeys are always looking for an opportunity to grab your lunch, even if it’s still in your backpack!
The wildlife prevents widespread use of garbage cans. So, be prepared to pack out your trash.
Bathrooms and changing rooms are at the top of the hill before walking down toward Playa Manuel Antonio. Perfect if you plan to spend the afternoon on the beach after a morning of hiking.
Getting to/around Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is just south of the town of Quepos. It’s roughly a 3-hour drive from the airport in San Jose to Manuel Antonio on a paved route along the Pacific Coast. Calculate 5 hours if you’re coming from Arenal Volcano or Tenorio National Park in the north. Be sure to stop at the Tarcoles bridge along the way to spot the crocs!
Quepos also has a small airport where regional carriers Nature Air and Sansa operate 30-minute flights from San Jose.
Within the Manuel Antonio area, it’s easy and convenient to get around to the area’s restaurants, markets, and hotels with your own car. A public bus and taxis are also available.
The entrance to the National Park is just a short ride from many area hotels. Parking is limited to small unofficial lots along the road leading to the entrance. Expect to pay a flat fee for the day.
Where to Stay
The hill overlooking the beaches and the National Park is the most popular area to stay because these hotels offer stunning panoramic views. On my first visit to Manuel Antonio, my hotel had a great pool with a swim-up bar and expansive views of the Pacific. In the early morning hours from my room, I was able to watch monkeys playing in the trees just outside.
The area has hotels to fit any budget, most within minutes from the National Park. Check latest prices to see the variety of hotel options available near the park.
For my most recent visit to Manuel Antonio, I stayed in my own Airbnb in a gated rental community just 5 minutes from the park and within walking distance to several nearby restaurants.
Where to Eat
As with hotels, the Manuel Antonio area has plenty of food choices. From typical Costa Rican dishes, fine dining, or pizza, you’re sure to find something to satisfy. Here are a few of my favorites.
- El Avion serves up fantastic views, but just average food. Go for a drink and the sunset views.
- Prefer to stay in one place? Cafe Agua Azul has the incredible views and delicious, well-priced food.
- The covered patio out back at Cafe Milagro is a popular dinner spot. Be sure to taste the coconut rice and beans!
- Looking for a break from the local cuisine? The Falafel Bar has sandwiches, platters, and a selection of fresh foods and veggies. My leftover pita and falafel made for the perfect packable sandwich for the National Park.
So, would you like to spend the day in Manuel Antonio National Park? Already visited? What tips can you offer a first-timer?
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