Small but perfectly formed, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio ranks among the top tourist destinations in the country – visitors descend in droves to experience its stunning, picture-postcard setting, with spectacular white-grey sand beaches fringed by thickly forested hills. The striking tómbolo formation of Punta Catedral, jutting out into the Pacific, accounts for much of the region’s allure, and as you watch a lavish sunset flower and die over the ocean, it does seem as though Manuel Antonio may be one of the more charmed places on earth.
That said, the huge tourist boom has undeniably taken its toll on the area, and the small corridor of land between the old banana-exporting town of Quepos and the little community of Manuel Antonio is one of the most crowded pieces of real estate in the country, featuring an unbroken line of hotels and lodges that run right down to the park’s perimeter.
The park, some 150km southwest of San José as the crow flies, may be Costa Rica’s smallest national park but it’s also its most popular. Considering the number of hotels and restaurants sidling up to the park’s borders, one can easily imagine the fate that might have overtaken its limestone-white sands had it not been designated a national park in 1972. Even so, the park suffers from a high number of visitors (over 300,000 in 2010), and came within days of being closed down by the Ministry of Health in January 2009, after its then-inadequate facilities (much improved since) caused the pollution of local rivers and coastline. The park does close on Mondays, however, to give the animals a rest and the rangers and trail maintenance staff a chance to work.
Covering an area of only 6.8 square kilometres, Manuel Antonio preserves not only the lovely beaches and the unique tómbolo formation of Punta Catedral (Cathedral Point), but also mangroves and humid tropical forest. Visitors can only visit the part of the park that faces the sea – the eastern mountain section, off-limits to the public, is regularly patrolled by rangers to deter poaching, which is rife in the area, and incursions into the park from surrounding farmers and campesinos.
Manuel Antonio has a tiny system of short trails, all easy, except in rainy conditions, when they can get slippery. The trail out of Manuel Antonio, the Sendero Principal (2.2km), runs along the back of the long Playa Espadilla Sur. It’s usually calm and less crowded than Playa Manuel Antonio, but isn’t often supervised, so be careful of currents.
From the park entrance, the main trail, Sendero El Perezoso, runs for 1.3km down to Playa Manuel Antonio, providing, as the name suggests, a fair chance of spotting sloths in the guarumo trees along the way, as well as squirrel and howler monkeys. About 400m in, the short Sendero La Catarata (900m) leads to the pretty little waterfall after which it’s named.
At the end of the trail, most people continue straight down to Playa Manuel Antonio, but for more rainforest hiking you can either head inland on the Sendero Mirador (1.3km), which ends at a viewpoint overlooking Playa Puerto Escondido, or take the beachside Sendero Playas Gemelas y Puerto Escondido (1.6km), which heads through relatively dense humid tropical forest cover, crossing a small creek before eventually reaching the rocky beach itself; a turn-off halfway along leads to Playas Gemelas. You can clamber across Playa Puerto Escondido at low tide – but check tide times with the rangers before leaving to avoid getting cut off.
Playa Manuel Antonio is the park’s best swimming beach and, predictably, its most crowded – both with people and with white-faced capuchin monkeys, who seem to be running a competition with the local raccoon population as to who can steal the most backpack snacks. At the southern end of the beach, low tide reveals a pile of stones believed to have been used as turtle traps by the area’s indigenous peoples – green turtles have probably nested in Manuel Antonio for thousands of years. Beyond here, it’s worth embarking on the Sendero Punta Catedral (1.4km), an energetic loop offering wonderful views of the Pacific, dotted with jagged-edged little islands; like all tómbolos, Punta Catedral was once an island that, over millennia, has been joined to the mainland through accumulated sand deposits.
Manuel Antonio is one of the few remaining natural habitats of the squirrel monkey, the smallest of Costa Rica’s primates, with close-set bright eyes and a delicate, white-haired face – their cuteness is their own nemesis, and they were once a prime target for poachers. You might spot them springing through the canopy above the park trails or outside the park in the Manuel Antonio area in general – local schoolchildren have set up a project to build overhead wooden “bridges” for the monkeys to cross the increasingly busy road from Manuel Antonio to Quepos.
You also have a good chance of seeing other smaller mammals, such as coati, agouti, two- and three-toed sloth and white-faced capuchin monkeys. The abundant birdlife includes the shimmering green kingfisher, the brown pelican, which can often be seen fishing off the rocks, and the laughing falcon.
Big iguanas hang out near the beaches, often standing stock-still for ten minutes at a time, providing good photo opportunities, though beware the snakes that drape themselves over the trails and look like vines – be careful what you grab onto.
Due to the park’s high visitor numbers, some of the wildlife is unnervingly familiar with humans, and white-faced capuchin monkeys, in particular, have no qualms raiding backpacks in the hope of finding a bite to eat. You can help the animals by not feeding them (for which you can be fined), being quiet as you walk the trails and by not leaving any litter.
The nearby waters teem with sailfish, marlin and wahoo, making Quepos one of the best spots along the Pacific for sports-fishing. Several operators run tours, including Luna Tours, in the lobby of Hotel Kamuk, and the pricier Bluefin, on the south side of the football field. If you’d rather see the fish than catch them, Oceans Unlimited runs half-day scuba-diving excursions and multi-day PADI courses, while MASS offers three-hour surfing lessons on Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio.
Inland options include white-water rafting tours with operator Amigos del Río, who run tours to the Class II–III Río Savegre and Class III–IV Río Naranjo. There’s no shortage of canopy tours: Dreamforest Canopy is the company of choice for adrenaline junkies, while the ride with Titi Canopy Tour is slower and more suitable for families.
Iguana Tours can arrange horseriding and white-water rafting, as well as hiking in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio and boat and kayak trips around Isla Damas, a wildlife-rich mangrove estuary just north of Quepos.
Accommodation in Quepos is more affordable but less appealing than what’s on offer in Manuel Antonio or on the long road linking the two towns.
Buses from San José’s La Coca-Cola bus station run to Quepos (9–12 daily; 3hr 30min–4hr 30min); the six (5 on Sat & Sun) slower regular buses continue to Manuel Antonio, dropping off at hotels on request. There are also services from Puntarenas (6 daily; 3hr) via Jacó (1hr 30min), and from Dominical (depart 7am, 11.30am & 1.30pm; 1hr 30min). On weekends, holidays and any time during the dry season, buy your bus ticket at least three days in advance, and your return ticket as soon as you arrive. All buses arrive in Quepos at the busy terminal, which doubles as the mercado, one block east of the town centre.
Due to the long drive, many people fly from San José (8 daily; 25min); the flights tend to be heavily booked, so reserve early. There are also flights to Quepos from La Fortuna (daily; 40min). A minibus ($10) runs from the airstrip, 5km north of town, into Quepos and on to Manuel Antonio; a taxi costs around $8 to Quepos and $16 to Manuel Antonio.
Buses make the short journey to Manuel Antonio every half-hour from 7am to 7pm (20min), departing from the main terminal. Buses also head north from here to San José (9–10 daily) and Puntarenas (6 daily), via Jacó, as well as south to Dominical and Uvita (depart 5.30am, 11.30am & 1.30pm). Taxis line up at the rank at the south end of the mercado; the journey to Manuel Antonio costs around $14.
If you’re driving, you can get to San Isidro, Golfito, the Osa Peninsula and other points in the Zona Sur via Dominical, 44km south of Quepos – although the road is usually in terrible condition and you’ll need a sturdy 4WD, it beats going all the way back to San José and taking the Interamericana south.
The restaurants in Quepos fall into two categories: gringo-owned and -geared eateries and cheaper ones owned by locals and frequented by Ticos. Fish is predictably good – order grilled pargo (dorado) and you can’t go wrong.
Midweek, nightlife is more or less limited to excited fishermen debating the merits of different tackle; at the weekends, Wacky Wanda’s gets lively with a cheerful mix of tourists and locals who hang out until fairly late at night.
There’s no official tourist office. For up-to-date town info, pick up Quepolandia, a free bi-monthly English newsletter found at many local businesses.
Take the usual precautions against theft and bear in mind that it’s unwise to walk around at night in Quepos, as the sea-wall area is a hangout for local drug users – drugs have become a problem in the area and are blamed for many of the robberies from hotel rooms and cars.
The beaches around Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio can be confusing, since they’re called by a variety of different names. It’s important to know which beach you’re on, however, because some are unsafe for swimming; check with the rangers about conditions. From north to south, the beaches are as follows:
This long, popular curve of sand fronting Manuel Antonio village runs down to the park exit, just outside the park itself.
Espadilla Sur is the last beach you come to inside the park – the main trail towards the exit runs along the back of the beach. It’s on the north side of Punta Catedral, and while usually fairly calm, it’s also the most dangerous in rough conditions – beware the currents.
Immediately south of Punta Catedral, and in a deeper and more protected bay than the others, Manuel Antonio is by far the best swimming beach, though you can still get clobbered by the deceptively gentle-looking waves as they hit the shore. Unfortunately, it’s quite narrow and can get crowded (the best time to come is before 10am).
Reached along the Sendero Puerto Escondido, this is a pretty, white horseshoe-shaped beach. Don’t set out without first checking with the rangers about the marea (tide), because at high tide you can’t get across the beach, nor can you cross it from the dense forest behind. At best, it’ll be a waste of time; at worst, you’ll get cut off on the other side for a few hours. Rangers advise against swimming here, as the currents can be dangerous.
Top image: Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa-Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock