Manuel Antonio National Park
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Small but perfectly formed, Manuel Antonio National Park ranks among the top tourist destinations in the country. Visitors descend in droves to experience its stunning, picture-postcard setting, with spectacular white-grey sandy beaches fringed by thickly forested hills. Plan your trip to Manuel Antonio National Park with our guide to Manuel Antonio National Park — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio National Park may be Costa Rica’s smallest national park, but it’s also its most popular. 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 — it’s best to avoid weekends altogether, when Costa Rican families descend en masse to hit the beaches.
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 explore 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 and incursions into the park from surrounding farmers and campesinos.
Find out more about Costa Rica's national parks, and consider visiting Manuel Antonio National Park as part of our customisable Costa Rica Eco Adventure trip.
Manuel Antonio National Park has a tiny system of short trails – all easy, except in rainy conditions, when they can get slippery. From the entrance the main trail, Sendero El Perezoso runs for 1.4km down to Playa Manuel Antonio. Keep your eyes peeled for sloths, squirrels, and howler monkeys along the way.
About 400m in, the Sendero La Catarata (900m) branches off to the pretty little waterfall after which it’s named.
At the end of Sendero El Perezoso, most people continue straight down to Playa Manuel Antonio, the park’s best swimming beach.
Beyond the southern end of the beach, it’s worth embarking on the Sendero La Trampa. This energetic 1.4km loop around the Punta Catedral offers wonderful views of the Pacific, dotted with jagged-edged little islands.
Alternatively, instead of turning right to Playa Manuel Antonio at the end of Sendero El Perezoso turn left for more rainforest hiking. For example, the Sendero Playas Gemelas y Puerto Escondido (1.6km) heads through humid tropical forest to the southern end of Playa Puerto Escondido.
Love hiking? Discover the best hikes in Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the few remaining natural habitats of the squirrel monkey. The smallest of Costa Rica’s primates, these have close-set, bright eyes and delicate, white-haired faces.
You also have a good chance of seeing other smaller mammals, such as coati, agouti, two- and three-toed sloths and white-faced capuchin monkeys.
The abundant birdlife includes the shimmering green kingfisher, the brown pelican, and the laughing falcon.
Big iguanas hang out near the beaches, often keeping stock-still for ten minutes at a time, providing good photo opportunities. Beware of 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. White-faced capuchin monkeys in particular have no qualms raiding backpacks in the hope of finding a bite to eat.
First up, you need to know that the beautiful beaches around Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio can be confusing — they’re called by a variety of different names.
Importantly, given that some are unsafe for swimming, it’s vital to know which beach you’re on. You should also check conditions with rangers.
Also called Playa Primera or Playa Numero Uno, this long, popular curve of sand fronting Manuel Antonio village runs down to the park exit, just outside the park itself.
Also called Playa Dos or Playa Segunda, 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.
Also called Playa Cuatro, this pretty, white horseshoe-shaped beach is reached along the Sendero Puerto Escondido.
At high tide you can’t get across the beach, nor can you cross it from the dense forest behind, so don’t set out without asking rangers about the marea (tide). 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.
Also called Playa Tres or Playa Blanca, this is immediately south of Playa Espadilla Sur, and in a deeper, more protected bay than the others.
As such, 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.
Arrive before 10am to avoid the crowds — there's a reason Playa Manuel Antonio features in our run-down of the best beaches in Costa Rica.
In addition to offering guided hiking in Manuel Antonio National Park, Iguana Tours arrange horse-riding and white-water rafting excursions.
They also run boat and kayak trips around Isla Damas, a wildlife-rich mangrove estuary just north of Quepos.
6km south of Quepos, and just north of the park entrance Playa Espadilla is one of the most popular beaches in Costa Rica. It boasts wide, smooth, light-grey sands and stunning sunsets.
If you want to surf, MASS has an outlet here and offer lessons. Be warned that the beach is plagued by riptides (travelling up to 10kph), though lots of people do also swim here – or rather, paddle and wade – and live to tell the tale.
Lifeguards now patrol in high season, so it’s considerably safer, but avoid weekends when it gets overwhelmed by day-trippers.
The most exclusive – and expensive – hotels are hidden away in the surrounding hills, with lovely ocean and sunset views.
Though you’ll find some affordable places in Manual Antonio village, and the occasional low-season discount, prices are high compared to the rest of the country. Reserve well in advance if visiting in the peak season (1st Dec — 15th Jan).
Travelling on a budget? 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.
Browse places to stay in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, and places to stay in Quepos, Costa Rica.
Be aware that eating along the Quepos–Manuel Antonio road is notoriously expensive. As a result, the area’s few reasonably priced restaurants are understandably popular
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 weekends, Wacky Wanda’s gets lively with a mix of tourists and locals who hang out until fairly late.
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.
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.
Be aware that the road is usually in terrible condition and you’ll need a sturdy 4WD. That said, it beats going all the way back to San José and taking the Interamericana south.
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.
For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.
You can take informative tours with guides at the park entrance (charge; 2hr), all of whom carry telescopic lenses to see wildlife more clearly.
You may be approached by “guides” offering their services in the village — check their ICT (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism) photo ID before engaging their services.
Whether you walk the trails guided or not, make sure you take plenty of water. The climate is hot, humid and wet, all year round, with temperatures easily climbing to 30°C and above.
Though popular year-round, Manuel Antonio National Park’s peak season for visitors is between December and mid-January, so avoid this period time if you’re looking for fewer crowds.
Given that some of Manuel Antonio National Park’s trails become hazardously slippery in rainy conditions, walkers might want to avoid visiting in September and October. These tend to be the rainiest months, so visiting then might put paid to some of your plans.
The weather is sunniest in February, and from May to August, you can expect afternoon thunderstorms.
All that considered, the best time to visit Manuel Antonio National Park is between February and April.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.
Looking for more inspiration? Read up on the best things to do in Costa Rica, and get yourself a copy of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Our Costa Rica travel tips will also help you plan your trip.
Not keen on planning? You'll love our customisable Costa Rica itineraries. Top tip — our Costa Rican Eco Adventure trip includes Manuel Antonio National Park.
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Top image: Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa-Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock