PARQUE NACIONAL MANUEL ANTONIO, 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.

The trails

Manuel Antonio has a tiny system of short trails, all easy, except in rainy conditions, when they can get slippery. 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.

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.

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