Welcome to our guide on Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. Situated on the Pacific coast, just south of the city of Quepos, Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular parks in Costa Rica. It's compact, but beautiful, and the dense rainforest teems with wildlife. Additionally, the park is also home to some stunning unspoilt beaches. The trails are short and well-maintained and there are opportunities to see monkeys together with sloths, iguanas, tree frogs, morph butterflies and colourful crabs. Due to the fact that the trails are easy to navigate and wildlife is abundant, it is particularly suitable for families. However, everyone will enjoy this delightful national park. Without further ado, here is our guide on Manuel Antonio National Park.
This small town is known as the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park. It is where most people base themselves when they visit the park and is home to an array of shops, restaurants and amenities.
The showpiece of the town is Marina Pez Vela, which opened in 2014 and offers fine dining, high-end shopping as well as boat trips, snorkelling and catamaran tours. Quepos is known for its big game fishing and boats leave from the marina to the best fishing spots in the area. If you love seafood, Z Gastro Bar has an excellent reputation and serves delicious shrimp cocktails and fish platters.
There's nothing particularly attractive about Quepos (unless you are into big game fishing), but it serves as a functional place to eat and sleep when visiting the national park. From Quepos, it's easy to take a local bus to and from the park, which is just over four miles away. Buses run every half an hour from the bus station in the centre of town, starting at 5.30 am and finishing at 9.30 pm.
Situated near Manuel Antonio Village, Playa Espadilla is a mile-long stretch of lovely white sand. It's a popular surf spot for beginners and is backed by tropical rainforest. There are a few shops and restaurants nearby.
Located at the entrance to the national park, Manuel Antonio Village consists of a scattering of cafes, restaurants and luxury lodgings. If you are a budget traveller, as we are, Quepos is definitely the better option as far as accomodation is concerned. Additionally, the proximity to the national park means that prices for food and drink are high – if I remember correctly, I paid about $9.00 for a smoothie in one of the cafes!
It's easy to understand why this national park is the most visited in Costa Rica. Although it only seven square miles, it is well connected, easy to traverse and is home to an abundance of wildlife, most of which is easily spotted. You can hike, swim, check out the local wildlife or simply enjoy the stunning views. It has to be said that Manuel Antonio isn't the most adventurous national park in Costa Rica. The hiking isn't challenging, everything is well-marked and it's as close to Disneyland that a jungle could get. Having said that, it is incredibly beautiful and the wealth of wildlife is staggering. Nowhere, else have we seen so much wildlife in such close proximity to one another.
The park opens between Tuesdays and Sundays from 7.00 am to 4.00 pm. It can get extremely crowded, especially during high season. If possible, get there early, so it won't be uncomfortably busy for at least some of your visit. The entrance fee is $16.00 US for adults and $5.00 US for kids between 2-12 (tax not included). Recently the system changed, and it is now only possible to purchase tickets online. Consequently, you need to ensure that you book your tickets prior to arrival.
Although it's easy to spot much of the wildlife in the park on your own, hiring a guide will undoubtedly guarantee that you will see even more. Guides have an ear and an eye for spotting wildlife and know exactly where to look. Sloths can be difficult to spot, as can smaller creatures such as tree frogs. Guides are available at the entrance and to be on the safe side, ask them to produce their ITA (Institute of Costa Rica Tourism), so that you can be certain of securing an official guide. It costs in the region of $20.00 an hour per person, but is worthwhile for anyone who has a particular interest in wildlife.
The main trail (Camino Vehicular) runs for about a mile and links the beaches and other trails. These including the Waterfall and Sloth Trails. At just over a mile long, the Punta Cathedral Loop is slightly steeper than the other trails and culminates with wonderful views over the rainforest. The longest hike in the park is the Puerto Escondido Trail, which is about four miles long and a favourite hang-out of capuchin monkeys, which are frequently spotted.
The park is home to two main beaches, Espadilla Sur Beach and Manuel Antonio Beach. Both beaches are excellent for swimming and snorkelling. We spent several hours on Manuel Antonio Beach watching some entertaining white-faced monkeys in the trees. Apart from white-faced and capuchin monkeys, squirrel and howler monkeys are also commonly seen in the park. There was also a pesky racoon on the beach who stopped at nothing to secure free snacks. In fact, make sure you don't leave any food (or bags) unattended. Both racoons and monkeys have learnt all the tricks of the trade. We watched a monkey steal a woman's packed lunch and quickly head to the highest branches of a tree. The monkey then proceeded to open the box and eat its contents. The woman stood under the tree shaking her fist at the cheeky monkey.
Apart from monkeys and racoons, we saw coatimundis, vultures, a snake and many stunning morph butterflies. Sadly, we didn't see sloths on that occasion (although we did later at Cahuita National Park). The most common sloth to be seen at Manuel Antonio is the three-toed Brown-throated Sloth, who are active during the day. Consequently, chances of seeing at least one are pretty high. It obviously wasn't our lucky day.
When to Visit: The best time to visit Manuel Antonio National Park is between December and May, when the weather is dry. During the wet season, it usually pours with rain in the mornings, but the sun appears in the afternoons.
Getting There from San Jose: We took a public bus from San Jose to Quepos, which takes about three or four hours. Hotels can arrange shuttles if you prefer. Additionally, there is an airport about three miles outside Quepos and flights only take about fifteen minutes.
Where to Stay: There are several boutique hotels in and around Manuel Antonio Village. The majority of the cheaper accomodation is in Quepos. Selina Manuel Antonio is an excellent hostel, which offers private rooms and a mixed dorm. It has a yoga deck and swimming pool and is surrounded by rainforest. La Foresta Nature Resort is a mid-range eco-friendly option which receives consistently great reviews. Casitas (small bungalows) are set amongst a jungle background.