Manuel Antonio National Park: Know before you go
Manuel Antonio National Park has a special place in my heart. It was the first park I visited when we came to Costa Rica in 2012 and it introduced my family and I to the diverse beauties of this country. Manuel Antonio has quite the reputation among travelers as it contains rugged rainforests, white-sand beaches, and some of Costa Rica's most beloved animals all inside the park.
While we live an hour away from the national park, our family still visits Manuel Antonio National Park often and love bringing family and friends to one of our favorite parts of Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of Costa Rica's most visited parks even though it is the smallest. Inside this 1,700 acre park, lies some of the most beautiful beaches in the country and a vast variety of animals and plants. Looking for a day of lying by the ocean after hiking in the rainforest while spotting monkeys and sloths? Manuel Antonio National Park is the place for you!
While the park is easy to get to and the facilities are well maintained, check out my tips below to ensure you have a fun and relaxing day at Manuel Antonio National Park.
Manuel Antonio National Park is located on the Pacific Ocean just outside of Quepos, which is a 2 hour drive south of San Jose. Once you enter Manuel Antonio on Route 618, you will see the beach on your righthand side. Take the first left (the road has no name but is in between Marlins bar and The Hawg 'N' Bi). This road will take you directly to parking, and the entrance of Manuel Antonio National Park.
If you bring your own car, know there is only one official parking lot for the national park. In recent years, locals started opening up their own parking lots and will try and guide you to non-official parking places. They are persistent and will try and flag you down and even stand in the road to stop you. They even have official looking signs to lure you to their parking so just wave and keep driving.
As you drive down the road, you will spot a covered stand on the right hand side of the road where men will be wearing green, official uniforms. This is the official Manuel Antonio parking lot and it is located across from the ticket sales. The employees are extremely helpful and will direct you to the ticket counter after you park.
If you don't want to deal with the hassle of parking, you can always hire a taxi to drive you directly to the national park.
Cost and hours
Manuel Antonio National Park opens at 7 am until 4 pm and is closed on Mondays. It is usually very busy during the dry season (November through May) so if you are visiting during these months arrive early to beat the crowds.
The cost of admission is $16 and children under 12 are free. You can buy your tickets at the park entrance with cash or VISA.
My favorite part of Manuel Antonio National Park is the diverse wildlife that you can easily spot on the trails. There are four types of monkeys, colorful birds, bats, giant butterflies, iguanas, and my personal favorite, sloths! As you walk along the trails, you can sometimes hear the howler monkeys in the distance and spot bright butterflies flying through the trees. Its pretty magical and fun to try and spot all of the creatures in the park.
There are four type of monkeys that you can find in the park: Red backed squirrel monkeys, White-faced Capuchin, spider monkeys and the very loud howler monkeys. You will usually spot most of the monkeys along the beach or park entrance. We see the white-faced Capuchins the most as they typically walk on the trails by the beaches. Be careful to keep your belongings close to you as the monkeys and raccoons have been known to steal food and bags. I had to scare off raccoons from my purse as they were trying to dig for a free meal while I was swimming in the ocean.
Also, never feed the animals! A local once told us a saying "a fed animal is a dead animal". It may seem dramatic but it is very true. Not only are the foods we eat not always healthy for the wildlife, it also teaches them to stop hunting for food and rely on humans to eat. Plus, it is illegal to feed the wildlife and Costa Rica takes the law very seriously.
Every time we have visited Manuel Antonio National Park we have seen several sloths and it is always exciting! Manuel Antonio has two and three toed sloths but they can be very difficult to spot in the heavy vegetation. However, most of the time you will see other visitors looking up into the trees and almost 99% of the time they are looking at a sloth. Make sure to bring some binoculars so you can get a good look at these interesting creatures.
Hiring a guide
While it isn't necessary, having a guide tour you through the park is great if you are wanting to see a close up of the hidden animals and insects. All of the guides know how to find sloths, bats, lizards, etc. and they will bring a giant telescope so you can easily spot them. During your hike, there are dozens of insects, animals and unique plants that you will most likely walk right by. The guide will inform you on the park while finding the hidden animals among the rainforest. They also work together so if one guide sees something interesting, he will share that information with other guides.
If you do decide to hire a guide, make sure they are certified by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo. This way you will know you are getting a true guide but the chances of you running into an "imposter" is rare but its always better to be safe than sorry. You can hire a guide through the national park or there will be multiple guides along the road to the entrance that you can hire.
One reason Manuel Antonio National Park is so popular among tourists is its well-maintained and easy hiking trails. Its a perfect destination for beginners. Currently, the government is extending the trails so hiking will be even better in the coming year.
Most of the walking is along wooden trails that have hand rails. The walk to the beach is about 20-25 minutes and some parts are a bit steep so make sure you bring good shoes so you do not trip.
If you are traveling with children, I advise to leave the stroller behind. It would be more of a pain that any help. We opt for a toddler carrier so she can get off her feet when she's tired.
One of Manuel Antonio's most popular feature is its pristine beaches. They are four different beaches you can explore during your time in the national park and they are all white-sand and beautiful! Its a perfect spot to cool off after your hike through the park and the waves are much calmer than other surfing beaches like Dominical.
Playa Manuel Antonio
Playa Manuel Antonio is the most popular as it is right off the main walkway. Its the perfect spot to relax on the white sand, catch some waves and spot the white faced monkeys. If it's a clear day, Playa Manuel Antonio has some great snorkeling. There are several tide pools and coral reefs that are perfect for spotting fish but you do need to bring your own gear.
However, this beach is often very packed so we opt to visit the other locations for a more relaxing and less busy beach day.
Playa Espadilla Sur
Only a short walk from Playa Manuel Antonio is Playa Espadilla Sur which is my favorite beach in the park. Its very peaceful with calm waves and white sand. It wraps around a cove and you can even see Espadilla Norte and its hotels. While most visitors opt for Playa Manuel Antonio, this beach can feel like a break from all of the tourists inside the national park.
Playa Gemelas and Playa Puerto Escondido
Accessible by the hiking trails, Playa Gemelas and Playa Puerto Escondido are even less busy and more remote. These two locations are perfect for swimming and beating the crowds.
You cannot bring food into the park. Unfortunately many visitors could not follow the rules about not feeding the wildlife so snacks are not allowed and your bag will be checked when you enter.
Once again, do not feed the animals!
Bring your swimsuit and towels if you want to swim. There are bathrooms, changing rooms and showers located on the trail to Playa Manuel Antonio so you don't have to wear them in or out of the park.
Wear good walking shoes. Most of the trails are walking platforms, but you are still walking through a rainforest. Plus, to get to the beach takes about 20 minutes so comfortable shoes are a must.
Bring insect repellent and sunscreen.
If you decide to not hire a guide, bring binoculars so you can see the wildlife up close.
Arrive early to beat the crowds.
And lastly, Enjoy! Manuel Antonio National Park is popular for a reason. It boasts some amazing beaches and is perfect for spotting Costa Rica's most famous wildlife.