Manuel Antonio National Park or Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is one of the top tourist attractions in Costa Rica. Located on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, just south of the city of Quepos in Puntarenas, Manuel Antonio may be the smallest National Park in Costa Rica, (it encompassed an area of only 1,983 hectares) but its biodiversity is unsurpassed! The park is home to many endangered species, many of which can be spotted along the trails throughout the park.
Majority of visitors come to Manuel Antonio for the sole purpose of visiting the National Park but quickly find out that the Quepos/Manuel Antonio area is filled with other attractions and activities. After our recent visit to Manuel Antonio, we have put together a list of tips to help others make the most of their visit to this area!
1. Rent a Car
While a car is not necessary to get from your accommodation to the Manuel Antonio National Park (most hotels are located within 1-2 kms from the park), it certainly comes in handy if you want to explore the surrounding areas without relying on overpriced tours, shuttles, or taxis to get you from your hotel to other attractions in the area.
2. Plan to Visit Manuel Antonio National Park Early
In an effort to preserve Manuel Antonio from being overrun by tourism the government has limited entrance to the park to only 600 (simultaneous) visitors on weekdays and 800 on weekends. So it’s best to arrive at the park early to avoid being stuck in line at the entrance (once the park reaches capacity, entrance permits follow a one in one out rule). And even if you are visiting during the low season, remember that animals inside the park are usually much more active in the mornings than in the heat of the day.
3. You Don’t Need a Guide to Visit Manuel Antonio National Park (but you might want to hire one anyway)
Many hotels and local tour providers will recommend that you hire a guide to take you around the park, but we found it absolutely unnecessary. You won’t have an issue spotting big animals like sloths, monkeys, coatis, and iguanas thanks to the crowds of visitors/guides that tend to form along the trail anytime an animal is in sight. But a guide may help you spot some of the smaller creatures, like snakes, lizards, spiders and other tiny insects that are hard to see without binoculars or a magnifying glass. If it’s your first time visiting a National Park in Costa Rica, you might want to splurge and hire a guide for the day to learn as much as possible about Costa Rica’s biodiversity.
4. Explore Beyond the Main Trails and Beaches in the National Park
There are 10 different trails to explore within the park, ranging from 287m to 1.2km in length, and easy to moderate in difficulty. The main trails, the Evacuation Route and the Sloth/Mangrove Routes, that run through the heart of the park leading visitors from the entrance towards the Manuel Antonio Beach, are the most popular with the park’s visitors. You are bound to spot a few animals along those trails, but we recommend that you also take the time to explore at least 2-3 other trails within the park. The side trails including those leading to the waterfall, to Gemelas Beach, or Puerto Escondido are much quieter and offer an opportunity for you to enjoy the peace and quiet of Manuel Antonio’s rich wilderness and a much higher chance to spot animals.
5. Plan to Spend an Entire Day in the Park and Pack Accordingly
With so many trails and beaches to explore inside the Manuel Antonio National Park, we recommend spending an entire day inside the park. But keep in mind that there are no restaurants or shops inside the park, so packing enough of the right snacks and refreshments is the key to being able to enjoy your day at the park.
6. Know What You Can and Can’t Bring into the National Park
As of April 2016, the list of foods allowed inside the Manuel Antonio National Park is heavily regulated. The general consensus is that nothing sweet will generally be allowed into the park (bag checks are actually in place at the entrance). This includes candy, chocolates, cookies and so on, as is anything with a strong smell that might attract the animals to your bags. All prohibited items are confiscated and thrown in the trash.
You are allowed to bring:
- Drinks, except for alcohol
- Fruits peeled and packaged for individual consumption
- Sandwiches and similar, prepared and packaged individually
- Items needed as a part of a special diet
7. Manuel Antonio Beach is Fairly Safe, but Mind Your Belongings Anyway
Unlike a lot of other beaches in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is probably one of the safer beaches in the country (after all, what robber wants to pay $3 to enter the park only to find himself trying to steal while surrounded by park rangers?). We haven’t heard of any reports of stolen possessions on the beaches in Manuel Antonio, but for added security, we suggest hanging your backpacks on a tree to make it extra challenging for anyone to grab your stuff while you are enjoying yourself in the water.
8. Plan to Spend 3-4 Days in Manuel Antonio
We don’t mean 3-4 days inside the park. The truth is, you can see everything there is to see inside the park in one day and not feel the need to go back (unless you like paying $16 entrance fee more than once). While 1 day at the Manuel Antonio National Park will be more than enough, you’ll quickly find out that there is lots more to do in the area beside the park. The are lots of tours, activities, and nearby towns to explore, and they do deserve extra time.
9. Set Aside a Day to Check Out Dominical
You will likely be exhausted the day after your visit to the Manuel Antonio National Park and will want to spend a day relaxing. We recommend taking the opportunity to spend this day checking out Dominical, a little beach town just 45 mins south of Manuel Antonio. Dominical is home to a few lovely beaches, some great cafes and restaurants, but most importantly it’s the only place in the area where you can get a professional full body massage on the beach for just $35/hr. An absolute must after a long day of walking about the National Park!
10. Don’t Sign Up for Too Many Tours in Manuel Antonio
There are a plethora of tours available in Manuel Antonio. You can literally spend 2 weeks hopping from tour to tour experiencing everything the area has to offer. But we suggest that you focus your time in Manuel Antonio on the National Park itself and on the tours that are unique to this area. i.e. If you plan on visiting Monteverde home to the longest zip line in Central America, don’t sign up for an average zip lining tour in Manuel Antonio, but do check out the Nauyaca Waterfalls tours, Villa Vanilla tour, and if you are visiting at the right time of the year – the Whale Watching Tour.
11. For a Taste of Real Costa Rica, Visit Quepos
Despite being located just 7km from the entrance to Manuel Antonio, Quepos, a small town of just over 22,000 residents has managed to retain its authentic Tico feel. Quepos is nothing like the touristy Manuel Antonio area. This is a town where locals go about their daily needs, where they shop, eat, and go out on the weekends. It’s well worth a visit, if not for their weekend Farmer’s Market then for a day of cultural immersion into Tico life.
12. Stay At Costa Verde Hotel
The Costa Verde Hotel is a destination in an of itself in Manuel Antonio. The hotel has been hosting visitors in Manuel Antonio for over 25 years in its 70 rooms and bungalows built into the thick jungle overlooking the world famous Manuel Antonio National Park. It is also home to Costa Rica’s most unique accommodation, the 727 Fuselage Home (aka the Airplane Hotel).
13. Eat at the El Avion Restaurant
If staying at the Airplane Hotel is not within your budget, don’t fret. You can experience being inside an airplane just up the road from Costa Verde’s 727 Fuselage Home at the Costa Verde’s El Avion Restaurant. The restaurant has been built in, around, and above an Oliver North cargo plane and offers some of the best views in all of Manuel Antonio. Plus, it’s decently prices, has a great menu and serves delicious iced tea!
Disclaimer: Our stay at the Costa Verde Hotel was provided free of charge courtesy of Costa Verde Hotel, but all opinions expressed in this article are our own regardless of who is footing the bill. Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that we receive a small commission on your purchase at no additional cost to you.
Essential Travel Info:
Getting in: Manuel Antonio is located about 170 kms away from the capital, San Jose. From San Jose, Manuel Antonio can be reached by either a 3.5 hr bus or by plane, via the airport located 5 min outside of Quepos. Sansa Airline and Nature Air offer daily flights for around $80-100.
Getting around: Easiest way to get around Manuel Antonio area is to rent a car. But if you are not comfortable with driving in Costa Rica, you can also get around by a local bus that runs up and down the mountain every 30 minutes during the day and costs less than $1.
Where to stay: There are lots of accommodation options in Manuel Antonio. We recommend staying within walking distance to the National Park (no further than 1-2kms from the entrance). If your budget allows it, consider staying at one of the Costa Verde Hotel, where you can score a spacious twin room for just $147/night (in the low season).
Other info: Manuel Antonio National Park is open Tuesday through Sunday from 7:30 am to 4 pm. At the time of our visit (June 2016) entrance fee was $16 for foreigners and $3 for nationals (you have to show your cedula).