If you ask anyone where you should go in Costa Rica, the answer will always include Manuel Antonio. Home to the smallest national park in the country, there are a ton of things to do in Manuel Antonio from soaking up the rays on the beautiful beaches to exploring the rainforests teeming with wildlife.
This area of Costa Rica is perfect for first time visitors due to the variety of things to do and see, the ease of getting around and the range of accommodation options. Rainforests, white sand beaches and an amazing array of wildlife from three toed sloths to white faced capuchin monkeys to endless species of little critters, there is plenty of entertainment for all ages. Manuel Antonio is great for families looking to enjoy beach life while also exploring the adventure that Costa Rica is known for.
Read on for our guide for everything you need to know for planning your trip to Manuel Antonio, including our top things to do in Manuel Antonio as well as where to stay, eat and how to get around.
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About Manuel Antonio
Located on the Pacific coast 2.5 hours from the capitol of San Jose, the main draw of the area is the Manuel Antonio National Park. In a country filled with national parks, what makes this one so special? For most it is the abundance of wildlife found in this small park with its picturesque beaches that have been backdrops to several famous movies.
Having visited a great deal of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio reins as one of the most touristy spots, but for good reason. Here you have access to more wildlife per square inch than in most other parts of the country as well as beaches to relax on, all with great tourist infrastructure from excellent hotels to delicious restaurants.
Top Things to Do in Manuel Antonio
Visit Manuel Antonio National Park
The top thing to do here is to visit Manuel Antonio National Park. You could easily visit several times depending on what your interests are. We highly recommend a guide for your first foray into the park as they have the ability to spot so much more wildlife than you can on your own. That said, if you walk around, you can often see what the other guides/groups are looking at, you just may not have the opportunity to see the animals through their scopes.
The other main reason for visiting Manuel Antonio park is for it’s beautiful beaches. There are several beaches within the park that locals and visitors alike visit for the day. The main beaches that visitors flock to are Manuel Antonio Beach and Playa Espadilla Sur. The sand is perfect, the water is warm and picturesque. While at the beach you will also come face to face with the adorable, but nosey white faced capuchin monkeys looking to steal your belongings, snakes, iguanas and so much more.
To make a day of your visit, bring your swimsuits, towels and non-packaged foods for lunch to enjoy the day at the beautiful beaches within the park.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Guides are an important aspect of visiting Manuel Antonio Park. Visiting on your own is easy enough, however, if your main aim is to see the animals who call this park home, we highly recommend getting a guide. We have used two guides that we loved and would recommend. One is Danny who you can WhatsApp message (+50687054502). The other guide we used can be found at Magic Nature Tours.
Entrance Details: Admission is $16 per person while children under 12 are free. The park is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed on Mondays. During peak season, arrive early or else you could be in line for hours, literally. The park only admits 600 people at a time, so once that number is reached they close the gates and you have to wait until people start leaving the park. During Thanksgiving week, we arrived at 9 am one day, only 2 hours after opening and the line was already 2 hours long.
Pre-packaged food is strictly forbidden inside the park. Bags will be thoroughly checked before entry. At writing visitors are allowed to bring in sandwiches, fruits and other homemade food. There are several supermarkets near the entrance where you can buy a sandwich or materials to make your own.
There is a one cafe in the park, however the food is mediocre and expensive. In a pinch it is a good option as there is no re-entry allowed in the park if you want to stay for the day.
Explore Mangrove Wildlife
If you are not content to just laze on the beaches or play in your hotel pool, there are a variety of local tours you can take to enjoy the scenery. One of the best nature tours we found was a mangrove tour. You can either kayak yourself around the canals or go on a motor boat through the mangrove forest. The tour is typically 2 hours long and will include transportation and lunch.
You might see crocodiles, snakes, birds, monkeys and more. We went with Iguana Tours, but there are plenty of options online or at the welcome center near the entrance to the national park. Ask around, compare prices and see what the current offers are like.
Hike to a Waterfall
One of the top things to do in Costa Rica is visit a waterfall. If you are in Manuel Antonio you have a couple of options. One is to take a day trip to the Los Campesinos Reserve about an hour outside of town. The reserve has guided hiking trails, a suspension bridge, a self propelled cable car, and of course waterfalls. If you have your own car, you can easily drive out for the day.
For those in town without a car and looking to get out into nature more, many visitors opt for Tocori Waterfall and horseback trek. You can book this tour with companies like Iguana Tours.
Get Adrenaline Pumping While Zip Lining
Zip Lining is synonymous with Costa Rica. Some even say that it was first established here. Given that, you can’t leave the country without trying it at least once! If you are going to Monteverde, we suggest going there where you can zipline on one of Central America’s longest lines.
However if you are only visiting Manuel Antonio you are in luck, there are a few options here as well. After researching it for ourselves and talking to locals, Titi Canopy Tours looks to be the best option in town. Their 4 hour tour includes 10 zip lines, hanging bridges and a butterfly area and also includes transportation and lunch.
Whatever you do, don’t leave Costa Rica without giving it a go!
See Creepy Crawlies on a Night Walk
Another favorite Costa Rica activity for our family is heading out on a night walk to explore the creatures of the night. We have done these in Arenal, Monteverde and here in Manuel Antonio. For the most part all of the locations offered sightings of the same type of animals. My son however, particularly loved the one we did here in Manuel Antonio at the Si Como No Resort.
There are several other options for night walks in town as well, so feel free to check around. Depending on which one you go with, you can hope to see red eyed tree frogs, crocodiles, tons of different types of frogs and maybe even a sloth or two.
Relax on a Beach
Many visitors come to Manuel Antonio at the end of their trip to Costa Rica, meaning they are ready for some down time. Luckily there are several great beaches to check out while in town to relax and get your water time in.
For a free option, the public beach Playa Espadilla is a decent option. We prefer the northern end of the beach for less rocks and less water sport vehicles. The beach is long and flat making it easy for young kids to play even far out into the waves.
If you prefer more idyllic white sand beaches, you will want to head into the Manuel Antonio park itself. As mentioned previously, there are several beaches here with the most popular being Manuel Antonio Beach and Playa Espadilla Sur.
For those with a car and who want a little adventure head to Biesanz Beach. This beach is located a bit off the beaten path down rocky terrain. The 10-15 minute walk down hill is worth it as the beach is beautiful and has gentle waves perfect for families. Note, there are no facilities here so you need to bring everything with you that you will need for the day.
Getting to Manuel Antonio
Getting to Manuel Antonio from San Jose is a breeze. There are several options including hiring a car, taking a bus, tourist shuttle or hiring a private driver/car.
We researched all of these options in advance of our trip and amazingly the cheapest option was to rent a car with Alamo Rental Car. Our car was $7 per day with no extra insurance. We dropped the car in Quepos as we were continuing on to Panama by bus. Even with an extra $50 drop fee it was cheaper than going by Grayline Shuttle or booking a private transfer through Blue Morpho Transport.
You can also take the local public bus which is through Tracopa. These are AC buses that stop more frequently, but will run you only around $9 each way.
Once you are in Manuel Antonio you don’t need a car unless you want to explore on your own. We had a car on one visit and recommend it if you stay outside of the tourist area by the Espadilla Beach.
Where to Stay in Manuel Antonio
There are a ton of Manuel Antonio hotels available, depending on what you want and your budget. Manuel Antonio hotels range from backpacker basic places to high end resorts with everything in between. During our first visit to Manuel Antonio we stayed at the family friendly resort Si Como No. I would definitely recommend this as a great family friendly hotel. Definitely book a room with a view as it’s beautiful every day to wake up to the ocean and jungle below. If you want a resort feel, and plan to spend plenty of time at the hotel pool this is a great option. It is not in the middle of the tourist zone however, so you will need transportation to the park, beach and other restaurants.
On our second visit to the area, we stayed at the unique El Faro Containers Hotel which is located steps away from the park with amazing ocean views. This unique hotel is a fun option that is convenient to the park as well as the beach. Unless you plan to spend a ton of time at your hotel, I would recommend staying near to the park as this is also where many restaurants and shops are located.
Where to Eat in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is a tourist town at its finest which means there is no shortage of great places to eat. From local sodas in Quepos to fine dining at Gaia there is something for everyone. Below are some of our favorites that we would recommend to anyone visiting Manuel Antonio.
Pizza! Locals and tourists alike informed us that La Labretta was some of the best pizza in town. We agree, it was pretty tasty (if not a touch expensive!). We had seafood pizza, sausage pizza and pesto ravioli and it was all delicious. Make sure to try the mint lemonade too! Some of the best views in town are here as well.
La Luna at Gaia
If you are in town for a special occasion, check out La Luna at the Gaia Hotel. We loved our Thanksgiving dinner here. It was just like at home with a little Latin flare! Delicious food for everyone including kids.
Restaurante Buru is located right across from the public beach and as such is a tourist favorite. With everything from Tex-Mex to seafood, this is a good bet for when you need to please a variety of taste buds.
Marlin Restaurant is just across the road from Buru and also opposite the beach. This is *the* place to go for fresh delicious seafood. We had excellent shrimp and even pretty tasty pesto pasta too. Portions are generous.
Restaurant Hostel Costa Linda
If you are trying to save some pennies, head to Costa Linda at the Backpackers Hostel. The food here is great, cheap and good sized portions. We had a fish sandwich, chicken sandwich, carbonara pasta and even the chicken curry. All of it was delicious.
For those of you tired of the same ol food, head to Puerto Escondido where you can get huge portions of excellent food. This is probably one of the best restaurants in town and it’s not even that expensive! We had a delicious shrimp rice, tacos and salmon.
Manuel Antonio is one of the most beautiful areas of Costa Rica, especially for families looking to soak up the beach life while also exploring all there is to see in this biodiverse country. What is your favorite thing to do here?
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