Manuel Antonio National Park is a microcosm of many of the things that travelers come to Costa Rica for, and its proximity to San José makes it an ideal destination if you're short on time in the country—it's possible to go for just a day. But for travelers with more flexibility, extra time spent in and around Manuel Antonio won't be wasted, with so many natural and outdoor activities to enjoy. Here's a guide to spending your time in Manuel Antonio wisely.

Planning Your Trip to Manuel Antonio

Costa Rica is famous for its immense biodiversity, and many travelers to the country want to spend time in at least one of its beautiful national parks. The Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular, as it's easily accessible from San José (where many travelers fly into), and offers a range of sights and experiences to suit all kinds of travelers. Whether that's lying on a beach, taking a kayaking tour, or joining a guided nature walk, there's a lot to do here in a relatively small area. 

Because of Manuel Antonio's accessibility and proximity to other national parks, it's possible to make a short stop here, spending a day or half-day seeing its highlights. On the other end of the scale, you could base yourself in the area for several days, and take day trips to other nearby attractions once you've seen and done all you want to in Manuel Antonio itself. 

Keep in mind that while Costa Rica is a geographically small country, it's also very mountainous. So, getting across the country is not always as quick as you might think by looking at the map. When planning your trip through Costa Rica and to the Manuel Antonio National Park, you may find it preferable to focus on a particular area and see that properly, rather than rush about to too many places and risk spending more time in a car or bus than out in nature.

For more, see our Ultimate Guide to Manuel Antonio National Park.

Manuel Antonio in an Afternoon

Visitors to the Manuel Antonio Park

If your time in Costa Rica, or this part of the country, is limited, you can pick some of the highlights of Manuel Antonio that interest you most and see them in half a day.

An ideal activity for a few hours is to take a guided nature walk. While you are free to wander through the Manual Antonio park by yourself, you're likely to miss most of the interesting animals and birds, or if you do spot them, have far less understanding of what you're seeing.

The trails through the park are mostly flat, so are suitable for travelers with a range of fitness levels, including families. Naturalist guides will point out sloths, hawks, iguanas, and different types of monkey, among other creatures. Guided walks last for about an hour and cover about 1 mile (1.7 km). Afterward, you can continue walking in the park on your own, or relax on one of the beautiful beaches.

Manuel Antonio in 24 Hours

Boardwalk through the park

With an overnight stay around the Manuel Antonio Park, you can go on a longer full-day adventure, or combine two shorter morning/afternoon activities. 

If you want to take it easy you can start with a guided walk through the park with a naturalist (as mentioned above), then take a boat tour to get a different perspective of the park. Boat tours to the mangroves of Damas Island are popular, and can be done in half a day. The ecosystem around the mangroves act as a nursery for fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. You may see stingrays and black-tipped sharks, among other creatures.

If your schedule allows for a full-day tour and you're feeling active, take a kayaking tour to Damas Island. Paddle through the mangroves in an open-seat kayak. You're likely to see many kinds of monkey, sloths, and even boa constrictors if you're lucky.

This quick getaway allows you to experience a taste of the diversity of Costa Rica. Start off in San José and spend a day and a half hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling at Manuel Antonio.

Manuel Antonio in 2-3 Days

Beach in the park

Two to three days is an ideal amount of time for combining the various pleasures of the Manual Antonio Park. There will be time to spend swimming and relaxing on a beach, as well as joining a more active tour of some sort. 

Combine the above-mentioned activities—a guided walk through the park and a boating/kayaking trip to Damas Island—with a snorkeling adventure. Actually getting in the water (as opposed to just looking at it from the shore, or even from a boat) gives you a different and close-up view of a different range of wildlife. There are reefs off-shore that harbor colorful tropical fish, and the sea is both pleasantly warm and refreshing. You can snorkel from shore, or off a kayak or boat.

This 9-day tour, which includes three days in Manuel Antonio, is ideal for families with small children and for those who want to minimize travel time. Most of the hikes will be relatively mild and easy for young kids, and there will be plenty of opportunities also to do all the typical Costa Rica activities, such as zip-lining, beaches, and wildlife spotting.

Manuel Antonio in 4-5 Days

The coastline of Manuel Antonio National Park

With four to five days, as well as enjoying the above-mentioned activities, you can take a day trip to other nearby points of interest.

If you like horses, then taking a horse-back riding tour to the Nauyaca Waterfalls can be an unforgettable experience. The trek takes about 5-6 hours. On the way, trekking on horseback through the jungle, you're likely to see all kinds of wildlife. Once at the falls, you'll have some time to play. The impressive high falls gather in a beautiful plunge pool, which is idea for swimming. 

For an even more active adventure, add a day of white-water rafting to the itinerary. While there are various white-water rivers in Costa Rica to enjoy (in fact, the country is known as one of the best white-water rafting destinations in the world), Manuel Antonio's Savegre River is ideal for families or those new to the sport. Kids as young as five years old can enjoy the relatively easy class II and III rapids. The beautiful scenery through which you travel will keep older members of the family enthralled, too.

Alternatively, take a day trip to Uvita—east of Manuel Antonio along the coast—to spot whales in the Marino Ballena National Park. Humpback whales migrate along this stretch of coast between July and early November, and late December to April. An extra feature of interest is the fact that a sand bank jutting out into the sea at Uvita is precisely the shape of a whale's tail! While this is only obvious from the air, it's fun to walk along the sand bank and see two sweeping bays on either side of you. 

Learn more with our collection of Manuel Antonio travel articles.