How & When to Visit Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica, and it’s easy to understand why. It's home to Costa Rica's most beloved offerings: Pacific beaches, rainforests teeming with wildlife, and active pursuits for every age and interest. It’s also fairly uncomplicated to reach. Take a 25-minute flight from San José to Quepos, book a shared shuttle bus, or rent a car and enjoy the four-hour scenic route down the coast.
As most Manuel Antonio experiences are meant to be enjoyed outdoors, it’s wise to keep the weather in mind when planning your trip. Heavier rains fall in September and October, so you may want to avoid these months. December to April is dry, which also means it’s peak season when visitor numbers and prices rise. Shoulder seasons—the transitional months of May through July and also November—between summer and the rainy season are a good option. Here's more on When to Visit Costa Rica.
Less than 15 minutes northwest of the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park, the small town of Quepos plays a big role in tourism. As the gateway to the park, it is home to essential services such as a supermarket, banks, ATMs, Western Union, hotels, gas stations, eateries, internet cafés, and medical facilities. If you travel to Manuel Antonio by bus or plane, you’ll arrive in Quepos.
As there are no hotels inside the protected area of the national park, this town and the surrounding area make for a good home base, while the surrounding waters are ideal for sport fishing. Angling enthusiasts from around the world come to Quepos in the hopes of reeling in highly prized fish such as marlin, snapper, wahoo, dorado, yellowfin and bigeye tuna. Adrenaline addicts can get their fix whitewater rafting on the nearby Naranjo River, where rapids can reach up to class IV.
Those seeking a slower pace can stroll the Butterfly Botanical Gardens or cruise the wetlands of Damas Estuary by boat or kayak for a chance to spot crocodiles, herons, monkeys, and more. For the hardcore hiker with no fear of small, dark spaces and the creatures inhabiting them, an unexpected adventure awaits in Damas Caves. Follow your guide down narrow passageways and trek through stalagmites and stalactites, keeping an eye out for cave dwellers such as spiders and bats. Natural river pools will reward you with views of local birds and other wildlife.
Where to Stay
For travelers planning to stay in Quepos, try La Mariposa Hotel, a hilltop establishment known for its infinity pool and ocean views, is a 15-20 minute walk from the beach. Villa Romantica is a convenient and affordable option located just outside of town and directly on the bus line between Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park. You'll be far enough from the noise of Quepos but close enough to easily access restaurants and shops by taxi.
Where to Eat
You’ll need fuel for all of your adventuring, and Manuel Antonio is home to some of the tastiest coffee, seafood, and tropical meals with a view. For killer cold-brewed coffee, incredible views, and one of the best breakfasts around, start your day at Emilio’s Café near La Mariposa Hotel. Barba Roja, located on highway 618 that connects Quepos and the national park, serves up sushi and sunsets. And El Avión’s multi-level bar and restaurant housed in an old cargo plane offers a cocktail and seafood menu, one of the most unique experiences, and arguably the best panoramic view—the perfect end to your Manuel Antonio adventure. For more on food and drink in Costa Rica, read about the country's Top Culinary Experiences.
Locals recommend Playa Biesanz, a public beach on a small bay, located about 10 minutes from Quepos. Although the path down to the beach is steep and rocky (sturdy shoes recommended!), it’s worth the effort—the waters here tend to be calm and welcoming to swimmers. As this small stretch of sand can get crowded and the rocky outcroppings that surround it create shade in the afternoon, it’s best to arrive early to avoid the crowds and enjoy the sunshine. Pack a picnic lunch or be sure to bring cash—locals rent out umbrellas and sell food and drinks for a small fee.
Where to Stay
If you can’t get enough of this gem, consider staying at nearby Shana Hotel where you’ll have easy access to Playa Biesanz and stunning views of the ocean and jungles below.
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True to its name, this strip of sand north of Playa Playitas is one of the smallest in Manuel Antonio area. Playitas— meaning “little beach”—is also one of the most pristine. Stick to sunbathing or surfing here. Swimming is not recommended, as riptides can be dangerous and the waves are best suited for surfing. Be sure to check the tide reports; the beach is closed for about two hours prior to and after each high tide due to waves that block the entrance.
Playitas is considered a gay-friendly gathering place and although nudity is not permitted by law in Costa Rica, nudists have long been known to frequent this beach. As tourism to the area has increased in recent years and more hotels are being built, nudity has decreased and there have been efforts to make this beach more family-friendly.
Where to Stay
Within walking distance of Playitas and Espadilla beaches, Arenas del Mar is a perfectly positioned private nature reserve with the area’s only eco-luxury resort. Families and honeymooners will love the serene setting and array of activities—such as kayaking and hiking to spot wildlife—at their doorstep. And conscientious travelers will appreciate the attention to eco-friendly practices.
Arenas del Mar also has all of your dining needs covered with their locally grown, organic ingredients and “Dock to Dish” sustainably-sourced seafood options. Even Celiac sufferers will eat well and worry-free—Arenas del Mar not only serves up gourmet gluten-free foods, it is the only gluten-free resort in Manuel Antonio and the first hotel in Central and South America to be certified by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
Also known as Playa Primera or Playa Numero Uno, Playa Espadilla is one of the most frequented and largest beaches. Nearly a mile long and located at the entrance to Manuel Antonio, it’s a great place to relax after exploring the nearby rainforest. Given the close proximity to the entrance and town, you’re not likely to be alone here: you’ll be sharing this beautiful beach with tourists as well as wildlife. The monkeys and raccoons can be quite mischievous, so keep your snacks safely packed out of their sight. Although there are lifeguards on duty during high season and holidays, it is advisable to stay close to shore, as riptides can be strong and unpredictable.
Just south of Playa Espadilla in the national park, Playa Espadilla Sur is also referred to as Playa Dos or Playa Segunda. While arguably one of the most beautiful beaches, it is also one of the more dangerous for swimming. Unless you are a highly experienced and strong swimmer, it’s best to simply enjoy a good book and admire the views safely from the sand rather than take a risk in the rough water.
Playa Manuel Antonio
Separate from Playa Espadilla Sur by Punta Catedral, Playa Manuel Antonio is another popular option. The views and wildlife here are what put Manuel Antonio on the map: jungles jutting out over soft white sands and cerulean sea, while monkeys and sloths dangle from the trees. Like many of the beaches in Manuel Antonio, this one is often crowded and not ideal for swimming, due to strong currents. But that shouldn’t stop you from taking a guided trek through the park to reach this spot; the views and wildlife are worth it.
Exploring Manuel Antonio Trails
Although Manuel Antonio is the smallest of Costa Rica’s national parks, it is home to an impressive variety of habitats and wildlife, including colorful and intriguing reptiles, insects, nearly 200 species of birds, and over 100 species of mammals in its mangroves, marshes, and rainforests. Check out this guide for more on Where to Spot Wildlife in Costa Rica.
Trails and paths here are all quite short, but rewarding. You could easily do them all in a day: it takes about three hours to complete the dirt trail circuit, but you’ll want to allow plenty of time to stop, take photos, and enjoy the park's natural attractions. Sendero Playa Gemelas takes you to an intimate beach; head to Sendero Congo for howler monkeys and Sendero el Perezoso for sloth sightings, and the many-staired Sendero Mirador for great views and a bit of a workout.
The animals are most active in the morning and the park is extremely popular, so you have the best chance of spotting wildlife and waiting in shorter lines at the entrance if you set out in the early morning hours (the park opens around 7 AM). While you can walk the trails on your own, it is highly recommended that you book a guide—their insight and eye for finding wildlife are invaluable.
Other Ways to Spend Your Days
While most every visitor comes to Manuel Antonio to explore the jungle, spot wildlife, and enjoy the beloved beaches, there is so much more to do. Spend a full day aboard a catamaran, cruising the clear waters, stopping to snorkel, and ending the evening watching the sunset while you sail back to the shore. Kayak through mangrove forests or raft down the rapids of the Naranjo or Savagre Rivers.
For more on Costa Rica's beaches, here's an article on the country's best. Interested in incorporating Manuel Antonio into your Costa Rica itinerary? This 9-day, family-friendly option will have you hiking, snorkeling, and biking around the area after a visit to Arenal.