We love Costa Rica – it’s the perfect destination for nature lovers and adventurers alike. It might be small but it punches well above its weight in terms of breath taking landscapes, a wealth of unforgettable experiences, wildlife aplenty and enough outdoor activities to keep you busy for weeks. The incredible things to do in Manuel Antonio combined with its stunning scenery ticks all our boxes.
Espadilla Sur Beach, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio was the top stop on our Costa Rica road trip. We loved exploring Manuel Antonio National Park and the beautiful unspoiled beaches. The wildlife spotting was epic as was the pura vida. We found the coolest bar in the history of cool bars and then there’s the ‘pura vida’! Read on to find out the best things to do in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
About Manuel Antonio
The small town of Manuel Antonio is located on the coast in the Central Pacific region, south of the city of Quepos in Puntarenas and Manuel Antonio National Park.
Most of the bars, restaurants and attractions are located on the main road which runs for around 6 km down to the beach and the protected national park. Quepos marina is 5km away for boat trips and fishing.
Most of the accommodation and hotels in Manuel Antonio are along the main road and there’s some down by the beach. You’ll find everything from backpacker hostels, boutique hotels, eco-lodges and five-star luxury resorts. You can even stay in a converted aircraft.
Restaurants and bars serve a variety of food from local cuisine, vegetarian, pizzas, burgers and seafood. There are also one or two more upmarket restaurants with a la carte menus.
What is Manuel Antonio known for?
Visitors head to Manuel Antonio National Park to explore the rainforest with its abundant wildlife. You’ll spot all kinds of creatures from two and three-toed sloths, howler, squirrel and white faced capuchin monkeys to coatis, iguanas toucans and scarlet macaws. If you’re looking for up-close encounters with Costa Rica wildlife you’ll find it in this nature resort.
A three-toed sloth in Costa Rica
The best things to do in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is also known for its stunning beaches edged by lush green rainforest and outdoor activities This guide will help you get the best out of your stay in Manuel Antonio and your Costa Rica holiday.
Spend a day at Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
There are currently 30 National Parks in Costa Rica and Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest at 680 hectares and receives over 150,000 visitors a year. It was created as a National Park in 1972 and is rated by Forbes as one of the most beautiful in the world. They’re not wrong, it’s absolutely stunning.
Visiting the park was my favourite of all things to do in Manuel Antonio because there’s nothing I love more than seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. The park is teaming with an incredible diversity of wildlife. Within 9 square miles of lush rainforest you’ll see at least a few of the 109 species of mammal and 184 species of birds.
The trails through the park are easy to follow with raised boardwalks in places and well-maintained pathways. There are ten different trails ranging from 9 km to just 287 metres in length. There are maps and good signage throughout the park. I recommend spending a day in the park and following the main route, the sloth/mangrove route and some of the shorter trails.
Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Anytime you see a crowd of people you can guarantee they’ll have found some wildlife. If you want to see the smaller park inhabitants then book a guide like we did in La Fortuna. The guides know exactly where the little critters hang out. They’ll also have binoculars and monoscope which will give you great close up views.
Sendero Principal (Main Trail) 2.2 km
The main trail is also the park’s most popular trail and leads from the park entrance to the white sands of Manuel Antonio beach. Along the route keep your eyes peeled and your ears open. There’s plenty of signage with details of the wildlife and what to look out for. We saw lizards, iguanas, birds, land crabs, toucans and monkeys. We didn’t see a sloth in the park but we saw a three-toed sloth near to our hotel. You might also see coatis and racoons in the park.
Catarata Estacional Trail (seasonal waterfall trail) 676 metres
Waterfall in Manuel Antonio National Park
We visited in September during the rainy season (May to November) and took this trail to a small but pretty waterfall. We had the trail to ourselves most of the time which meant more chance of spotting wildlife. We saw the blue morpho and other butterflies and the bright red Halloween crab. We didn’t see any snakes on this trail despite it being a ‘snake area’. I was pleased about that! If you visit in dry season (December to March) the waterfall is unlikely to be flowing.
At one point we saw a couple of squirrel monkeys swinging through the trees, then one or two scampering along the path in front then more behind us and before we knew it there were a troop of around 40-50 all around us, maybe more. This freaked us out a bit so we quickly headed back to the main trail!
White faced squirrel monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park
At the end of your hike through the park head for either Playa Manuel Antonio or Playa Espadilla Sur. Spend some time on the beach and take a dip in the Pacific. More on Manuel Antonio’s beaches below.
Tips for visiting Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
There’s no online ticketing or reservation system for Manuel Antonio National Park so you’ll need to arrive early unless you’re in low season. There are limits on the number of visitors allowed in the park – 600 weekdays and up to 800 at weekends.
Adults – $18.08. Children from 2 to 11 years old pay $5.65. Tickets are purchased at the Coopealianza (a bank with a blue sign) which is a block back from southern end of Playa Espadilla. Use cash or credit/debit card. Buy your tickets BEFORE getting in line for the entrance.
Guided tours are available at $55 for adults and $40 for children. I recommend booking a professional guided tour direct on the Manuel Antonio park’s website to avoid the pseudo ‘guides’ hanging around outside the park’s entrance. You’ll stand your best chance of seeing a sloth with a guide as they know exactly where they hang out.
A coati in Costa Rica
Private tours and excursions
Private tours are another option at $71 for adults and $55 for children. All guided tours include transport to and from from Manuel Antonio / Quepos hotels and vacation rentals, entrance fee, bilingual certified guides with telescopes and 2.5-3 hours guided tour. Time at the beach is also included but if you choose to spend the rest of the day inside the park you’ll need to take a bus or taxi back to your accommodation.
Manuel Antonio National Park opening times
Opening Times: Tuesday – Sunday – 07:00 – 16:00. The park is closed on Mondays. From 01 April 2021 the park will also be closed on Tuesdays. Check the Manuel Antonio National Park website for up to date information.
The Cracker Butterfly (Hamadryas)
Food restrictions in the park
There are no restaurants or shops inside the park and food items taken in to the park are heavily regulated. Anything prohibited will be disposed of during bag checks at the entrance. No sweet food will be allowed into the park or anything strong smelling which attracts the wildlife. We watched monkeys unzipping bags left on the beach while the owners were swimming.
Soft Drinks and water are permitted but no alcoholic drinks are allowed in the park. You may bring packed sandwiches or similar and ready cut and peeled individually packaged fruit. This is in order to keep the impact on the environment as low as possible. Food items for special diets are also allowed. It’s illegal to feed wildlife and all rubbish must be taken away from the park with you.
Parking at Manuel Antonio National Park
If you’re driving a private car, as you approach the Manuel Antonio National Park, ticos carrying signs and blowing whistles will dash out in front of you and try to get you to buy their overpriced parking. Keep going all the way down to the park entrance and park there for less than $4-$6 or get a taxi from your hotel.
Head to the beaches in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is known for being home to some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches. Think soft white sand, clear turquoise water and rainforest fringed bays. Manuel Antonio beach and Espadilla Sur are stunning natural beaches both in the park, the main beach is Espadilla and there’s also another small beach, Biesanz tucked into a bay to the north.
The most visited beaches inside the park are Espadilla Sur and Playa Manuel Antonio which are some of the main attractions in Manuel Antonio.
Playa Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio Beach, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Playa Manuel Antonio is known for being one of the best beaches in Costa Rica, if not Central America. You’ll need to hike 2.2 km through the park to reach it but it’s well worth the trek and the entrance fee to the park. On your way you’ll encounter the park’s wildlife and have a good chance of spotting monkeys, sloths and iguanas near the trail. Monkeys also hang out in the trees lining the beach. Playa Manuel Antonio is a gentle crescent of white sand which hugs a calm turquoise bay surrounded by lush vegetation. The water is calm and makes for good snorkelling and swimming.
Playa Espadilla Sur
Playa Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio
If Playa Manuel Antonio is too crowded then Playa Espadilla Sur is usually quieter because it takes a little more walking to access. It’s on the north side of the Punta Catedral, one of the most spectacular sites in the park. Punta Catedra is a small headland with high cliffs and teeming, lush forest which you’ll walk through to get to Espadilla Sur beach.
Neither of these beaches have any facilities so you’ll need to take your own food and drink. Bear in mind the rules regarding taking consumables into the park.
Espadilla Norte Beach
Playa Espadilla Norte, Manuel Antonio’s main beach
The main beach in Manuel Antonio is Playa Espadilla Norte, a public beach popular with both locals and tourists. It’s the closest beach to the town and has bars, restaurants and shops nearby.
There’s parking, public bathrooms and a lifeguard but like the other beaches be aware of currents if swimming. It’s a good beach for families or for spending a whole day at and although it’s more touristy than the national park beaches it’s still absolutely gorgeous and a must visit for a Costa Rica sunset when the park beaches are closed.
So, now we’ve covered the two main attractions let’s check out more things to do in Manuel Antonio. Costa Rica is an adventurer’s heaven with loads of adrenalin activities.
Zip Lining in Manuel Antonio
It’d be wrong to go to Costa Rica and not zip-line. El Santuario, is the longest zipline in Costa Rica and conveniently located in the town.
Zip lines were originally used by wildlife biologists to move about in heavily forested areas. Nowadays almost anyone can travel over, under and through the tree canopy in the Costa Rica rainforest to see beautiful flora and fauna. Rappel down the side of the giant Ceiba tree and look out for butterflies, orchids and wildlife from the walkways and platforms.
Whale watching in Costa Rica
Whale watching in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica – mother and calf humpbacks
The waters round Manuel Antonio are some the best places to see whales in Costa Rica. Due to migration patterns of humpback whales it’s possible to see them for nine months of the year in this part of the Pacific Ocean – one of the longest whale watching seasons in the world. The whales migrate south from December to March and migrate north again from July to October.
A whale watching tour on a catamaran cruise is a great way to spend a day and get out on the water. We visited in September and took a fabulous 3.5-hour catamaran whale watching tour from Quepos Marina. We watched a mother humpback and her calf for over an hour before stopping near the beach Play Biesanz for kayaking, snorkelling and a meal. The views of the Manuel Antonio coastline from the water are incredible.
Fishing trips are also available from Marina Pez Vela in Quepos from companies like Reel In Luxury Fishing and Quepos Fishing Charters or Jackpot Fishing.
Take a night tour in the rainforest
A rainforest night tour is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done but I’m so glad I overcame my fears. The rainforest really seems to close in around you at night and you’ll learn about the different types of wildlife that emmerge after dark from your expert guide.
Our hotel in Manuel Antonio, Si Como No runs a private wildlife refuge and you’ll have an opportunity to take a 2 hour night walk. Your guide will point out the creatures that come out after nightfall which are very different from the daytime menagerie. Amongst other small creatures and insects we saw frogs, a vine snake, and tiny lizards. A rainforest night tour is one of the best things to do in Manuel Antonio at night!
If you’re concerned about insect and mosquito bites you might want to read how to avoid mosquito bites in the jungle.
Kayaking in the mangrove forest
Kayaking through the mangrove forest
Another great way to get out on the water is by kayaking through the mangrove forest on Damas Island. There’s plenty of wildlife to see in the mangroves which is slightly different to the wildlife in the national park. You might see anteaters, kingfishers, snakes and of course monkeys and iguanas.
A kayaking excursion is a peaceful, relaxing way to explore the Manuel Antonio area surrounded by just the mangroves, the sounds of the jungle and the wildlife.
Rafting in Manuel Antonio
If the mangroves are a bit too chilled for you then maybe some rafting will float your boat. Or not. There are two rapids and a river near to Manuel Antonio for all levels of rafters.
The Savegre River is suitable for first-timers and families and is open all year round. Naranjo River is best June to November and El Chorro is for experienced and extreme rafters and is best in March and April.
Have a drink in an aircraft
El Avión bar and restaurant in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
El Avión is possibly the coolest bar ever. As we walked through the town on our first night we spotted the C-123 cargo plane peeping out from the trees. Investigating further we found it to be a fabulous bar and restaurant. The plane has been converted into a bar with a pub and restaurant area behind.
The food is good and the atmosphere casual and there are fabulous sunset views down to the ocean. The plane has a history too – it’s the one used in the 1980s Iran Contra scandal.
Soak up one of the world’s best sunsets
Manuel Antonio sunset
The sunsets in Manuel Antonio are stunning. Find yourself a bar or restaurant on the main top road on the ocean side. Most of them look down 150 metres over the rainforest to the Pacific Ocean and many offer happy hour from 4-6pm. Rafaeles Las Terrazas, Café Agua
Azul, Barba Roja, Ronny’s Place and, of course, El Avion all have amazing ocean views and are great for enjoying a sundowner.You could also head down to Espadilla Norte beach and see the sunset from the beach where they’re just as special.
The best places to eat in Manuel Antonio
There are plenty of good places to eat in Manuel Antonio with a range of budgets, cuisines and variety. A typical Costa Rican meal of rice, beans, plantains with a protein will come in at $5 or less. The more touristy places charge a little more. Places we ate at and would go back to are:
- Cafe Agua Azul which has beautiful ocean/sunset views, happy hour and serves burgers, seafood, salads and sandwiches
- El Avion for good burgers, sunset views and a fun vibe
- El Wagon if you’re looking for fabulous pizzas eaten in an old converted railway carriage
- Rico Tico Jungle Grill in Si Como No hotel has gorgeous ocean views and serves a range of cuisines and local dishes
- Cafe Milagro serves its own coffee and a range of vegetarian and organic dishes. They also serve good cake and have live music some evenings.
- If you’re looking for a la carte and somewhere special then Clar Que Si at Si Como No hotel serves up excellent seafood. We ate here on our last evening.
The above are all located on in the main town on the top road. Alta Mar by Manuel Antonio beach is a good spot for lunch and a beer.
Where to stay in Manuel Antonio
We stayed at Si Como No eco lodge. We loved it so much that we booked an extra three nights and finished out our Costa Rica road trip there. Read about the eco-lodge and why we fell in love with it in my Si Como No review.
Si Como No eco-lodge, Manuel Antono
The best time to go to Manuel Antonio
The dry season starts in December and lasts until the end of March. The rest of the year is rainy season although rainfall can also happen during the dry season. Temperatures are usually in the high twenties (Celsius) / around 80° F with most rainfall from May to November. We went in September and encountered a few heavy but short downpours, usually early evening, but it was mostly hot and sunny. At this time of year it’s less busy and prices are lower so we were happy with our choice.
If you love adventure, wildlife and stunning scenery, Manuel Antonio is a destination you should definitely put on your Costa Rica travel wish list. The outdoor activities, wildlife and stunning scenery will make your trip an unforgettable one.
If you’re planning a Costa Rica trip, make sure to check out our other helpful guides to include exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest, wildlife, volcano walks and waterfalls in La Fortuna and 5 reasons why Costa Rica makes an unforgettable destination. And don’t leave your home without travel insurance.
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