Manuel Antonio is a lush National Park located around 3 hours south of San José.
Renowned for its cotton wool white beaches framed by vibrant green jungle, sleepy sloths and white-faced monkeys, it’s no surprise that this area is swarming with binocular-clad tourists all wanting to get a sighting of Sid the sloth.
Despite the off-putting compact streets of overpriced, American influenced restaurants and souvenir shops, Manuel Antonio is still 100% worth a visit. The park’s dense forest is home to an impressive number of different mammals, birds and insects, making unique wildlife sightings a high possibility and Manuel Antonio beach is said to be the most beautiful beach in Costa Rica.
If you’re planning a trip to Manuel Antonio, here’s my guide to getting the most out of your time there.
How to get there?
There are multiple ways of getting to the National Park. We rented a car from San José and drove down, which was a simple and easy drive and took around 3 hours.
Alternatively, you can catch a bus (Tracopa seems to be the most popular bus company to use to get around Costa Rica) or, you can book a shuttle, which will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel door to door. The shuttle is quicker than the bus however, this convenience obviously comes at a premium (approx $30-$54, company dependant).
Where to stay?
There are a few different options of where you can stay when exploring Manuel Antonio.
Quepos is the nearest ‘main town’ to the National Park and is where you’re likely to be dropped off if you get the bus. Although it has a lot of restaurants, bars and hotels to keep you busy, there isn’t much reason to stay there when you can stay closer to the park in Manuel Antonio.
From Quepos it’s one straight (yet windy) road packed with hotels, restaurants and shops to the National Park (around a 15 minute trip). The accommodation closer to Quepos benefits from unbelievable views across the ocean whilst the hotels closer to the park benefit from being walking distance to the beach.
Like everything in Costa Rica, accommodation in Manuel Antonio ‘ent cheap. We stayed at Pasado Jungle Bungalows, which was located next door to the park entrance. It was in an excellent location and the staff were friendly and helpful however, it was very overpriced for what it was.
Hostel-wise, both Selina and Hostel Plinio were recommended to me by other backpackers along the way.
How to see the park?
Entrance to the National Park is $16 and gives you access to the park for the whole day. Only 800 people are allowed in the park at a time so I would advise arriving early to avoid delays. You can only take sandwiches and fruit in the park for lunch so be sure to ask your hotel to make you a pack lunch the day before or buy supplies to make your own.
The park is very well established with multiple, well-built trails. They have also recently built a new, universal trail, which allows wheelchair access from the entrance all the way down to the beach.
I am usually very anti guides and tours however, in Manuel Antonio a guide is invaluable.
We booked a guide through our hotel for two hours (8am-10am) for $20 plus the $16 entrance and thanks to Mau’s beady eyes and excellent knowledge, we were able to spot two and three-toed sloths, toucans, bats, white faced monkeys, deer, frogs, raccoons and many more insects and plants native to Costa Rica.
We also benefited from our guides’ high quality telescope, which allowed us to see the animals in more detail up close when they were hiding in the trees. If we hadn’t had a guide, we would probably have only spotted a lizard and a raccoon as it tried to steal our lunch…
Most guides will slowly lead you along the sloth trail and then leave you at Manuel Antonio beach where you can then follow alternative trails to explore more of the park or, relax on the silky soft sand. In addition to the main beach, there is also a quieter beach a 2 minute walk further down the track, which is equally beautiful yet with half the number of tourists.
Be careful of the currents on both of these beaches, I lost a pair of sunglasses and my dignity to an aggressive wave. R.I.P. Raybans…