Costa Rica is home to countless stunning beaches and the city of Manuel Antonio, along its Pacific coastline, is no exception. While it’s mostly known for its lush rainforest and incredible wildlife, it also is home to several beaches with soft white sand, swaying palm trees, and a playful monkey or two. Here are 6 incredible beaches in Manuel Antonio to add to your Costa Rica bucket list.
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What is Manuel Antonio?
When I was planning my husband’s and my trip to Costa Rica, I was a little confused what Manuel Antonio is exactly- was it a national park? Was it a town?
Actually, it’s both! Manuel Antonio is a tiny town along Costa Rica’s central Pacific coastline, right outside of the slightly larger fishing village of Quepos.
The town is mostly known for the Manuel Antonio National Park. While it’s Costa Rica’s smallest national park, its luscious rainforest is nonetheless absolutely bursting with wildlife- 109 mammal species and 184 bird species, to be exact- and one of the best things to do in Costa Rica!
In addition to all those cute monkeys and sloths, both the national park and the town itself offer jaw dropping beaches, perfect for soaking up the Costa Rican sun. The killer combo of beaches and rainforests has made Manuel Antonio quite a popular destination for backpackers and luxury travelers alike!
How to Get to Manuel Antonio
If Manuel Antonio is the first stop on your Costa Rica itinerary, you’re likely flying into either Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose (156 km north of Manuel Antonio) or Liberia Guanacaste Airport in Liberia (269 km northwest of Manuel Antonio).
While it’s certainly possible to get around Costa Rica via public transit, unless you’re on a shoestring budget, I’d highly recommend renting a car. Attractions in Costa Rica are usually quite spread out- even in teeny towns like Manuel Antonio- and between what you’ll spend on ride shares and tours to get around, a rental car may be the cheaper (and MUCH more convenient) option.
If a rental car isn’t in the budget, you can also book transportation from either airport to Manuel Antonio- check out the options for San Jose here and Liberia here.
Alternatively, folks often head to Manuel Antonio from other popular destinations, like La Fortuna, known for the stunning La Fortuna Waterfall and Arenal Volcano (about a five hour drive from Manuel Antonio), or the Monteverde Cloud Forest (a little over a three and a half hour drive). You can also book transportation from either La Fortuna (see the options here) or Monteverde (see the options here).
Beaches in Manuel Antonio
While there’s plenty of things to do in Manuel Antonio, let’s get to the good stuff- the beaches! There’s both beaches inside the national park itself or ones that are totally accessible to the public.
Let’s dive in (get it?!).
Beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park
To visit the beaches in the national park itself, you’ll need to purchase a timed entry ticket (which you can purchase here for $18)- be careful, though, as the tickets can (and do!) sell out on busy weekends.
Alternatively, you can book a tour (like this one or this one), where you’ll be led around the park with a knowledgeable guide who can help you spot critters in the dense tree coverage and provide all kinds of interesting information about this rainforest and the animals and plants that live there. If you choose the tour option, the entrance fee will be included in your fee and you won’t have to worry about tickets selling out.
Once you’re in the park, you’ll need to take a “hiking trail” to each of the beaches- the “hikes” in the park are more like fairly flat walks, no longer than about half an hour in length, along wooden boardwalks or paved trails.
So what beaches are in the park itself?
1. Playa Manuel Antonio
How to get to it: From the entrance, you’ll follow a flat, wide path 1.4 km (0.9 mile) to the beach. There’s a handful of different trails you’ll take to get there (El Manglar Trail to Perezoso Trail to Playa Manuel Antonio Trail), but there’s plenty of maps and signs in the park, so it’s hard to miss it!
Amenities: The beach itself has none, but directly east of the beach, you’ll find bathrooms and a place to rinse off your feet.
Good for: Wildlife, tidepools, snorkeling
Playa Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular beaches in Manuel Antonio, with soft white sand and gentle waves, thanks to the offshore rocks that shelter its cove.
Because of the calm surf, this beach is perfect for swimming or snorkeling to take a peek at the coral reef and small fish that call its turquoise waters home. There aren’t any places to rent snorkel equipment here, so pick up a rental while you’re in town or bring along your own from home (my husband, Justin, and I have this set, which we’ve taken from Hawaii to Mexico!).
The beach is surrounded by tons of palm trees and lush rainforest and perhaps, one of the most fun aspects about this beach is the amount of playful capuchin monkeys that frequent the area.
Be careful, though- because some bad actors have fed them over the years, these seemingly adorable little creatures are straight up hellions, stealing any kind of object (think sunscreen, sunglasses, your multi-thousand dollar camera) that’s unattended. So be sure to pack away all your valuables in a heavy backpack that an 11-pound monkey can’t carry away (… I’m not joking)!
Because you need to purchase one of the limited entrance tickets to get into the park, the beaches inside Manuel Antonio National Park tend to be quieter and more serene than those outside of the park. That being said, Playa Manuel Antonio is the main beach that visitors stop at and can get quite crowded- so if you’d like to enjoy those swaying palm trees all to yourself, I’d suggest getting here early.
Tip: You are allowed to bring water in the park (Justin and I both swear by these giant Nalgene bottles- and bonus, you can drink the tap water in Manuel Antonio!), but otherwise, you can’t bring any food or drinks in. If you’re looking for a snack to bring to the beach, there’s a little cafeteria directly east of this beach that sells everything from fresh fruit and coffee to ice cream and pizza. For whatever reason, the cafeteria also seems like an awesome place to spot wildlife- we saw a toucan, sloth, and howler monkey while sitting and eating our food here!
2. Playa Gemelas
How to get there: From the entrance of the park, it’s a 1.6 km (1.0 mile) hike to the beach, with one moderately steep section with some stairs. You’ll take El Manglar Trail to Perezoso Trail to Playa Gemelas Trail to reach the beach.
Amenities: none (this is a theme in the national park!)
Good for: Wildlife, seclusion
Playa Gemelas is a small and rocky beach tucked away in the southern corner of the park. Because it’s just a little bit further away from the entrance and has a bit steeper of a trail (although totally manageable for most travelers in decent shape) than the other options, it’s usually way less crowded, making this one of my favorite beaches in Manuel Antonio!
Given the water’s a bit more murky than the other beaches, it wouldn’t be my go-to recommendation for snorkeling, but it’s absolutely fabulous to dive into the cool water after climbing up those stairs in the warm Costa Rica sun.
While we were here, we saw all sorts of wildlife- enormous iguanas, teeny hermit crabs, and so many capuchin monkeys! As mentioned above, these suckers are aggressive- one of them literally tried to steal my backpack here while I was in the water- so keep an eye on your belongings!
Tip: I’d recommend wearing hiking sandals, like Tevas (Justin has these and I have these), to the national park. Not only are they awesome for hitting the trails, but they can also double as water shoes if you’re playing in the water of any of the beaches with coarser (i.e., stabbier) sand.
3. Playa Espadilla Sur
How to get there: Playa Espadilla Sur is located on the northern shore of Punta Cathedral, a rocky peninsula covered with dense forest, while Playa Manuel Antonio is on its southern side. To get here, you’ll hike 1.6 km (1.0 miles), along the same path you took to get to Playa Manuel Antonio, walking approximately 0.3 miles past Manuel Antonio and taking the first right, you’ll cut across Punta Cathedral to Playa Espadilla Sur.
Good for: Swimming, snorkeling, great views
With soft, white sand surrounded by lush rainforests and impossibly turquoise water, Playa Espadilla Sur is absolutely gorgeous. This crescent-shaped beach has super calm waves, so it’s family-friendly and is a great place to swim or snorkel (although it’s worth noting that, in general, the water around the national park does not have the best visibility).
Need another reason to love Playa Espadilla Sur? Although it’s literally right by Playa Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur usually stays fairly calm- even during its busiest times, there’s plenty of space to spread out and soak up that Costa Rican sun.
Public beaches in Manuel Antonio
Don’t want to cough up the money for a ticket to the national park? Good thing there’s a bunch of fabulous options that are totally free and open to the public. Starting with…
4. Playa Espadilla Norte
How to get there: This beach is looooong, with most of the teeny town of Manuel Antonio overlooking its shores. While you can theoretically just drive up to Playa Espadilla, parking can be a bit of a challenge. While there’s a few paid lots you can park in, I always had success finding free parking by the Igloo Beach Lodge.
Amenities: Everything you could want- beach bars, restrooms, gear rental, places to book tours or lessons, and vendors selling everything from coconuts to margaritas in a bag (why, yes, I did partake in one of these)
Good for: Surfing and other water activities and an absolutely KILLER sunset!
This stunning beach is actually a continuation of Espadilla Sur, simply extending beyond the national park’s boundaries. And while its sister beach is quite chill, Playa Espadilla Norte is the most popular beach in Manuel Antonio, thanks to the plethora of water activities you can do here (banana boats! parasailing! jet skis!).
For example, if you’re a beginner surfer and looking for some reasonably priced lessons, the beach’s gentle but consistent surf is an excellent spot to try to catch some waves. If you’re more advanced, there’s a surf break to the north of the beach called Playitas with more serious waves.
The white sandy beach is lined with palm trees and beyond, a dense green forest. I’ve read reports that other travelers have spotted those mischievous monkeys and other wildlife here, but during my visits to this beach, it was (for better or worse!) decidedly monkey free.
While you may not spot any of those adorable gremlins here, you will likely encounter vendors, selling everything from coconuts and handicrafts to cold beer and even cocaína (not legal, by the way!). It didn’t particularly bother me (I’ll take a $2 cold beer that’s hand-delivered to me!), but if you want a more serene scene, the beaches in the national park may be a better fit.
5. Playa Biesanz
How to get there: You can park for the beach along this street– word of warning, there will likely be a guy, wearing a safety vest, enthusiastically helping you park and then asking for a tip of a few dollars in exchange for watching your car while you’re at the beach.
This happens ALL over touristy spots in Costa Rica- given it’s such a nominal fee and all of the parking “security guards” we met were super nice, it didn’t bother me too much (I’d rather my car not get broken into!), but I’ve read other travelers’ reports getting pretty bent out of shape about it.
Once you’ve parked, you’ll hike about 10 minutes down a rocky path through the forest to the beach’s shores. Given the uneven terrain you’ll have to hike down (and back up!), this is another one I’d strongly recommend wearing hiking sandals (for men and for women).
Amenities: Bathrooms, a beach bar, and snorkeling and kayaking rentals
Good for: Snorkeling, swimming, less crowds, wildlife
Playa Biesanz, one of the hidden gems of Manuel Antonio, is actually quite long, but most of the beach is lined with jagged rocks (not exactly ideal for beach lounging), with just a fairly small strip of gray, hard sand that beachgoers hang out at. In full transparency, if you’re looking for a stunning tropical beach, this one wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of my list.
What it lacks in picturesqueness (in my opinion, anyway), it more than makes up for in chill vibes- this beach is definitely a bit off the beaten path and you’re just as likely to see local families relaxing here as you will other tourists. You can buy all the coconuts or cold beer you want from friendly locals for just a few bucks- in fact, there’s even a little bar called The Howler!
Why is it called The Howler? I’m so glad you asked! Biesanz is home to many very chatty howler monkeys, as well as the beloved slots and capuchin monkeys (although these ones mostly keep to themselves!). It’s probably the best option in town if spotting wildlife is what you’re after.
Given its calm waves, it’s also a great beach for swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling, although you’ll see the most interesting sea creatures a bit further from shore.
6. Playa La Macha
How to get there: Oh, boy- this one’s an adventure! Drive to the Bongo Hostel, located on the northern portion of Manuel Antonio- there’s a small parking lot nearby where you can leave your car. Alternatively, if you have a 4×4 car, you can drive a bit further to the official trailhead (there will be a sign indicating that you can’t drive any further), which will save you about 10 minutes of walking. I’d avoid the dirt road if it’s recently rained- it unfortunately turns into a “muddy pit of death” road.
From here, you’ll hike about 20 or so minutes down through dense jungle until you reach your own little slice of heaven. The trail can be quite rocky and muddy- I’d strongly recommend bringing along waterproof hiking boots (Justin has these and I have these).
Good for: Nudity (I mean…), seclusion, wildlife, snorkeling
If you’re looking for something, like, REALLY under the radar, Playa La Macha should be on your list. This small beach is tucked into a hidden cove, with several large rugged boulders strewn across its sand and nothing but dense jungle around for miles and miles.
Playa La Macha is most notable for how secluded it is; you’ve got a pretty good chance of having the beach all to yourself. In fact, given its tranquility, it’s not uncommon to see wildlife, like anteaters or pacas, trot out of the rainforest and onto the beach. Additionally, due to the lack of crowds, you’ll likely see any other beachgoers sunbathing in the nude.
The waves here are quite calm so this is another great beach for swimming or snorkeling- the enormous rocks immediately offshore attract all kinds of interesting creatures, like the Pacific lobster.
Tip: As mentioned above, Playa La Macha is small and at high tide, it’s basically nonexistent, with the waves reaching up to the treeline. Try to time your visit with low tide (check here), so you can actually enjoy the beach!
Where to stay in Manuel Antonio
So between all this beach hopping, where should you stay in Manuel Antonio?
- San Bada Resort and Spa: For a hotel close to the national park and Playa Espadilla, look no further than San Bada. This resort offers a couple different pools- including a rooftop adults-only option and a family-friendly option, with an enormous waterfall and a swim up bar- as well as clean, spacious rooms.
- Shana by the Beach Manuel Antonio: This hotel, located near the northern end of Espidilla Norte, has an infinity pool overlooking the jungle surrounding the hotel and beyond, the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Need I say more?
Okay, in case I do, the service here is also phenomenal and the rooms are spotless, with huge balconies to look out at the surrounding landscape.
- The Falls at Manuel Antonio: This hidden gem comes with lots of perks, like made-to-order hot breakfast and some killer pina coladas at the daily happy hour. The attention to detail here is totally unreal, from the hammock for you to relax in to umbrellas in every room in case you get caught in the rain (you are in a rainforest after all!).
When to Visit the Beaches in Manuel Antonio
So we’ve established that Manuel Antonio has plenty of rainforests- meaning it also experiences a LOT of rain. If you want to visit during a time period where you can maximize your beach time, come during this area’s dry period, from December (it’s an awesome place to soak up the sun at the beach on Christmas!) through March.
Even if you visit during the rainy period from May through November, the rain showers are usually intense, but short, so you’ll still be able to squeeze in plenty of afternoons enjoying the beaches in Manuel Antonio!
With that, enjoy all of the fantastic beaches in Manuel Antonio! Did I miss any hidden gems that other travelers should check out? Let me know in the comments below!
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