When you think of Costa Rica, you probably imagine a lush rainforest, teeming with sloths, monkeys, and other adorable jungle critters. Manuel Antonio, a small town along Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline, offers all that- plus stunning white sand beaches and turquoise waters.
Sound like a dream come true? If you’re looking for your next tropical getaway, here are 8 amazing things to do in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.
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How to Get to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
If Manuel Antonio is your first stop in Costa Rica, you’ll likely arrive at the San Jose International Airport or the Liberia Guanacaste Airport. Manuel Antonio is 171 km (or about 3 hours) south of San Jose or about 259 km (4 and a half hours) south of Liberia.
Everything is pretty spread out in Costa Rica (even in terms of exploring the teeny tiny Manuel Antonio), so, if you can swing the fairly pricey rates, I’d highly recommend renting a car. Most of the roads around Manuel Antonio are either paved or decently maintained gravel roads, so you shouldn’t need a rental with high clearance or 4WD (note that a high clearance vehicle is recommended if you’re visiting Monteverde or areas that do not have well-maintained roads).
Alternatively, if you’re not about that bougie rental car life, you can book transport from these airports to Manuel Antonio- check out the options from San Jose here or Liberia here. Word of warning, though- you’ll mostly need to book either taxis or tours to get around and explore the area, which will definitely add up over your time in Costa Rica.
If Manuel Antonio is not your first stop in the country, you’re likely either headed to this tropical paradise from the epic hot springs and beautiful waterfalls of La Fortuna (222 km or a five-hour drive) or from the dreamy cloud forests of Monte Verde (185 km or a little over three and a half hours away). Again, if you don’t have a rental car, there are plenty of transfer options to get from either La Fortuna or Monteverde.
Things to do in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Now that you’ve arrived in Manuel Antonio, let’s talk about all the adventures you can get up to!
1. Manuel Antonio National Park
Lonely Planet lists Manuel Antonio as one of the best national parks in Costa Rica- and it’s easy to see why! With a dense jungle brimming with abundant wildlife and serene beaches, Manuel Antonio is a must-do on any Costa Rica bucket list.
Even though Manuel Antonio is the smallest of Costa Rica’s National Parks, there’s tons to see and do packed into its 7.66 square miles (19.93 sq km).
Hikes in Manuel Antonio National Park
There are a total of 10 trails looping through the park’s forest, ranging from just 287 m to 9 km in length. Most visitors hike the Sendero Principal (a.k.a. the “Main Trail”), a 2.2 km trail that leads from the park’s entrance to Manuel Antonio Beach or the Sloth and Mangrove Trails, which offer a wooden boardwalk that runs through one of the densest areas of the park (that, wouldn’t you guess it, is known for being a great spot to see sloths!).
In addition to these main trails, there’s a variety of other offshoots you can take to visit stunning waterfalls or some of the park’s pristine beaches.
My husband, Justin, and I were able to hike the majority of the trails here in our five or so hours in the park and spotted sloths, crabs, capuchin, howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, iguanas, and more animal friends along the way. In fact, a monkey tried to even steal my backpack (more on that later!)- most fun I’ve ever had almost getting robbed!
To be honest, spotting animals in the dense forest can be kind of challenging, especially given that many of the creatures (I’m looking at you, sloths!) like to hide out in the treetops. If you’re short on time in the park- or just want to, like, actually be sure you’ll see some animals here, you may want to consider going on one of the Manuel Antonio tours that are offered, like this one or this one.
Not only are the guides skilled at spotting animals in the thick tree coverage (and will bring along a monocular so you get a better view of those faraway critters), but they’re also full of fascinating information about the plant life and wildlife in Manuel Antonio and can provide a local perspective of living in Costa Rica.
Beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park has four gorgeous beaches accessible via the park’s hiking trails, the most famous of which is the eponymous Manuel Antonio Beach (just a 20 minute walk from the entrance along a flat path) or Espadilla Sur. There’s nothing better than being able to dive into the turquoise ocean water to cool off after a sweaty hike and trying to scout out wildlife all day!
In order to visit these beaches, visitors must purchase one of the limited tickets for the national park sold each day. As a result, the beaches remain relatively uncrowded and free of pesky buskers and trash. In fact, it’s not uncommon for visitors to purchase a ticket to the national park just to head to the park’s beaches, given how beautiful, clean, and tranquil they are.
Word to the wise, though- many of these beaches are crawling with mischievous capuchins that have been fed by tourists and thus, trained to steal things from humans. Sunscreen bottles, glasses, cameras, and even my absurdly heavy camera backpack- nothing is safe from these little (adorable) gremlins!
Friendly reminder to never feed wildlife (to prevent them from turning into little hellions, like the capuchins of Manuel Antonio, and, you know, to protect the wildlife) and to not leave anything lying around Manuel Antonio’s beaches you wouldn’t mind getting stolen from a tiny, furry friend!
Things to Know About Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park
- Given that the park limits the number of visitors every day, you are required to book tickets ahead of time- and tickets do totally sell out, especially on weekends and during high season (December through April).
If you go through a tour, like the ones linked above, your ticket will be booked for you and included in the cost of the tour. Alternatively, if you’re planning on visiting on your own, you’ll need to book your ticket here (you have to create an account before you can purchase a ticket, which is a bit of a pain), for around $18.
- When you near the entrance of the park, there will be TONS of people waving you down, screaming at you, and AGGRESSIVELY trying to get you to park in their lots or take tours with them.
There is no official parking lot for the park itself, so, unless you’re staying within walking distance to the park (like Hotel Playa Espadilla or La Vela Boutique Hotel), you’re going to need to park in the one of the paid lots, which should cost you between 4000-5000 colones ($6 to $7) a day.
Most of the “tour guides” loitering around the park’s entrance are not certified tour guides and I would recommend doing as your elementary school teacher taught you and just say no to them (no matter how hostilely they ask!).
- For the best chance of seeing wildlife, go early when the park first opens (at 7 AM)- animals are the most active then and, with fewer crowds, there’s less human-produced noise to scare the jungle creatures away!
2. Playa Espadilla Norte
The northern part of Playa Espadilla is not contained within the national park and thus, is open for all to enjoy. While you’re much more likely to get bothered here by buskers than in the national park (although, at least in my experience, they were selling fun things like coconuts and margaritas in a bag- yes please!), it’s one of the most gorgeous beaches in Manuel Antonio, with fine white sand and lush palm trees.
Plus, there’s tons of activities to do here- surf lessons, parasailing, banana boats, you name it! And best of all, between its orientation facing due west, dramatic sea stacks, and punchy orange skies, this beach has seriously one of the most EPIC sunsets I’ve ever seen- and is undoubtedly one of the most unmissable things to do in Manuel Antonio.
3. Biesanz Beach
Want to escape the peddlers of Playa Espadilla? Biesanz Beach is a much smaller and quieter beach tucked away in a small cove and accessible via a 10-minute walk downhill through the jungle. While Biesanz has a more local vibe, you’ll still find plenty of activities to do here, like renting a kayak or snorkel gear and there’s even a small beach bar (fittingly called “The Howler”- fittingly named after the noisy resident monkeys here that are its namesake).
4. Chocolate tour
While coffee is Costa Rica’s main cash crop now, chocolate once reigned supreme. In fact, chocolate has always been highly prized by the Chorotega and Bribri people in Costa Rica- so much so that the Chorotega actually used cacao beans as currency!
So why not see how all that magical goodness is produced by visiting a chocolate farm? You’ll learn everything about the history of chocolate, its cultural significance- and, of course, get to taste it! This tour (with almost 300 5-star reviews!) offers knowledgeable guides who are passionate about chocolate- plus you’ll get to taste hot chocolate as the Mayans intended it (very aptly-called the “Drink of the Gods”) and about 20 other varieties of this magical sweet stuff.
5. Nauyaca Waterfall
There are so many gorgeous waterfalls in Costa Rica, but you’ll find one of the most stunning, Nauyaca Waterfall, just a little over an hour away from Manuel Antonio. This waterfall has two spectacular drops and its curtain stretches the entire length of the enormous cliffside, creating one of the best natural swimming pools in Costa Rica.
The number of visitors on any given day is restricted to protect this little slice of heaven, so before you head out, you’ll need to make a reservation. You can either book directly through the company that owns the property it sits on or through a separate tour company, like this one that leaves from Manuel Antonio.
You’ll either have to hike a 4.6 km (2.7 mile) one-way trail to the waterfalls along a steep and rocky path or, alternatively, you can pay a bit extra ($32) to have a 4×4 truck drive you to the falls and back. I’d highly recommend the former- the jungle you’ll hike through is absolutely gorgeous, full of lush, green plants and the immersive sound of tropical birds singing around you.
6. Rainmaker Conservation Park
If you’re trying to avoid the crowds of the national park but still want to observe Costa Rica’s famed wildlife, consider a trip to the Rainmaker Conservation Park, a little over half an hour north of Manuel Antonio. Here, you’ll find a 5,000 acre primary rainforest to explore, full of tropical birds, poison dart frogs, and glass-winged butterflies.
The park offers one 2.5 km (1.5 mile) trail that loops past several beautiful waterfalls and is similar to the famed Mistico Hanging Bridges in La Fortuna, where you’ll cross suspension bridges snaking through the treetops of the jungles.
If you head here on your own, a self-guided tour is $20 or you can alternatively book a tour with an informative guide, who can help you spot animals in the dense greenery, here.
7. Spice tour
Costa Rica’s climate is perfect for growing tropical spices, like ceylon cinnamon and vanilla. So do like the Spice Girls do and spice up your life- by visiting a working spice farm (now excuse me while I slam it to the left, shake it to the right, and go jam out to some Spice Girls).
Rainforest Spices grows all kinds of neat spices, like turmeric, allspice, and black pepper, in addition to exotic fruits and medicinal plants. If you book a tour here ($50/person for a tour or $60/person with transportation from Manuel Antonio), you’ll be guided along a trail that winds through the farm, as well as treated to a variety of different goodies that showcase the spices grown onsite.
The farm’s tropical greenery is also a magnet for wildlife, so you just might see some macaws, hummingbirds, and squirrel monkeys swinging through the trees.
8. Quepos Farmers Market
For a peek into local life and to get some insanely fresh fruits and veggies, head to the neighboring town of Quepos for its weekly farmers market, from Friday (from 3-11 PM) and Saturday (6 AM-12 PM). While the market itself is pretty small, you can find all sorts of unique foods that you may not have access to at home, like lychees and rambutans, as well as artisanal goods and crafts that will likely make a better (and more affordable!) souvenir than you’ll find at most trinket shops in the area.
If you’re looking for the best time to meet and interact with locals, I’d suggest coming on Friday afternoon- the farmers market seems to be the place to stop after work!
When to Visit Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
If you’re looking to hit up the beach and soak up all that sun, the best time to visit Manuel Antonio is between December through April, when the skies are clear and sunny. In fact, it’s one of the best places to relax on a warm, sunny beach on Christmas!
That being said, this is also Costa Rica’s busiest tourist season, so expect to pay higher prices for accommodations and to battle it out for the monkeys’ attention with other tourists.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind a bit of rain, you can usually score some pretty sweet deals on airfare and accommodations and see the rainforest at its very lushest from May through November. Although this is called Costa Rica’s rainy season, it rarely rains all day, with some afternoon showers that are perfectly timed for a midday nap. Just don’t forget your raincoat (here’s awesome options for women and men)!
Where to Stay in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
You’ll have plenty of options to choose from in Manuel Antonio, ranging from budget to straight-up bougie.
- Costa Linda Art Hostel: While the rooms here are basic, they’re clean, colorful, and perfect for travelers on a backpacker budget. It’s also super conveniently located less than a 10 minute walk from Manuel Antonio National Park and just steps from the beach!
- La Posada Jungle Hotel: If you basically want to be, like, inside of the national park, this more mid-range stay is as close as you can possibly get! Plus, thanks to its proximity to the park, its pool area gets a ton of monkey visitors (which, I mean, is reason enough for me to wanna book it!).
- Hotel San Bada Resort and Spa: If you’re looking to treat yourself, Hotel San Bada Resort is the most luxurious option in Manuel Antonio, with an absolutely stunning property. In addition to its spa, which uses locally sourced ingredients for its services, there’s a variety of pools (including a separate adults-only one) and rooms with balconies overlooking the ocean.
There’s so many awesome things to do in Manuel Antonio- I hope you love it as much as I do! Do you have any questions about planning your visit? Any tips on how to stop would-be monkey thieves? Let me know in the comments below!