Tips for Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park has quite a reputation. It’s the smallest national park in Costa Rica, consisting of 1,700 acres of land and over 130,000 acres of water.
Don’t let the size fool you though, in 2011, it was named by Forbes as one of the world’s most beautiful parks and it is also one of the most visited parks in the country.
For anybody who is planning a trip to Costa Rica and aims to see wildlife and beautiful beaches, Manuel Antonio has to be on their bucket list.
This post will provide everything you need to know to plan your visit of Manual Antonio National Park.
Best time to visit Manuel AntonioDecember to April is the dry season with the least amount of prolonged rainfall.
During these months you will have the best conditions for viewing wildlife and enjoying the beaches.
Needless to say that this is also the time when it gets most crowded. Head to the park as early as possible, ideally as soon as the gate opens at 7.00 am.
Group tours start arriving around 8:30 am and after that the park gets really crowded and queues at the entrance can be very long.
Visiting the park early also gives you the best chance of spotting wildlife. I arrived at the park at 9:00 am and it was already too late to late to see Toucans.
The park closes at 4:00 pm. The park is closed on Mondays and peak visitor numbers are during weekends, so if you can arrange it, plan your trip on a weekday.
Where to stayThere are many hotels not far from the entrance of the National Park. Those accommodations are located on a hill and some have great views over the sea. They are also a lot more expensive. If you are looking for a cheap accommodation, head to Quepos (the closest town to Manuel Antonio). I stayed at the Hotel Mar Y Luna, which is located right in the center and only a 2 minutes walk away from the bus stop.
They offer basic rooms with private bathroom for only USD 15.
In Quepos, buses head frequently to Manuel Antonio. The ride takes less than 20 minutes and costs USD 0.55 per way.
Where and how to purchase your ticket
You don’t need to buy your ticket in advance, however there is a daily limited number of visitors allowed in the park (so again, be there early).
From the path after the bus stop, you will have two options – turn right to the entrance and turn left to the ticket counter.
The tickets must be purchased from the official ticket counter on your left (no exception), so don’t buy your ticket from anyone offering you a ticket on the way. They won’t be accepted. Ticket price for foreigners is USD 16, which can be paid in local currency or USD.
There is an option to pay by credit card (VISA only!), but the transaction works like a cash advance and depending on your bank the commissions are high.
Do you need a guide?
Even if you are travelling on a budget, you should not save on a tour guide here. I am not a fan of guided tours at all, but in Manuel Antonio getting a guide makes absolutely sense.
If you just walk through the park on your own, you will likely miss out seeing many animals (bats, frogs, sloths, birds and iguanas) as they can only be seen with a telescope.
Also, the guides know where wildlife is and the guides communicate with each other. Each tour guide has a huge telescope and they are able to zoom in so you can have a great view of the animals.
If your camera doesn’t have a great lense, the guides will let you take pictures via the telescope (tip: it works best with a smartphone).
Raccoons and white headed-capuchin monkeys move along the beach areas. There are easy to spot, even without a guide. Watch out – especially the monkeys have no fear of humans and easily grab your food and other personal belongings.
I took a private guide with two other people and we paid USD 20 per person (you can negotiate a bit).
Alternatively there is the option to join bigger groups of about 10 people and pay about half of the price (USD 10).
To be honest there is not much difference, whether you are on a private group or in a big group, the guides explain about the flora & fauna and let you observe through their telescope.
The only difference I can think of is that with a private tour it will be easier to ask questions, but that’s not a big deal. If I would visit Manuel Antonio National Park again, I would join a bigger group tour and save the 10 bucks.
Tour guides will approach you around the ticket counter, you can just hire and pay right there.
Food and drinks Tips for Visiting Manuel Antonio National ParkYou can buy snacks and drinks right at the entrance. There are also some small restaurants (but logically quite pricey). There are no food stalls or vendors inside the park so it is recommended to stock up with food and drinks before you enter. Sometimes bags get checked at the entrance gate. The park rangers are regulating what types of food tourists bring to the park, due to the animals feeding problems (e.g. chips and peanuts are not allowed). Best it to take some granola bars and packed sandwiches.
What to wear and bringWear light and fast drying clothes as it can get really hot and humid. Even though you can easily walk through the park and do the hiking trails with flip flops, some solid footwear it recommended. Take your swimwear and towels. There are changing rooms directly by the beaches. Use mosquito repellent. I read horrible stories about many mosquitoes before I headed to the park but have to say it wasn’t so bad after all. Regardless it’s good to have some with you. Plastic bags become handy to keep your trash (there are only a few trash bins in the park and you certainly don’t wanna throw your waste it into the nature). Bring binoculars or a camera with good zoom lens (at least 250 mm) for photographing wildlife.
Beaches & HikesThe park has four beaches that are off-limits to everyone but park visitors (Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio, Escondido and Playita).
The most famous is the first one off the main trail (30 min from the entrance): Playa Manuel Antonio – a stunning cove with shimmering aquamarine water and white sand.
It is also the beach that it the most crowded. If you want to avoid the crowds head to Playa Espadilla Sur further down the main trail. The sand is a bit darker but the beach is just as beautiful. Escondido and Playita are a bit further away and can be reached by an hour hike. I haven’t been to those beaches but our guide advised that they are not as beautiful as the Espadilla Sur and Manuel Antonio. The park has five trails. Most are fairly flat and suitable for all levels, but some have steeper inclines. Free trail maps are available at the ticket booth so be sure to grab one. The main trail is the easiest to hike, as it is wide and flat, and can be enjoyed in less than an hour. They lead to spectacular lookouts, secluded beaches, and see a lot less foot-traffic.