Is Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica’s most popular national park worth a visit despite the crowds? Absolutely! Here’s why…
Let’s just call it: Manuel Antonio National Park is the most accessible, condensed version of must-see Costa Rica. It’s gorgeous and full of wildlife! No wonder it’s so popular.
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Manuel Antonio National Park Overview
The smallest, yet most visited, national park in Costa Rica is located in the Puntarenas Province; just 80 miles (165 km) from the country’s main airport in San José. It’s ideally situated on the Central Pacific Coast where white beaches connect the tropical rainforest-covered mountains with the Pacific Ocean in a region that’s full of beautiful vistas and fun adventures – and plenty of places to stay.
Manuel Antonio National Park’s geographic location is great for seeing a wide variety of must-see Costa Rican wildlife and as a stop-over on the way to other more remote places. And the fact that it’s so full of human visitors also has a big benefit: the wildlife is used to people and won’t be scared off by you.
Therefore, Manuel Antonio National Park is probably your best chance to see sloths, monkeys, anteaters, iguanas, toucans, moon crabs, and other wildlife all in the same place with little effort and while walking along trails in the shady forest or lounging on gorgeous beaches in secluded coves with views of smaller island just off shore.
Presumably, the best time to visit is during the dry season: December – April.
Manuel Antonio National Map
Wildlife Watching and Birdwatching
The park boasts 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. These include the brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths and three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species: howler monkey, squirrel monkey, and capuchin monkey. The birds include toucans, motmots, tanagers and parakeets. There are also black spiny-tailed iguanas, green iguanas, lots of snakes and bats and crabs and out in the ocean fish and dolphins.
There are clearly marked trails throughout the park – up to the highest peak and remote vistas over the forest and the sea. Starting near the entrance there is also an accessible boardwalk-style trail that lets you experience the swampy setting of the mangroves. Watch out for the cheeky capuchin monkeys.
You can also walk along the beaches with access points back to the forest trails.
The trail to the waterfall is worth a walk in hopes to see wildlife (we saw quite a lot on that trail). But the waterfall itself wasn’t that thrilling during the dry season.
Swimming and Beach Lounging
When we visited in 2022, there were 3 beaches accessible from land: Playa Espadilla Sur (westside of the park, closest to the entrance), Playa Manuel Antonio (on the other side of the Tombolo land bridge that connects the Catedral Hill) to the main land, and Playa Gemelas (Twin Beach), which really is two small beaches with rocks in-between.
The trail that led towards the overlook of the 5th beach Playa Escondido (on the east side of the park) was closed. Apparently access to that beach has been closed since 2017. Unless you can reach it by boat – or if you’re a monkey.
The photos in this post speak for themselves, right? Lots of wildlife, plants, and vistas. If you want to see more, check out Luci Westphal’s Costa Rica Photo blog posts.
Hours, Fees, Location, Contact and other FAQs
7am to 4pm – every day except Tuesdays – year round, including holidays.
Tickets are currently about $18.
IMPORTANT: As of this writing in 2022, you must purchase your ticket ahead of time online here: https://serviciosenlinea.sinac.go.cr/
You will have to provide your passport number. TICKETS DO SELL OUT. So plan ahead.
When you purchase your ticket you need to select a time slot for arrival. Of course, the earlier tickets sell out first. Happier Hack: This is not guaranteed, but worked out for us; even if you could only get a ticket for a later time slot, you can show up earlier and hope they’ll let you in.
Or you can purchase a tour AND an official guided tour HERE for $40 – $60.
80 miles (165 km) south of San José.
Puntarenas Province, Quepos, Costa Rica
Official website: https://manuelantoniopark.com
+1 800 280 2597
HOW TO GET TO PARQUE NACIONAL MANUEL ANTONIO?
The park is just south of Quepos – and the small village of Manuel Antonio. There are lots of places to stay along that road. So you might have transportation directly from your hotel or hosts.
If you have a car, you can drive directly to the park, especially if you drive early before the crowds clog up streets and parking. If you know how bumpy the roads in Costa Rica can be, you’ll appreciate that the drive along the Pacific Coast to the park is over pretty smooth roads without the huge potholes (sink holes) typical for roads in other regions. Just see the note about parking below.
You can also take a bus from San José ($9, 3 1/2 hours) directly to Manuel Antonio village. In Quepos you can catch buses from and to other destinations in Costa Rica.
IS THERE PARKING?
There is no official parking lot! If you’re driving to Manuel Antonio yourself you’ll have to pay a private person to park somewhere along the road.
Our Happier Tip: drive as close to the park’s entrance as you can. There are several parking spots right at the beach. It might be hard, but try to ignore the people waving you off the road to park, hire a guide, and take a bus to the park. Chances are you’ll find a spot closer to the park, as we did.
Parking should only cost ₡4000-₡5000 ($6 – $8) for the day. The park warns about scammers trying to charge you more and to hire them as guides. They will even wear uniforms to look official.
SHOULD I HIRE A GUIDE?
No! And yes, maybe you should. You do NOT NEED to hire a guide or book a guided tour. First of all, there is so much wildlife, you really just need to take it slow and keep your eyes open. But also, there are already so many guides with flocks of people standing around pointing and taking pictures that you’ll know where to look.
However, if you don’t have a long lens or binoculars, the scopes that most guides carry will make all the difference for you to get a close-up look and photo. Also, if you don’t want to take it slow and see what you can see and read about wildlife on your own, a guide might be the best way for you to get all the views and info the fast and easy way.
CAN I BRING FOOD
You are not allowed to bring any food into the park! You may only bring in non-alcoholic drinks. If you have any food in your bag, they will make you throw it out before entering the park. This is to keep the wildlife safe – but also to keep your bag and belongings safe from the wildlife. Especially, those capuchin monkeys can be quite sneaky. There is a snack bar and store inside. Of course, there are also restrooms.
ARE PETS ALLOWED?
Pets are not allowed in the park. It goes without saying that you are also not allowed to take any animals from the park as pets.
Numbers And Other Factoids
The park was established in 1972 – the same year Luci was born, which made this the perfect location for us to celebrate her 50th birthday. Size: 1950 hectares of land & 55000 marine hectares.
In 2011, Forbes Magazine declared Manuel Antonio one of the 12 most beautiful national parks in the world.
Random Florida connection: Ponce de León, the Spanish explorer and “Fountain of Youth seeker” who takes the European claim of “discovering” and naming Florida – also was the first known European to “discover” Quepos and Manuel Antonio.
More Photos of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
All photos in this post were taken by Luci during our visit in April 2022. See many more photos from this afternoon in her photography blog post.
Let’s Inspire Each Other
Have you ever been to Manuel Antonio National Park – or anywhere else in Costa Rica? Share your tips and favorite memories with us. Or tell us about your favorite park? What’s the most exciting animal encounter that you’ve ever had? Do you have an animal or a location at the top of your wish-to-see list?
Please leave a comment below inspired by these questions or anything else you’d like to share.