Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica has both feet squarely on the beaten path. Tens of thousands of locals and foreigners travel to this park on the Pacific Coast above the town of Quepos every year. There’s almost always a line to get in. Why? Part of the park’s popularity is its easy-to-reach location. It’s also home to one of the best beaches in Costa Rica and visitors are pretty much guaranteed to see both types of sloths, monkeys, frogs, migrating whales (in season), and more. Are there more peaceful, less trampled parks in Costa Rica? Absolutely. However, if your time is limited Manuel Antonio is a good place to get a glimpse of it all. Just don’t expect peace and quiet.
The animals of Manuel Antonio National Park
The animal sightings start within minutes of entering Manuel Antonio National Park (US$10 per person, closed Mondays). As you walk in along the wide dirt access road keep your eyes on the trees and bushes on either side.
We saw a green tree frog almost perfectly camouflaged on the green leaf of a banana tree. A three-toed sloth was climbing up the trunk of a guaruma tree hand over hand rope climb style. We spotted a nocturnal two-toed sloth sitting out the day in a tree a bit further along.
White-faced capuchin monkeys hang out in large groups near this road too, sometime even scampering across on the ground. And don’t even get us started about the insects.
Hiking in Manuel Antonio National Park
Only five percent of the 3 square miles (6.8 square km) that are protected within Costa Rica’s smallest national park are accessible via trails. Sadly, when we were there many of those trails had been closed for maintenance for more than a year, much to the frustration of Manuel Antonio rangers. When we asked park rangers what the problem was one simply responded “the government.” This made us grumble that for US$10 from every foreigner who visits you’d think they could find the funds to keep the small network of trails open.
When we were in the park for the first time we were able to hike the Serruchu Point Trail up to a view point over Escondido bay. However, this trail was muddy, slippery, and in poor condition. It would not surprise us if this trail was closed for “maintenance” soon.
We were also able to hike the Gemelas Trail which splits off near the base of the Serruchu Point Trail and leads to Gemelas Beach with its two small “twin” coves and dramatic rocky cliffs. However, when we returned to Manuel Antonio for a second visit, that trail was closed.
The looping, climbing coastal Cathedral Point Trail, easily the highlight trail in this park, was closed during our first visit but when we returned to the park the Cathedral Trail had re-opened thanks to private investment from a local car rental company called Europcar.
Yes, it’s sad that a Costa Rican national park had to seek a private sector partner to get this trail upgraded but at least, in this instance, the partnership worked. Cathedral Point Trail is now a delight with numerous view points looking out over the Pacific Ocean with a prime views of migrating humpback whales in season. Want more whales? Check out the humpback highlights in our photo essay from the whale watching boat trip we did while we were in Quepos.
The mostly-shaded Cathedral Point Trail climbs up and over the headland and is well-built and there are only a few discretely placed Europcar signs along the way. In this case we felt this was a fair and reasonable tradeoff: we get a killer new trail and Europcar gets a couple of tasteful, small ads.
One of the best beaches in Costa Rica
The hiking is good (especially now that Cathedral Point Trail is back online) and the animal sightings are fun but the real gem of Manuel Antonio National Park is its namesake beach, Playa Manuel Antonio.
You will see park visitors rushing right past loitering sloths and beckoning trailheads to make a beeline to the calm, protected waters, perfectly arcing expanse of white sand, and shaded high water line of this beach. There are even nearby showers and toilets.
This really is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica, as the expanse of bodies in the sun and shade will attest. Many of those people bring picnics and snacks with them, a fact that’s not lost on the park’s population of monkeys, raccoons, and coatis which have been turned into clever, lazy, fat beggars over the years thanks to visitors who choose to ignore the park’s regulations against feeding wild animals.
Some of these animals have also become thieves, making off with unattended grocery bags and even entire backpacks. You really can’t turn your back on your belongings even for a second. If you want to lose some of the crowd head a few hundred yards down the trail to Playa Espalda. Just be aware that the furry thieves are on this beach too.
Manuel Antonio National Park Hotels
The area around the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park is a jumble of mid-range accommodations and a few budget places as well. There’s also a scary resort literally right at the entrance.
For a wider range of hotel and restaurant options and a more relaxed atmosphere head downhill away from the park entrance. Before you get all the way down to the town of Quepos (where you don’t want to stay unless you’re really, really, really on a budget) you’ll find hotels and restaurants lining the road.
For example, we handled sleeping and eating by staying at Hotel Makanda by the Sea. This place has six villas with full kitchens, three smaller studios with kitchenettes, and two deluxe rooms plus one massive, sexy, four bedroom house with a huge living room, gourmet kitchen, private pool, and outdoor grill.
There’s also an awesome infinity-edge pool with Pacific Ocean views and a steep trail leads from Makanda down to a small, rocky beach which disappears at high tide
We had great wildlife encounters all over the hotel’s 12 acre (5 hectare) grounds including endangered titi (aka squirrel) monkeys swinging through the branches above the walkway to our room.
One evening we pulled into the Hotel Makanda parking lot and discovered that a big stand of bamboo fallen over the driveway. Imagine our surprise when our headlights illuminated a sloth in the jumble of leaves and branches. The poor thing was clearly uncomfortable on the ground where it’s vulnerable to predators and was doing its slothy best to “hurry” to safety up a nearby tree.
Manuel Antonio National Park travel tips
Your US$10 entrance fee to Manuel Antonio National Park allows for multiple entries in the same day just in case you want to take photos during morning and afternoon light or you didn’t see all the animals you wanted to see during your first visit.
If you arrive at the park in your own vehicle you will likely be accosted by parking touts on the side of the road who will claim that their lot is the very, very, absolutely last available place to park. They may even be wearing official-looking uniforms, but that doesn’t make them right. Some of these touts are located a mile (2 km) or more away from the actual park entrance. Just continue driving all the way to the park entrance and check on availability for yourself. We were able to park our very large truck mere steps from the entrance both times we visited.
Warning: We’ve heard stories of visitors who didn’t hire a guide (like us) being accused of “eaves dropping” as guides with spotting scopes working with paying customers spot and explain wildlife along the roadway into the park. But there’s only one way in and the road can get crowded and it’s often inevitable that you will end up in close proximity of a guide whether you hired him or not.
And if you know who Manuel Antonio was, share the knowledge in the comments section below.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica
Here’s more about National Parks in the Americas