MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE

When I first started researching a potential trip to Costa Rica, one destination that kept popping up near the top of people’s lists was Manuel Antonio. I was naturally intrigued so I took a deeper dive into the area and it quickly became the “can’t miss” destination for me in Costa Rica, climbing its way up my bucket list. When I was planning this trip with my friend Oran, this was at the top of my list to visit, and it certainly did not disappoint.



If you want the all in one Costa Rica experience, Manuel Antonio has you covered. World class beaches, a chill beach-vibe town, and a National Park oozing with wildlife and biodiversity. You can really see the most animals in the least amount of time at Manuel Antonio National Park, and besides my 3 day Trek through Corcovado National Park, this is the place I saw the most wildlife. The National Park is the highlight of the Manuel Antonio area and why so many tourists flock to this area of Costa Rica.



ENTRANCE & TICKETS


You need to reserve tickets in advance online (http://www.sinac.go.cr/) and make sure you do because it gets crowded. Prices are about $16.50 USD per person.


The park opens at 7am and closes at 4pm, but is closed on Tuesdays. Of course our free full day in Manuel Antonio was a Tuesday, so we settled for visiting the park on Wednesday morning and bought our passes for the 7am-7:40am time slot.


We showed up around 7:10am and walked right up to the entrance where security checks your bags for food. I hadn’t read the rules and foolishly had packed my drone, and they found it immediately. They told me I needed to return it to my hotel or car, which was a bit frustrating so we had to walk back to our hotel to put it away. It was only a short trip since our hotel was very close (Hotel Manuel Antonio), but when we returned around 7:40 the line was massive. And it kept getting bigger as we waited.


It took us about 30 minutes to get in and we never avoided the crowds the whole time in the park. Something the security officers didn’t point out is that there is a hotel right next to the entrance that offers lockers for $5. So if you have food in your bag that you want to keep, or a drone, or something else that isn’t allowed in, I suggest buying a locker and saving the time.


Another tip that we overheard a tour guide mention to his group was that you can get into the park at any time on the day of your ticket. Meaning if you buy your ticket for 1pm that day, you can still get there at 7am and walk in. So I suggest arriving very early to try and beat the crowds to see the animals when they are most active and not get stuck in a miserable line.


HIRING A GUIDE VS EXPLORING INDEPENDENTLY

The big decision upon entering the park is to pay for a guide to walk you through the park or to explore it on your own. Many different companies offer different guides and rates, and there are pros and cons to each.


The main benefit of having a guide is to help find the wildlife and explain more information about the birds and animals you can find in the park. Almost all the guides have telescopes on tripods which allow them to get super close shots of the wildlife. If you don’t have binoculars or a zoom camera lens it’s pretty nice to really see some of the creatures that might be further away like birds, monkeys, and sloths. The guides were also taking people’s phones and taking photos in the telescope, which look like pretty amazing photos - even though I think this is cheating a bit! The guides also generally will know the best places to look for wildlife and know how to navigate the park.



The main benefits of going independently are you save money on hiring a guide and allow flexibility with your visit. You aren’t constrained to follow the guide and walk slowly with a large group of people. Most groups I saw on my visit were quite large, and it was very easy to spot the groups looking at wildlife. For me, this was more convenient because you could walk from group to group and basically find what they were all looking at yourself without having to wait for all the group members to look at it in their telescope. The park is also relatively small and very easy to navigate without a guide. The main trail is super wide and leads right to the cafeteria and beach areas.


My friend and I opted to not take a guided tour, and for the most part we’re pretty happy we did. Not only can you save some money, but most groups had 10-15 people in them and they were moving at a rather slow pace. Also, if you go without a guide, it’s fairly easy to see all the groups stopped on the large pathway looking at all the wildlife. So we saw a ton of wildlife without a guide and were happy with our decision.



HIKING THROUGH THE PARK

Hiking through Manuel Antonio National Park is very easy and straightforward. The main path, also known as the Sloth Trail, is super wide and doubles as a gravel road for employee vehicles. Along this main path is where almost all the guided groups were walking, and you see a majority of the wildlife right along this trail. This path leads to a cafeteria area where you can buy water, lunch, snacks and souvenirs. It’s slightly ironic that you can’t bring food into the park because of the possibility that monkeys will grab it, but they will allow you to buy food there and eat it in the park. Near the cafeteria area there are also a set of bathrooms that are just a few minutes walk to the stunning Manuel Antonio Beach. Espadilla Sur, another jaw dropping beach, is another few minutes walk away from Manuel Antonio Beach.



Shortly after entering, there is an off shoot trail to the left called Catarata Estacional Trail that leads to a small waterfall. This trail is quite long, and we found it to be very peaceful with almost no guests walking through. We didn’t see much wildlife on this trail outside of a few capuchin monkeys and insects, but having a guide in this section may have helped us find more wildlife.



When you reach the beach areas, there is a loop trail called the Punta Catedral Trail that follows the coast around the mini peninsula. This is the most demanding trail in the park that I hiked as there are lots of ups and downs. The climbs combined with the humidity makes for a sweaty experience. Even better reason to take a dip into the ocean at one of the world class beaches!



After you’ve had your satisfaction in the park, you can follow the Playa Espadilla Sur trail back towards the entrance of the park and follow the signs to exit the park in the direction where you entered from. The whole park itself is not very big, and it’s hard to get lost, so it is not a daunting task at all to take on without a guide if you choose to do so.


THE WILDLIFE

Most of the wildlife we saw was right on the main Sloth Trail. While walking down the trail, there were tons of crowds of people pointing in the trees and looking up at wildlife. We basically walked up to the crowds of people with guides and looked where they had their telescopes pointed and found all the same animals. If I couldn’t find it myself, I'd just ask someone in the group what they were looking at and they were very happy to help point it out.


Some wildlife highlights on the Sloth Trail included 2 sloths, a toucan, a motmot, two coatis, vultures, a hawk, howler monkeys and spider monkeys. Two species we would’ve never seen if it wasn’t for a guide spotting it in front of us were two long nosed bats hanging under a giant fern leaf, and the common pauraque - which is a ground bird that blends in with the leaves on the ground.



On the Waterfall Trail, we saw a few capuchin monkeys, a tree frog, and several spiders and giant ants. On the beaches we saw several iguanas.


The real significant wildlife moment at this park, and maybe even for my entire Costa Rica trip, took place on Manuel Antonio Beach. While I was taking a dip in the bath-water like temperatures of the cove, I spotted a group of capuchin monkeys running across the beach. Several tourists flocked behind them with their phones outstretched, so naturally I decided this could be a great photo opportunity of some wildlife. I swam back out, dried off, and my friend and I walked over to the action.


When we arrived, there were about 7-8 capuchin monkeys playing around in the branches right on the beach. There were a good 10-12 people watching and taking photos. The monkeys were not scared of the people, and seemed to be jumping around and playing with each other as if we weren’t even there. I was able to get some incredible photos of the monkeys as we were at a very close distance.


At one point, I may have been a tad too close as I took a photo of one of them. It looked my camera dead in the eyes and when my camera made the clicking noise, the monkey charged me and shook the branches, which led to me quickly sprinting backwards in fear. Lesson learned. Give the animals some space. It was an incredible experience to watch the capuchin monkeys play and run through the trees together at such a close distance, definitely a highlight of my Costa Rica trip that I won’t forget.




THE BEACHES


There are two beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park: Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Espadilla Sur. Playa Manuel Antonio (or Manuel Antonio Beach) is easily one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to in my life. It was a majestic experience to take a dip in the near-bath water temp and float around, looking back at the jungle surrounding me. In addition to the group of Capuchin monkeys playing on the beach, I saw a ton of hermit crabs and an iguana on the beach here. The surrounding area is beautiful and worth walking through the park alone.



On Espadilla Sur Beach, there were far less crowds. This beach is also very unique and beautiful. On this beach we saw a few iguanas. There was also an area further down the beach with umbrellas and chairs if you wanted a bougie afternoon in the park.



Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the Top Places to Visit in Costa Rica and can all be done in a half day. We visited for about 4 hours but didn’t spend too much time at the beach - which would have been nice to experience longer if you have the time. If you want to see lots of wildlife without too much effort, and spend the day at some of the best beaches in the world, include Manuel Antonio in your next trip to Costa Rica.