Manuel Antonio National Park (or Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio), is about a three hour drive from San Jose, Costa Rica, an hour from Playa Jaco, and only a short distance from a number of the coastal towns that serve it. We arrived via the Pacific Ocean, on our Uncruise ship, the Safari Voyager, but once in the park, the same tips apply to cruise passengers and other visitors.
Manuel Antonio has a well-earned reputation for animal spotting, and during our day there, we were rewarded with sightings of capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, sloths, white-tailed deer, raccoons, quatis, and more types of birds (including macaws) than we could keep track of. It’s small in size at only about 1,700 acres, but it packs a big punch, with expanses of white-sand beaches, jungle hikes, and wildlife viewing platforms. Because this national park is so popular, it has a daily cap of visitors, which helps with the flow of pedestrian traffic.
You can definitely spend a whole day here, alternating between the hiking trails and the beach; we recommend setting up a beach base camp after your morning hike so people can come and go to explore. Just remember to keep someone ‘manning the fort’ as it were, or monkeys will steal all your possessions!
Top trails for animal viewing and views in Manuel Antonio:
We absolutely loved the Punta Cathedral Point Trail, which winds from one beach to the next, elevating through the jungle via many series of rustic stairs to prime viewing areas. We saw monkeys here, but the prime sloth viewing is on the aptly named Sloth Trail, which is shorter in length and flatter. Ironically, we ended up seeing a sloth in a tree near the beach. Playa Espadilla Sur Beach and Playa Manuel Antonio appear on the map to be on opposite ends of the park, but are in fact only separated by a matter of yards, making it easy to explore both sides.
Tips for your day at Manuel Antonio:
- First off, start early! The park opens at 7 am, and since it fills up fast (and many animals are most active in the morning and evening), we recommend getting there when it opens. Start with a morning hike while it’s still relatively cool (ha!) then head to one of the beaches for a post-hike dip. In our experience, most visitors tend to settle in at the beaches of Manuel Antonio, and it’s hard to blame them; this park has been voted one of the most beautiful in the world many times for a reason. However, getting off of the sand and into the jungle will reward you with animal sightings.
- Take precautions around the capuchin monkeys (white-faced monkeys) and the raccoons, as they have become so accustomed to humans, they have no fear and will blatantly try to steal your food, backpacks, hats, and just about anything else. Staying on the trail helps somewhat.
- Consider hiring a guide. We had naturalist guides included in our Uncruise visit, but anyone can hire a guide for the day, who will walk you through the park. At the time of our visit, they were about $40 US for three hours, and from what I could see from observing them with many families, well worth it. (Note: you can bargain.)
- Bring a picnic or sack lunch and lots of water. While some vendors are outside the park, no food vendors are inside the park boundaries. We also recommend bringing a few beach towels in a backpack.
- Wear swimsuits over sun and insect-protectant clothing, such as trekking pants and long-sleeve sun shirts. You WILL want to swim, and you WILL sweat a lot!
- The entrance fee is $16/pp US for foreign visitors, so plan accordingly.
- Beware the Beach Apple trees. These highly poisonous trees are (mostly) marked, but even sitting under them and touching their leaves can be dangerous. Eating beach apples is highly dangerous, and usually results in a hospital stay. Take the warnings seriously.
If you need lodging and food recommendations outside the park, check out this post.