Manuel Antonio National Park: Costa Rica's Paradise Or A Place To Miss?
Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest, yet the most heavily visited national park in Costa Rica. Is this place the real gem worth visiting or should you better skip it? We know the answer.
Traveling long-term has some advantages, but also brings several disadvantages when we compare it with a regular two or three weeks holidays. For us, the biggest downside is the lack of planning and doing proper research as we would have done normally. There are many reasons why we don't plan much ahead anymore, some more significant than others.
Reason number one, we don't have much time to do it because of nonstop work on this blog, reason number two, we probably became a bit lazy and reason number three, we found out that if we miss a thing or two or if we see a place sooner or later, nothing will actually happen.
So what a surprise when we arrived in Quepos, a base for visiting Manuel Antonio National Park and started to read the latest reviews about the park. Every single one from the past couple of months was negative, and for a moment or two, we were even considering not to travel to the park at all.
But at the end, we decided to give it a try, and in this travel guide we bring everything you need to know before visiting Manuel Antonio National Park, so you will enjoy it to the fullest.
Manuel Antonio is rather a stretch of houses along the road than a village, but still, it is one of Costa Rica's top destinations which draws visitors from all around the world.
The location close to the rainforest, unspoiled beaches, proximity to the famous national park made from this place one of the most sought-after places in Central America, and prices, unfortunately, reflect this trend.
MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
Costa Rica is a country with incredible biodiversity. If you want to see most of what this pearl of Central America has to offer, head to Manuel Antonio National Park, where you can admire lush green jungle, pristine white sand beaches, amazing ocean views, look for wildlife, and overall enjoy the perfect day out.
The only problem is, that the word about the park's exceptionality has already spread out, and you won't be the only person heading this direction when in Costa Rica. Yes, over tourism is definitely a problem here, same as for example on the Rainbow Mountain in Peru, but who could blame others who want to see such an extraordinary place as many people before them?
We have advice though. If you prefer exploring places off the beaten path and a large number of tourists at one place upset you, you won't have a problem to find a similar, not-so-popular not-so-touristy park in Costa Rica.
HOW TO GET TO MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
Manuel Antonio National Park is well-connected with other tourist destinations within Costa Rica, so you have plenty of options on how to visit the park. There is a public bus from the capital city, San Jose, but we won't include this option here as it is not very convenient because you need to arrive early to the gate in order to get to the park.
Rental Car | So far the most popular way how to travel around Costa Rica is by rental car. When visiting Manuel Antonio National Park, there is a small parking lot which tends to fill up early in the morning and costs 3000 colones. In the past, there were lots of parking scams going on, so when the park's parking is full, your best bet is to drive to Hotel Manuel Antonio at the end of the drive where you can park your car on a secured parking lot for the same price, 3000 colones per day.
Tour | You can arrange a one-day tour from several tourist destinations within Costa Rica. The most popular places from where you can visit Manuel Antonio National Park without arranging own transport are San Jose or Jaco.
Public Transport | It is easy to reach Manuel Antonio National Park by public transport. First, you need to get to Quepos, the closest town to the park, which is well-connected with Uvita, Jaco or San Jose. In Quepos, you need to take a regular bus going approximately every 30 minutes from the bus terminal to the park. The seven kilometers long ride takes less than 30 minutes and costs 350 colones per person one way. The first bus leaves at 5:30 AM, so you don't need to be worried you won't make it for the opening. The bus stops along the way to the park in case you are staying in one of the hotels lining the road on the way to Manuel Antonio National Park.
TICKETS TO MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
Tickets to Manuel Antonio National Park are the chapter on its own. Firstly, we found all the entrance fees to national parks in Costa Rica ridiculously overpriced (for example the entrance fee to Monteverde Cloud Forest cost $22). To get to Manuel Antonio National Park, we had to pay $16 each, which is quite a lot, and what we found the most outrageous is that locals often pay six times or seven times less. We were used to paying double than locals in South America, but the difference here seemed way too big.
You have two options on where to buy entrance tickets - in San Jose or in Quepos at Coopealianza office or right at the entrance. It is not possible to buy tickets online at the moment. We found out about the presale too late, so we had to line up in front of the entrance before 7 AM, but apparently, buying tickets in advance doesn't guarantee that you will be let into the park, because you will have to wait in the queue as well.
Because of the increasing popularity of the park, from 2019 there are new rules and quotas for Manuel Antonio National Park. Every day, 1700 people are allowed to enter the park, but only 600 are let in in the morning, and then visitors who came later always have to wait for someone to get out before staff will let anyone else in. Well, we spent all day in the park, from 7 AM to 4 PM, so the chance to get there later in the afternoon is not high, especially during the high season. We also met a couple who told us that when they came to the park's entrance around 10 AM, the staff told them to come back the next day.
Generally, when you come to Manuel Antonio National Park entrance, you will see two lines - if you hadn't bought your ticket, you need to line up in the right line first in order to buy a ticket and then move to the left line to get to the park.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
The park is open every day of the year except on Mondays from 7 AM to 4 PM. It is also open during holidays if the day doesn't fall on Monday. We think it is quite important news that the park is not open on Mondays and it should be emphasized more than it is nowadays to avoid the disappointment of many travelers.
To get in, we recommend you to wait outside the park at 6:45 AM. We visited the park in March and got into the park in the last wave, but we believe that the situation during the rainy season must be a bit calmer and not that crowded.
Take plenty of water with you - we had 6 liters and drank it all. Also, you can take a snack with you, but no nuts and seeds - your bag will be searched at the entrance gate.
There is a small shop in the middle of the park where you can buy some snacks and water, but no real food.
We think it is important to know what to expect from visiting the park - it is the only way how to avoid disappointment. The park is simply stunning, and we certainly enjoyed our visit - the beaches are beautiful, and you will see many animals, but you must accept that you will share the place with others. The first impression was quite negative, even intimidating because of many people near the entrance and at the beginning of the trail, but after a while, crowds dispersed, and we could focus only on searching for wildlife and on looking for the best beach to relax on.
Do not leave your bags unattended on a beach, especially when you have food in it. There are lots of monkeys and racoons waiting to steal your food, and you would be doing a disservice to them by feeding animals, although unintentionally - you can always ask someone to watch your bag.
THINGS TO DO IN MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK
The park offers plenty of activities, and we found quite challenging to do everything we wanted within nine hours when the park is open, especially when we take into the account Costa Rica's terrible humidity which makes everything much more exhausting.
Hiking | Manuel Antonio National Park has a large number of hiking trails. We've done them all, and probably the favorite one was the loop you can make from Playa Manuel Antonio, but other trails were nice as well. Note, that the waterfall in the park is only seasonal and in March there was no water running down at all, but it is a place where you can look for snakes and frogs. All trails usually lead on boardwalks and are not challenging, but there are some sections where you will have to climb up and down, and it is good to know in case you have mobility issues.
Beaches | If you are looking for a place to unwind, Manuel Antonio National Park is also a place where you can do it. There are several pristine beaches in the park where you can spend all day long. Honestly, we wouldn't pay the steep entrance fee only to lie down on a beach - there are so many pretty beaches outside the park or in other parts of Costa Rica where you don't have to pay at all.
Wildlife | It was fun looking for the wildlife in the park, and the day we went, it was not particularly hard to spot animals, but every day is different. Be patient, and listen patiently to discover sloths, birds or monkeys.
Catamaran Cruise | If you want to enjoy waters around the national park, see crocodiles, whales (depending on the season) and snorkel, you can check out the catamaran cruise.
Mangrove Kayaking | Kayaking in Mangroves is pretty popular in many places around the world such as in Paraty in Brazil or Bocas del Toro in Panama, and you can enjoy it even here in Costa Rica if you are looking for a way how to actively spend your day.
Ziplining | There is an adventure park in Manuel Antonio where you can try different adventure activities such as zip lining, ATVs or rappelling. We've done rappelling in Jaco, Costa Rica, and can only recommend trying it.
What can you expect to see in Manuel Antonio National Park?
For sure sloths, hanging lazily on tree branches, several species of monkeys such as howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys or squirrel monkeys, birds, insects, frogs, snakes, iguanas and much more.
When lucky, you can also spot migrating whales and dolphins offshore, the best season is from December to March.
VISITING THE PARK WITH A GUIDE VS. INDEPENDENTLY
Manuel Antonio National Park is a haven for families with young kids, for elderly, but also for young independent travelers or millennials, so it is obvious that each of these groups has different travels style and budget.
If you are really keen to see the wildlife, and if this is the main motivation why you want to visit the park, we recommend you to hire a guide. The guide will point out all animals, he knows where to go at what time and he also has telescopes for better observation. The rates differ between $20 - $50: it depends on how many people are in the group and whether the entrance fee is included or not. Even when you hire a guide, the tour usually takes four hours, and you will still have a lot of time to walk in the park on own and enjoy pristine beaches.
We visited the park independently, and maybe we were only lucky but saw a lot of wildlife that day even without a guide, but we are sure we still missed out quite a lot, for example, it is hard to look for snakes or small insect when you don't know where to look. But because we already visited jungle in Peru, Pacaya Samiria National Reserve to be specific, seeing wildlife was for us only variegation, not the main reason to visit the park. Sometimes, you can also meet a group with a guide, and you can see that they are looking at something which can be helpful, but remember you chose to visit the park independently, so do not linger around too long.
WHERE TO STAY
When visiting Manuel Antonio National Park, you have endless options on where to stay, although cheap options are unfortunately scarce as Costa Rica is not a budget-friendly country.
First, Costa Rica is quite a small country, so if you have a rental car or if you are taking a tour, you don't need to stay close to the park, but you can get up early and drive directly to the entrance.
The closest town to the park where you can stay is Quepos, or you can find accommodation along the seven kilometers long stretch of road leading from Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park. This place is fittingly called Manuel Antonio.
We think it doesn't matter if you decide to stay in the town or closer to the park, as the bus to the park runs from Quepos via Manuel Antonio village.
Budget | Wide Mouth Frog - Close to everything the location of this hostel cannot be better. You can find here private rooms and dormitories and a large outdoor swimming pool.
Mid-range | La Foresta Nature Resort - The charming accommodation just outside Quepos has own swimming pool, rainforest canopy, and zip line and also offers a free beach shuttle.
Luxury | Los Altos Resort - Luxurious suites in Manuel Antonio have a fully-equipped kitchen, balcony, and access to the private beach is among the best features in this hotel.
You can also search for all hostel options using HostelWorld.
WHEN TO VISIT
Costa Rica has two distinct seasons - dry and wet.
The peak season runs between December and the end of March or mid-April when you can expect dry conditions (it is not uncommon to experience afternoon rain in Costa Rica's dry season though), but prices and overall tourism is in its peak as well. During those four months, the park can get insanely busy as it receives not only international travelers but local visitors as well. If you want to avoid crowds, try to plan your visit outside this timezone.
Thee green alias rainy season runs from the end of April to the end of November. You can expect fewer people in the park and frequent showers, especially in the afternoon, so it is definitely better to visit the park in the wet season early in the morning to increase your chances of having nice weather. Wettest month of the year is September when it is also the smallest chance to see the wildlife as it is hiding as well. When visiting during this month, consider hiring a guide to help you see animals.
WHAT TO PACK
The weather in the park is hot and humid throughout the year, and temperatures often sit around 30°C - take plenty of water with you!
Binoculars | It's big, heavy, pricey and a must-have for wildlife spotting in Costa Rica.
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