Guide to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica and the Amazing National Park
By David Bohn
If you only had one day to enjoy in Costa Rica, exploring Manuel Antonio might your best choice. Except for a volcano, Manuel Antonio has nearly everything people come to Costa Rica to experience. The landscape, the wildlife, and the beaches are a microcosm of the best Costa Rica has to offer.
When encroaching private development threatened public use of the area, Costa Rica created the national park in 1972 to protect the rainforest and the animals, and to ensure that Costa Ricans had permanent access to its beaches and forest. Once that work was done, the decision was made to build the main road on the steep ridge running between the park and Quepos, the former banana shipping port.
Between 1973 and 2000, that ridge became populated with high-end hotels, shops, and restaurants that transformed the region and its economy. In recent years, medium-priced and backpacker hotels have opened, making the area affordable to most. The influx of progress hasn’t dampened the natural feel here, though; you can still have troops of monkeys charging across your roof, or large green iguanas lounging beside you at the pool.
Getting to Manuel Antonio
Unlike many other Costa Rican destinations, it’s easy to get to Manuel Antonio. From San Jose airport, the quickest way is a stunningly gorgeous flight on Sansa, the private commuter airline. For about $80 per person one way, plus luggage fees, you can take a 30-minute flight aboard a 12-passenger, twin-engine plane over lush green mountains and jungle into Quepos airport, then a 15-minute cab ride to Manuel Antonio. If you’re planning a longer stay in Costa Rica to do some backroad exploring, rent a sturdy 4X4 that will stand up to gravel roads and a few river crossings. The rental car shuttle bus will pick you up at SJO. Make sure you document with pictures any dings or other damage the rental vehicle may have. This saves arguments at drop off.
If you’d rather not drive, buses and cabs run frequently between Quepos and Manuel Antonio, so a car isn’t needed. However, walking the steep hills of Manuel Antonio may require sturdy legs and footwear! Tropical Tours Shuttles offers a one-way trip from SJO to Manuel Antonio for $54 per person, or you can have a private minibus for your group for $180 one way. Tracopa bus lines will take you to Manuel Antonio for $9 one way, but you must first take the half-hour ride from SJO airport to the Tracopa bus station in downtown San Jose, which will cost you about $50 for a cab.
On your return trip, you can get a $9 Tracopa bus at the bus station in Quepos which will take you to SJO airport. (This is handy if you’ve had big losses at the Byblos Resort and Casino in Manuel Antonio. Yes, gambling is legal here…) Note: if you choose Tracopa, to get to the airport you must buy a ticket at the bus station in Quepos for the local bus, called a collectivo, which makes multiple stops and takes longer than the directo, which is the express and goes directly to the bus station in downtown San Jose. The collectivo driver will ask if anyone is going to the airport, as he only goes there if necessary. Make sure you let him know.
Staying in Manuel Antonio
As you climb the winding road up from Quepos, you will see hotels and restaurants lining both sides. With a little research, you can pick a hotel that will satisfy almost any budget. These are mostly small, intimate hotels built into the hillside rainforest. Only a few hotels have direct beach access, but all the others have public or hotel shuttles to take you to and from the beach. The views from the higher cliffside hotels are stunning, especially at sunset. Some hotels worth looking into include the Si Como No Resort, Los Altos, Tulemar Resort, Hotel Parador, and the Arenas Del Mar Beach and Rainforest Resort.
Eating in Manuel Antonio
La Luna Restaurant at Gaia Hotel is a fine-dining restaurant. Enjoy first-class service from the moment you arrive as you are taken in a golf cart by friendly staff members up to the open-air restaurant at the top of the hill. Treat yourself to a gourmet dinner or come between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. for a happy-hour cocktail and tapas in the lounge.
If you’re looking for Middle Eastern food, you will be pleasantly surprised to find authentic choices at the Falafel Bar. Choose delicious falafel with hummus and tahini, or shawarma and kabobs! Down on the town’s main beach, Playa Espadilla, stroll into the Buena Vista Beach Club Bar & Grill and grab a table on the sand to watch the surfers while you sip a rum and tonic. They’re open for three meals a day.
Pizza lovers can hit El Wagon for a taste of the locals’ favorite. Try their Caprichosa with prosciutto, salami, artichokes, and ham for about $14. Next door is the famous El Avion, where one of the Iran-Contra supply planes that flew contraband into Nicaragua has been repurposed into the focal point and bar. It’s a great family restaurant, and you can even rent a studio apartment just below it!
Emilio’s is another spot for ocean and jungle viewing. They feature exquisite breakfasts and lunches, with eggs Benedict under $8 and brioche French toast, plus an array of homemade baked goods and rich coffee. Café Agua Azul is an upstairs, open-air restaurant with a combination of great gringo and tico food at reasonable prices. The view is unforgettable!
Nightlife in Manuel Antonio
El Patio de Café Milagro features live music from local musicians Monday through Saturday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., as well as a delicious breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. If you’re missing your hometown sports bar, you can catch up on all the action at Billfish Sports Bar and Lounge. You can also play pool, foosball, or wrestle with their life-sized Jenga set!
In the evening, a fun place to chat with local expats is Dos Locos. You can usually find them swapping yarns over a cold Imperial beer and good Mexican chow. Live music appears there Wednesday nights and Saturdays at noon. You can also play trivia at Dos Locos on Thursday evenings. If you need to get your dance groove on, grab a cab and head down the hill to Quepos. The Cuban Republik Disco Lounge rocks hard into the wee hours there!
Manuel Antonio National Park
And now, the real reason over 150,000 people from around the world make their way to Manuel Antonio every year: the park! Even along the busy main trail through the park, you’ll still see a variety of sloths, monkeys, and tropical birds at every turn. The park is open every day but Tuesday. If you’ve enjoyed a visit to the park in the past, you’ll be pleased with the changes made there recently.
First, now you buy your tickets online at the SINAC government website. For foreigners, adult tickets are $18, and children two to 12 years old are $5.75, plus the national 13% tax. Holidays and the dry (tourist) season from December to April will see the largest crowds at the park. May, June, or July are less crowded, and the rains usually don’t begin until early afternoon then, if at all.
As the park only allows 1,500 people inside at a time, it’s important to plan well. Of course, as the animals feed at sunrise and sunset, an early arrival will offer the best chance of seeing the most critters. It is open from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Second, many more trails have been opened in the last few years, so you can explore many quiet corners. The park is just off the main road—turn to the left as you get close to the main beach, Playa Espadilla. You’ll be encouraged to park farther up the road by unscrupulous parking attendants as you approach the beach area. Do not pay attention to them, just smile and keep going to the beach area. They’re harmless but persistent. There is a large parking lot on the right side of the road just outside the park, where you can park for about $5. Although there are attendants, it’s still always a good idea to never leave anything in your (locked) car that might look enticing. Costa Rica is the land of Pura Vida, but car break-ins are sadly still prevalent.
If you haven’t secured a tour already, you’ll be approached by people offering to guide you. If you’re just a casual wildlife lover who wants to walk through to Playa Manuel Antonio, you’ll still see plenty of action. If you’re a serious nature aficionado, you may want to hire a guide, who knows where many hard-to-spot critters are usually found, has a viewing scope, and can tell you a lot about each specimen. Tour prices are roughly $55 each for adults, $50 for kids, plus 13% tax. It’s recommended that you book your tour at your hotel or online at www.manuelantoniopark.com before arriving at the park.
For environmental reasons, food is not permitted in the park, but sodas and water are. There are cafes available right outside the gates. Once inside the park, wide trails branch off from the main trail, each offering a slightly different combination of terrain and wildlife. At the end of the main trail, Playa Manuel Antonio is spectacular, with calm, blue-green waters where you can snorkel (if you bring your gear). Modern bath houses are available for a shower and a change of clothes. Keep an eye on your things, as the white-face monkeys and racoons are very accomplished thieves!
Many people spend their entire vacation time in Manuel Antonio as there are plenty of great things to do besides enjoy the park. There are a total of five beaches, all with slightly different activities to offer. You can learn to surf at Playa Espadilla. The Damas Island Estuary boat or kayaking tour is only a 15-minute drive from Quepos, and features a unique ecosystem of monkeys, sloths, snakes, and crocodiles! A short trip from Manuel Antonio to Marina Pez Vela in Quepos will let you charter a boat for world-class bill fishing, or inshore angling for grouper and snapper. Another option is to take a tour on one of the big catamarans for a breathtaking view of the cliffs and rocks along the shoreline, plus snorkeling and waterslides!
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