If all of Costa Rica’s beaches entered a beauty pageant, Manuel Antonio would surely be crowned winner. With more than 140,000 visitors annually, Manuel Antonio National Park receives more tourists than any other national park in the country. As soon as your feet sink into the soft white sand of Playa Manuel Antonio, and you jump into its gentle, turquoise waters, the reason why people flock here will become overwhelmingly clear.
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Playa Manuel Antonio is one of three stunning beaches on this idyllic coastline. Playa Espadilla, the main public beach, has decent waves for surfing at its northern end and smaller waves ideal for swimming and body surfing to the south. Playa Biesanz, an ideal spot for snorkeling at certain times of the year, is the northernmost beach, while the heavenly Manuel Antonio Beach lies within the national park.
Three main trails wind their way through Manuel Antonio National Park, offering unique opportunities for bird watching and viewing the rainforest wildlife. Although none of these trails are strenuous or menacing, a guide is recommended for those who seek detailed knowledge about the rainforest and the creatures that live there. No more than 600 visitors are allowed inside the park per day, so if you visit during peak season starting in December, make sure to arrive early in the morning.
The Manuel Antonio village center is a tiny collection of a few small shops, restaurants, bars and a multitude of street vendors selling souvenirs.
The hill that connects Manuel Antonio with the port city of Quepos is lined with the area’s finest hotels, spas, restaurants and bars with stunning views of the ocean below. Sunset cocktails here are a great way to end a sun-filled day at the national park.
Budget accommodations are abundant in Quepos, where you can also find great restaurants specializing in typical food and international cuisine, and a lively bar scene on weekends.
Planning a vacation to Manuel Antonio
When planning a vacation to Manuel Antonio, we recommend a 3 - 5 day stay in the Manuel Antonio area. There is plenty to keep you busy or gorgeous beaches for relaxation. The only reason that we do not recommend a longer stay is due to the fact that there is so much to do and see in Costa Rica, that a stay longer than 5 days would be taking away from your overall experience.
The vast majority of hotels in Manuel Antonio are located along the hillside. There are only a couple hotels on the beach. Some of our favorite mid-range hotels include The Falls Resort, Si Como No Resort, Byblos Hotel and The Shana Hotel. Our favorite luxury hotels include Si Como No, Arenas del Mar Resort, Parador Resort, Gaia Hotel and La Mansion Inn. If you are on a budget, we would recommend Cabinas Espadilla, Babaloo Inn or Hotel Verde Mar.
You will never be bored in Manuel Antonio, and apart from the national park, scores of activities await the adrenaline hungry. Rappeling, ziplining, whitewater rafting, scuba diving, and riverboat safaris through the Damas Island Estuary are just a few ways in which you can spend your energies here.
You do not need a rental car in Manuel Antonio. In fact, it can actually be a burden as parking spaces are limited. There is a beach bus that runs every half hour between Quepos and Manuel Antonio that costs around 50 cents. There are also plenty of cabs. In short, you will not have any difficulties getting around Manuel Antonio.
Reasons to visit
- The national park is loaded with wildlife.
- The beaches are gorgeous.
- There are few businesses on the beaches so it has a natural feel.
- There are more activities available from this beach area than any other beach area in Costa Rica.
- Most hotels and resorts are eco-friendly and built in tune with the surrounding nature.
- There is an excellent bus system which runs between Quepos and the beach every half hour.
- There is a wide variety of restaurants to choose from.
- The sport fishing is excellent most of the year.
- Great beach for swimming.
- The north end of the beach is perfect to learn to surf.
Reasons NOT to visit
- The majority of hotels and resorts are built on the hill.
- If you prefer beaches with a boardwalk.
- If you prefer beach front hotels versus jungle lined beaches.
- The end of August through the beginning of November can be fairly rainy.
- If wildlife does not intrigue you.
- There are no all-inclusive resorts.
- There is little nightlife.
- Monkeys are known to come down and steal food from the table (yes, this is true).
- While Manuel Antonio is home to a lot of wildlife and the national park, it is also one of the most popular beaches in Costa Rica. If you are looking for an off the beaten path experience, this is not the best beach for you.
- You prefer a lounge chair to a hammock.
- Your money will not go as far as other beach areas. Due to the popularity of Manuel Antonio and limited number of hotel rooms (there are plenty of hotels, but most have less than 20 rooms), accommodations in this area cost more than any other beach destination.
- You are using Liberia as an airport (5 – 5.5 hour drive in each direction).
How to get there
From San Jose: Compared to other beach destinations in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is a short 3-hour drive from San Jose. Go west on Autopista del Sol (the Caldera Highway) to the town of Orotina and take the Costanera Sur Highway after the Pavon toll booth. Take the exit to Jaco and drive straight to Manuel Antonio. Jaco makes a great stopover if hunger strikes during your drive.
Weather and packing list
Manuel Antonio temperatures remain fairly stable throughout the year, with average daytime highs in the upper 80s to low 90s and nighttime lows dropping to the upper 70s. During the dry season, which extends from December to April, you can expect glorious blue skies, heat and non-stop sunshine.
While working on your packing list, remember to pack your beach clothes including a swimsuit, hat, beach towel or sarong, flip flops, shorts, t-shirts, rain gear (particularly if you plan to visit during the wet season), insect repellent, and when sunbathing becomes your full time job, tons of sun block and aloe vera gel will come in handy.
Fun Fact: Manuel Antonio Beach is located within the national park and can only be visited with a paid entrance. This is the most deserted of the beaches and an absolute tropical paradise. Save your ticket from the hike and you will be able to go back afterwards and enjoy the secluded beach in the afternoon.