The Skinny: Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the premier ecotourism destinations in the world. That means that the park itself can be quite crowded. Even so it’s worth a visit, but there are also other great destinations and activities in the area.
Manuel Antonio National Park is popular for some very good reasons. It is only about a 2-hour drive from the capital San Jose, it is easily accessible and has good infrastructure, it’s gorgeous, and it houses incredible biodiversity. Although it is the country’s smallest national park, it is home to well over 100 species of mammals, 184 species of birds, and countless varieties of reptiles, amphibians, and insects. And did I mention it’s gorgeous?
It’s also crowded. Beauty and popularity have their price, after all. The park, which is closed on Mondays, making Tuesdays its most frenetic day, has decided to limit visitors to 600 on weekdays and 800 on weekends. That’s a great thing. But it also means that if you go in the afternoon you might not get in. Everyone knows this, and knows that the best wildlife viewing is in the morning before the heat of the day, so the entrance gate looks like a rugby scrum come opening time. Now if you’re like me, something of a misanthrope who finds large congregations of people not only distasteful but downright disturbing, it’s a bit of a disappointment.
Entrance is about 10 USD to the park, but if you want a guide it’s going to run you about 45 USD/person for a group tour, 65 USD/person for a private one. Do you get a guide? Yes. Now, our guide was – oddly for someone in her profession – extremely reticent, happy to show you an animal to tick off on your life list, but giving nothing about its natural history or anything else. You want anecdotes, you want background. We got unlucky with our guide, but I heard others who were much more informative and engaging. It’s not hard to eavesdrop, either, since guided groups are bouncing off each other like balls in a pinball machine, and wherever something is spotted every group in the area flocks around their guide’s field telescope for a view. Without those telescopes, though, and the communication between guides when an animal is seen, you’re probably going to miss a lot.
Your tour ends at the beach, where groups cluster before slowly dispersing to other areas. Many people find it a good time to have a snack, and the white-faced capuchin monkeys know this. Completely acclimated to human presence, they bandy about the trees looking for handouts and are thus easy to photograph – in fact, the difficulty lies in getting a photo of them without another person getting a photo of them being in the frame. People do feed them (and in a sudden burst of loquacity our guide told me that she’s often seen people giving them food while the monkeys were comfortably perched on a prominent “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS” sign), but it turns out you don’t have to actively feed the monkeys to actually feed them – they’re perfectly happy to steal from you.
The beaches at the park are stunning – three separate crescents of soft sand backed by dense tropical forest with rocky outcroppings looming in the distance – and all linked by short foot paths. We opted for a picnic on Playa Espadilla, which is a long stretch of beach that offers shady spots under the arching trees. Within minutes of breaking out the food the white-faced capuchins were after it with a fearlessness bordering on aggression, and one made off with a bag of chips. There’s something infinitely depressing about watching a wild monkey sitting in a tree munching on a bag of Doritos.
The raccoons were more subtle, and employed a classic diversionary technique. One ambled into the area, looking rather adorable, and when our attention was on him two others raced in to grab a sandwich. I swear it was a coordinated attack. And it worked.
The surf was rather rough when we were visiting, and there were fairly strong rip tides on Playa Espadilla. If you have small children, Playa Manuel Antonio, a bit deeper into the park, is more protected and is a much safer spot.
There are toilets and running water at both Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Espadilla, but not at the others. To return to the parking area you need to cross a small stream that becomes roughly thigh-deep at full high tide. If you don’t want to get wet, there are small ferry boats that will take you across for a nominal fee.
Other Things to Do in the Area:
There are a number of tours in and near Manuel Antonio, everything from butterfly and spice gardens to horseback riding and ATV tours, and your hotel or rental property will help you arrange them. Chances are, though, you’re going to want to spend some time on the beach.
An absolutely lovely beach is Biesanz, just past the Issimo Suites on the road leading to the Hotel Parador. There is parking on the shoulder of the road, and a self-appointed ‘guard’ who will keep an eye on your car for a small fee (about 4 USD). An easy 5-10 minute walk leads down to the beach, which is small but uncrowded, and offers some shade. On the path we encountered a small troop of endangered squirrel monkeys munching fruit in the trees. You can rent kayaks and snorkeling equipment there pretty cheaply, and while the snorkeling is not stellar, it’s worthwhile. At low tide there are great tide pools at the end of the beach.
Rainmaker is a private reserve about twenty minutes’ drive outside of Quepos, the local town, which offers three separate tours – a canopy walk, an evening reptile and amphibian hike, and an early morning birding tour. You can do a self-guided walk for only 15 USD/person, or have a guide for 35 USD/person. Our guide Josue was very friendly and informative, but there was a practical limitation to how much we could interact with him; there was another group – parents with a teenaged daughter – on the tour, and since they weren’t slowed by young kids, they were frequently ahead of us. This meant that on the narrow trails they got a lot of information we missed out on. Either way you do it though, guided or unguided, the canopy walk is simply beautiful. The trail follows a trout-filled mountain stream (unexpected in tropical Costa Rica, but there it is), passing waterfalls and leading to a deep swimming hole. A short steep stretch (you’ll need to carry any toddlers or have a baby backpack) brings you to the long canopy walks. Animal life abounds, and you never know what you might see. I actually much preferred Rainmaker to Manuel Antonio.
We took a half-day Planet Dolphin catamaran cruise, which was quite good and offered the only really decent snorkeling of the trip. The cruise leaves Quepos’ main port and heads south toward the national park, circling an island and stopping for lunch and snorkeling in a sheltered bay. All of the other tour boats do the same, however, so the one rock pile that shelters fish also shelters dozens of snorkelers, so the scene is a lot like that at the national park – crowded. The crew aboard the cat was extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and although we only caught brief glimpses of dolphins, there is also the possibility of spotting humpback whales. Our lunch of fish brochettes, pasta and fresh fruit was excellent. The price of 75 USD/person is a bit steep, but it’s a worthwhile trip. We were a bit leery of having toddlers teetering about on a lurching boat, but the railings make it quite safe and we never felt like the kids were in any danger. They spent most of the day on the trampoline in the bow of the boat, racing and bouncing back and forth.
We visited the Finca Naturales (Nature Farm) refuge late one afternoon, and though they were soon closing to prepare for their Jungle Night Walk, the guide graciously agreed to show us around. The reserve is located right on the main (and only) road to the park, directly across from Si Como No Resort and Spa. It’s advisable to visit in the morning, when the butterflies are most active, but the tour was still fascinating and very informative.
The Titi Canopy Tour was the highlight of our trip in Manuel Antonio. It’s a professional, well-operated outfit, and our two young guides, code-named Bumblebee and Porcupine, were outstanding. The absolute antithesis of Manuel Antonio, we two couples were the only people on the tour. Before even setting off on the trail to the first zip line we saw a chestnut-mandibled toucan (our only toucan of the trip), and from there it just got better. Poison dart frogs, trogons, mot-mots, howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, a three-toed sloth and a caiman were among the wildlife we encountered. The zip lines are fantastic and the views marvelous. I can’t say enough about this tour. Just do it.
A note on fishing: Charter fishing boats are expensive anywhere, and a half day out of Quepos will cost you a minimum of 600 USD. There is a guy, though, an old stoner from Florida, who runs a Hobie Cat out of Playa Espadilla and who will take you out for a couple of hours for 25 USD/person. While you’re on the cruise you’re free to fish if you like, and I heard reports of excellent fishing from his boat. If you want to grab a couple of hours of fishing while the kids nap but don’t want to spend a bundle, you might want to look into the Hobie-stoner man.
And a note on crocodiles: There are crocodiles all over the place, so don’t let your kids…. No. Actually, if you are driving back to San Jose to catch your flight out, take the coastal route and stop at the bridge over the Tarcoles River. Dozens of crocodiles line the banks here and cruise languidly in the river. This was also the only place we spotted scarlet macaws. Definitely worth a stop. Try lunch at Outback Jack’s, a funky roadside place with really good food.
Where to Stay:
While there are a number of excellent hotels near Manuel Antonio, it’s likely that you’re going to be there for at least a week, so it’s probably better (and perhaps cheaper) to rent a house. VRBO.com and Homeaway.com are great places to start, and both have good search filters so you can tailor your search to your needs. You can find places ranging from 700 USD/week to more than you care to imagine, but one thing to keep in mind is that, particularly if you have kids who are young enough to need a nap, you may be spending a considerable amount of time at your rental property. If you find one that has hiking trails, beach access, or even a large garden area, you might not have to stray far to have excellent wildlife viewing. Actually, some of my most memorable wildlife experiences were while walking near our house.
We rented a house called Casa Sonidos del Agua, a place straight out of Architectural Digest with stunning Pacific views. It would have been way, way beyond budget had we been alone, but split between three families it was reasonably affordable. One important item to know: Every property we contacted and asked for a discount gave one, ranging from 200-500 USD/week. Don’t be afraid to say that you really like the place but it’s slightly over your budget. Chances are they will reduce the price. The photographs below were all taken either from the house itself or within a 15-minute walk.
Where to Eat:
Ronnie’s Place was just up the hill from our rental house, so we hit it on our first night. Amazing ocean views, particularly at sunset, make it a popular destination despite its location on a small, deeply rutted dirt road. Good seafood and great Sangria. Somewhat pricey. Service is slowish, but your kids can run around out in the open and watch the geckos scuttle across the walls and ceiling while you’re waiting for your food. Recommended.
A great place with kids is the Falls Garden Café. The restaurant is part of a hotel, and opens up onto extensive gardens with water elements throughout. The kids wandered about the garden, finding interesting insects, geckos, frogs; even a coati shuffled through the undergrowth. One caveat: there are flights of stairs that don’t have bannisters that lead up to some of the hotel rooms, and there are some spots on the paths where it would be easy for a toddler to tumble into the water. Keep a close eye on the kids. The food was quite good – I recommend the avocado tempura and popcorn shrimp with four sauces – and service was friendly and attentive. Highly recommended.
El Patio de Café Milagro has it absolutely dialed in for kids. Little touches like serving the kids’ drinks in covered, non-spill cups and bringing them a little something to snack on as soon as we sat down tell you they know what they’re doing. There is a charming garden courtyard in the back of the restaurant, and the kids can amuse themselves in the gift shop. The food was out-out-outstanding. I’m a former chef and a restaurant reviewer, and I could tell immediately that the folks in the kitchen were dedicated to their craft. Service was marvelous – the best we had in Costa Rica. Very, very highly recommended.
Well, folks, if you’re headed to the Manuel Antonio area I hope you find this useful. It really is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime destination. I hope to make it at least twice-in-a-lifetime.