When you’re lying in the shade of a towering palm tree on Playa Espadilla Sur, a glorious, often empty beach backed by thick forest in Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park, the temptation to remain inert can be irresistible. But it would be a shame to travel all the way to this fascinating corner of Central America and do nothing but lie on the beach. Costa Rica has a whopping 26 national parks, so travelers can find adventure in every corner of the country. But Manuel Antonio, the country’s smallest yet most popular park, is probably the most accessible adventure hub for active travelers who are looking for more than just great beaches.
Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. The park itself is a 15-minute drive from the town of Quepos, which also has a small airport. A huge variety of hotels and adventure tour companies line the main road between the town and the national park. It isn’t a pedestrian friendly place but thankfully you’ll have plenty of opportunities for exercise in and around the park.
One could spend a month in the Manuel Antonio area and not get bored. You can hike through rain forests and beachcomb, take a canopy tour, go horseback riding, take a nighttime boat tour, snorkel or scuba dive, mountain bike, go on a bird watching and wildlife hike, kayak, go white-water rafting and more.
The national park ($10 entry fee, closed on Mondays) is a great place to hike, especially early in the morning before the heat and humidity become unbearable. There’s a terrific circular loop trail (about 1.5 km) in the park you can take from Playa Espadilla Sur, my favorite beach, or Playa Manuel Antonio, the park’s most popular beach, to Punta Catedral, where there’s an amazing view.
If you’ve never tried zip-lining through the jungle, this is a great place to take the plunge without breaking the bank. A company called Rainforest Adventures offers a combo zip-line and tram tour combo where you can zip line over the trees and also take a 30-minute tram ride for spectacular views of the rainforest for $60. Canopy Safari offers zip-lining along with a combo package that includes open bar, if you want to glide above the trees and then get plastered down below, and Titi Canopy Tours, which offers day and night zip-lining, claims they are the closest to Manuel Antonio park.
Kayaking/White Water Rafting
Through companies like Iguana Tours or Jade Tours you can hire a kayak and guide who will lead you through the mangrove forests to nearby Damas Island, where you can snorkel and swim. Or if you’d rather go white water rafting, Adventure Manuel Antonio offers a half-day tour on the Savegre River, including breakfast and a picnic lunch for $89.
Take a Walking Tour of the National Park
The park itself is just 3 square miles but it has rain forest, white sand beaches and an abundance of wildlife, including howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys that will come within steps of you, sloths, iguanas, agoutis and at least 350 types of birds. Arrive early and hire a guide right outside the entrance to the park. The guides typically charge about $20 for a two-hour guided hike and, with their local knowledge and telescopes, they will help you see wildlife that you’d never see on your own. If you need a guide, you’ll see plenty of available guides standing outside the entrance to the park. We hired Flander Sanchez (email@example.com) and I thought he was terrific.
Playa Espadilla Sur
Most tourists flock to Playa Manuel Antonio (PMA), but keep walking along the trail and you’ll come across this huge, spectacular beach. Both beaches are lovely but while PMA is often jam-packed, Espadilla Sur is blissfully quiet. Unlike PMA, it’s also easy to find a nice spot in the shade. Our guide told us not to swim on the day we were there in mid-February because a crocodile had been spotted in the water that morning, but from what I understand, that is a rare occurrence. If you’re up for a long walk on an empty beach, this is the place to do it.
Fincas Naturales Wildlife Refuge
This is a private, 25-acre wildlife refuge near Manuel Antonio, across from the Si, Como No Hotel, that was once a teak plantation. They offer five different tours of the refuge, ranging from $15-$45, and on any given day you might see snakes, lizards, frogs, sloths, monkeys, porcupines, armadillos and dozens of varieties of birds. They also have a butterfly garden that features dozens of types of butterflies.
Where to Stay
This is a luxury hotel with spacious and stylish rooms comparable to a Westin or Hyatt. There are extensive hiking trails on the grounds and if you’re out early in the morning and late in the afternoon, you’ll come across howler monkeys and plenty of birds. The food is also quite good and the pools have amazing views of the Pacific. From $199. http://www.hotelparador.com/
Arenas del Mar
Also in the high-end category, super deluxe Arenas del Mar is right on a private beach and within walking distance of Manuel Antonio. The rooms have 400 thread count linens, high-end furnishings and decks with stunning views of the national park. The American owners of Arenas del Mar also own Finca Rosa Blanca, a gorgeous coffee plantation and inn near San Jose. From $165. http://www.arenasdelmar.com/index.html
This is a condominium hotel with 12 one or two bedroom villas that has rave reviews on Trip Advisor and is one of Fodor’s starred recommendations. Starting at just $95 per night, this place is a real bargain. From $95. http://www.villasnicolas.com/index.php
Hotel Plaza Yara
This is a small, all-suites hotel that features custom made furniture and rooms with kitchenettes just a five-minute drive from Manuel Antonio. With rates starting at $75 per night, it’s one of the best options in this price category. From $75. http://www.hotelplazayara.com/index.php
Getting Around: Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. Manuel Antonio isn’t a pedestrian friendly area but I got around using the cheap local bus and the free shuttle provided for guests at the Hotel Parador. Taxis charge about $5-10 for rides up to about 15 minutes away. We hired a private cab driver to drive us from Heredia, near San Jose, to Manuel Antonio and it cost $150 for a family of four. Buses are much cheaper but the 2.5 hour drive will be more like 3.5 hours on an express bus (slower still on a local bus) that you can catch at the Coca-Cola bus terminal at Calle 16 between Avenidas 1 and 3.
Seasonality: The high season is December-April. You might save a little bit of money and still enjoy dry weather if you go May-August, but September and October are very rainy. Be prepared for temperatures in the upper 80s or low 90s with humidity year round.
Safety: Manuel Antonio is generally a safe area but you’ll notice that many of the restaurants and hotels have signs warning guests not to leave valuables in cars. Safety standards aren’t quite the same as they are in the U.S. but if you choose a tour company that has a good reputation and listen carefully when they give you tips, you shouldn’t have a problem on any of the adventure-related tours.
Note: You won’t find traditional street names and addresses around Manuel Antonio. On our scouting trip this didn’t prove to be a problem as cab drivers know how to find just about any beach, hotel, restaurant, store or attraction you might want to visit. If you’re driving and rent a GPS, it will recognize the names of my most hotels.
[Photo Credits: Dave Seminara, Rainforest Adventures]