Is Manuel Antonio worth visiting? Guide to Costa Rica’s most popular park

Capuchin on Manuel Antonio Beach in Costa Rica

At first glance, Manuel Antonio National Park seems like something out of a movie. Tropical jungle-fringed beaches with turquoise water. Sloths galore. Mangrove forests that protect some of the most biodiverse landscapes in the Americas. The question of “is Manuel Antonio worth visiting?” seems absurd on the surface.

But then reality sets in. Costa Rica’s smallest national park squeezes an insane number of people and monkeys together on just a few kilometers of trail. By lunchtime, the hanger sets in, but the only food kiosk in the park looks wildly unappetizing. So you head to the beach to relax for a bit, but quickly discover it’s not safe to swim in the strong rip currents.

I have very mixed feelings about Manuel Antonio National Park. In this post, I’ll give you all the details to decide if it’s worth a spot on your Costa Rica itinerary — and how to make the most of your visit.

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Is Manuel Antonio worth visiting? The short answer.

If you skip Manuel Antonio, you won't get to hang out on this gorgeous beach
Playa Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica is definitely worth a stop.

If you don’t want to read the next 2,000 words to help you decide whether to go to Manuel Antonio, here’s the TL;DR.

Manuel Antonio is worth a day of your trip if:

  • You’re already heading south from San Jose
  • You aren’t going to visit Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park
  • You don’t have time to check out the beaches further south (Uvita, Domenical, Ojochal)
  • You want an accessible jungle adventure where you’ll still see loads of wildlife — Manuel Antonio is set up for wheelchair users, parents with small children, and non-hikers
  • You’re seeking an LGBTQ+-friendly nightlife scene
  • You have extremely limited time (one week or less) to backpack in Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio is not worth the diversion if:

  • You would not otherwise be traveling south of San Jose
  • You have time to visit the Osa Peninsula and southern coast
  • You want to do long or challenging hikes in the Costa Rican jungle
  • Your priority is seeing rare wildlife like tapirs, squirrel monkeys, peccaries, and vipers
  • You have no tolerance for crowds or convoluted transportation logistics

What’s great about Manuel Antonio

Sunrise from Playa Espadilla
Playa Espadilla is outside the park, so you can get there earlier to watch the sunrise.

I don’t want to be all negative in this post — the truth is, Manuel Antonio National Park is a beautiful beach/jungle destination. I saw tons of wildlife, especially capuchin, agouti and coati, with very little effort.

The beaches are beautiful, and only one of them is super crowded.

And the hiking trails give you a diversity of perspectives on the landscape. You can hike through dense jungle, to coastal cliffs, sweeping views, mangrove forests or waterfalls.

Plus, the park is very reasonably sized to see the entire thing in a single day. I was the third person through the gates at 7 am and I left the park around 2:30, having hiked every single trail. I even hung out on the beach for a couple hours. It’s nice to go to a park that isn’t overwhelming with trails!

The beaches outside the park are free to visit and also pretty nice. They’re not quite as spectacular as the ones inside the gates, but they’re longer and safer for swimming. The sunrise from Espadilla Beach was one of the best beach sunrises I’ve seen.

The area around Manuel Antonio has a fantastic international dining scene. If you can’t stomach another gallo pinto, you’ll appreciate the foodie possibilities in this area.

Finally, the park’s accessibility is a major plus if you’re trying to cram a lot into your Costa Rica trip. It’s only two hours from San Jose, an hour from Jaco, or four hours from Monteverde/La Fortuna. There are tons of shuttles and buses. If you’re self-driving you don’t need a 4×4, as all the roads are paved. You’ll find all the tourist services you could possibly want — laundry, good internet, tons of accommodation choices, gas stations, ATMs, etc. (This is a big advantage over the Osa Peninsula, where tourist services are fledgling at best.)

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What’s not so great about Manuel Antonio

One of the in-park beaches at 8 am, before the crowds showed up
I took this photo at 8 am and already there were lots of families at the beach.

The biggest reason people ask, is Manuel Antonio worth visiting, is the crowds. Because the park is so small and accessible, all 1,300 daily visitors are crammed into the same handful of trails running from the entrance to the beaches.

Plus, most people visit the park with a guide to make it easier to find wildlife. That means those crowds tend to cluster in huge groups that move painfully slowly. And the magic of watching a sloth through a scope tends to dissipate a bit when you’re one of ten groups watching the same sloth through a scope.

While Playa Espadilla Sur is pleasantly quiet, the most beautiful beach in the park — Playa Manuel Antonio — is mobbed by 9 am. Like, you can’t even really walk on the beach without stumbling over people.

In addition to the crowds, the climate is a big downside of visiting the park. The central coast of Costa Rica doesn’t really have a dry season. It’s painfully hot, humid, and rainy all year round. Highs tend to be in the mid-80’s Fahrenheit, but humidity makes it feel much hotter.

Most people visit Manuel Antonio hoping to see wildlife. But the capuchin monkeys are trouble! They aren’t shy at all, and they’ll steal anything you leave unattended. That means you have to keep your backpack, water, etc. with you at all times or tie it very securely to a tree if you’re swimming. Additionally, the monkey problem means you can’t carry any food into the park (your bag will be thoroughly searched on entry). Your only dining option is one miserable kiosk with overpriced snacks. And if you look the other way for even 10 seconds while you’re munching, the monkeys will nab your snack!

Finally, the geography of Manuel Antonio makes transportation a pain. You’ll arrive in the town of Quepos, about 7 km away from the park. There’s only one road — a narrow, winding road with no sidewalks — leading into the park. The majority of hotels and restaurants are along this road, and because it’s so dangerous at night due to blind curves and no lights, you’re pretty much stuck at your hotel after dark. And trust me, due to the insane traffic, you really won’t want to go back and forth between Quepos and the park more than once a day.

What to do in Manuel Antonio and how to not hate it

The Sloth Trail is one of the best places to see wildlife in the park
I didn’t see any sloths on the Sloth Trail, but there were plenty of monkeys and birds.

Ok, so you’ve decided you want to visit Manuel Antonio National Park. How do you make it the best experience possible?

Here are a few tips to maximize the good parts of the park and minimize the annoyances:

  • As soon as you know what day you’re visiting, book a ticket for 7 am. This gives you the best chance of seeing wildlife, which is most active in the hour after sunrise.
  • If you’re staying along the road from Quepos, take the public bus to the park instead of dealing with nightmare parking logistics. You can check bus times here — I’d recommend being on the bus before 6 am.
  • You can get breakfast at one of the cafes outside the park gates in Manuel Antonio Village, which I highly recommend so you aren’t starving by 10 am.
  • Get to the gates by 6:45 am — 6:30 would be better — to make sure you’re one of the first people into the park.
  • Do the popular trails first. The Sloth Trail is a great starting point — wildlife is prolific and it gets very crowded by 9 am.
  • Trails like Punta Catedral, Punta Escondido and Sendero Miradores never get as crowded. Save those for later in the day when the main corridors are uncomfortably busy.
  • There are two Manuel Antonio beaches: Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Escondido Sur. Head to Playa Manuel Antonio early, take some quick photos, but spend your beach time at Playa Escondido Sur. Just be sure to tie up all your stuff on trees!
  • But, the bathrooms and changing rooms at Playa Manuel Antonio are way better.
  • Bring plenty of drinking water and rain gear. Expect to get rained on, even if it looks sunny in the morning.
  • Personally I’d recommend visiting Manuel Antonio without a guide. This will allow you to start earlier and explore more of the park, plus it’s much cheaper. The downside is you won’t see as much wildlife — so if this is your only chance to see sloths, you might want a guide. But if you have the option, save your guide money for Corcovado, where guiding standards are higher and you’ll see more wildlife.
  • Skip the kiosk in the park — plan to leave in time for a late lunch (so like 2-3 pm). If you get an early start you’ll be able to see everything before then, and you won’t have to guard your food from monkeys.
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Logistics for visiting Manuel Antonio National Park

Agouti are one of the most common animals to see in Costa Rica
My first agouti! They were everywhere in Manuel Antonio.

Manuel Antonio National Park tickets cost $18 per adult. You must purchase tickets online in advance, which you can do on the park website. Tickets sell out well in advance, especially for the prime entrance times.

You can also book an official guide through the site. There are many unofficial guides at the park entrance, but they aren’t recommended if you really want to learn about the wildlife.

The park is open every day except Tuesdays, from 7 am to 4 pm. You must bring your passport to enter the park. The entrance line starts forming for folks with 7 am tickets around 6:30 am, and it takes time (prime wildlife viewing time!) to get everyone through, so you’ll want to be at the front of the line.

You can’t walk 300 feet in Manuel Antonio without finding a map. It’s impossible to get lost. The more rugged trails often close for maintenance or due to safety issues (it’s hard to maintain trails on steep ocean cliffs in a very wet climate), but you won’t run into those issues on the boardwalks.

If you insist on driving all the way to the park — and I really, really don’t recommend it — beware of the parking touts and scams. There is no official parking, but there are many unofficial lots that you’ll inevitably be directed to. You’ll have to squeeze in to a freakishly small space in heavy traffic, and you’ll pay through the nose (at least 4,000 colones) for the privilege of not getting your car broken into. Getting out of the lots is even worse in the afternoon. Seriously, just take the bus.

How to get to Manuel Antonio

A beach trail with capuchin everywhere
If you try to drive all the way in to the park, you’ll get stuck in traffic and have to deal with parking touts.

Most people visit Manuel Antonio in their own cars or using the tourist shuttles that connect major destinations around Costa Rica. The park is also reachable by public transport — buses run from San Jose and up and down Route 34 on the coast.

Regardless of how you arrive, your first stop will be Quepos. This rough-around-the-edges fishing town has amenities like cheap gas stations, ATM’s, and lots of restaurants. Some people visiting the park choose to stay in town, where guesthouses are cheaper and better value. The downside is you’ll be further from the park. (Solo female travelers should also note that nightlife in Quepos tends to be of the “drunk sailors” variety, and it’s not a great place to hit the town alone.) If you plan to self-cater, pick up groceries in Quepos before heading toward the park.

From Quepos, you can drive or take the public bus along the road that connects to the park. Your guesthouse will probably be somewhere along this road. Download Google Maps offline so you can see when you’re near your destination. If you’re using a shuttle, it should drop you off at your guesthouse.

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It is not a good idea to drive along this road at night, or walk along it at any time. There are no sidewalks, tons of blind curves, extremely steep climbs, and an alarmingly-fast speed limit.

If you self-drive, once your car is in a secure lot, I wouldn’t touch it for the duration of your stay. You’ll have a less stressful visit if you use the public bus to get back and forth along the road to the park.

Where to stay and eat around Manuel Antonio National Park

A colorful bird in the jungle in Costa Rica
You’ll see colorful birdlife in the forest along the Quepos road.

The area around Manuel Antonio is well-set up for travelers, especially if you have a bigger budget. There are tons of luxury hotels and resorts along the Quepos-Manuel Antonio road. 5-star dining is easy to find as well. Most of these places are not kid-friendly — check in advance if you’re traveling with little ones.

If that’s not your vibe, there are some budget options. Value for money is not great in this area, though.

I stayed at Hostel Plinio in a private room. The room was around $50 a night. It was fine, and probably the best you can do in the area. But compared to some of the much nicer properties I stayed at in less-touristy areas for just a bit more money, I’d consider it poor value. The bed was very comfortable, the breakfast was good, they have a pool, and their taco bar has acceptable and reasonably priced food. The downsides were staff who seemed to go out of their way to be unhelpful, and a ton of traffic noise at night.

The one budget restaurant not to miss is Falafel Bar. It’s got a great patio, awesome batidos and juices, and the falafel is delicious. You can really load up on toppings. I walked out of there spending less than $10 on a huge lunch with drinks.

If you’re brave enough for the sketchy drive in the dark, dinner or a sundowner drink at Ronny’s Place is a classic Manuel Antonio experience. It’s not the cheapest — most dishes are around 10,000 colones — but you’re paying for the view over the Pacific at sunset.

Final thoughts on “is Manuel Antonio worth visiting?”

The lovely Playa Espadilla Sur
If you like quiet beaches, Manuel Antonio is worth visiting – as long as you can get there by 7 am.

I probably would have been more excited about Manuel Antonio National Park if I hadn’t just come from the Osa Peninsula. I had some of the best wildlife encounters in my life around Osa — experiences that compete with African safaris. Manuel Antonio just doesn’t have the same density of wildlife, far-flung remoteness, or rugged travel logistics that make Osa so special.

But I don’t regret giving Manuel Antonio a try. There are a few species I only saw there, including agouti and a small deer that I couldn’t identify precisely. I really enjoyed wandering through the mangroves, and the hike to Punta Escondido was spectacular.

I’d say overall the park is worth visiting if you have the time. It wouldn’t make the top of my priority list for Costa Rica, and it’s certainly not a place I care to return to.

Plus, most travelers aren’t going to want to endure the brutal drive – boat – boat trip required to explore the Osa Peninsula. Manuel Antonio may not compete in wildlife, but at least it won’t leave your entire body sore for days following a very rough trip across the open ocean in a tiny speedboat.

The key to enjoying your visit to Manuel Antonio is having realistic expectations — it’s going to be crowded, sloths aren’t that easy to find on your own, the monkeys are more annoying than entertaining, the traffic sucks, and it’s hot and humid. But all those annoyances dissipate when you see the stunning coastal cliffs from one of the viewpoints, or have your first close encounter with a curious coati. As long as you’re prepared, Manuel Antonio can be really magical.

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Is Manuel Antonio worth visiting? That depends. It's the most accessible National Park in Costa Rica where you can see monkeys, sloths, and other wildlife. And the beaches are beautiful. The only downsides are the crowds, heat, humidity and traffic. If you're backpacking or traveling in Central America, this is a bucket-list stop. #travel #costarica

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Terri
Terri
1 day ago

I visited San Jose and the Pacific Coadt on my 2 trips to CR. But I wish I had toured a National PArk.

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