black and white capuchin monkey sat in a tree in manuel antonio national park
Do you need a guide in Manuel Antonio National Park? I took both guided and self-guided tours in Costa Rica and I am very pro-guide because, with a guide, I always saw significantly more. However, if there is one park where I think you can skip the guide, it’s here. This is because, kind of unfortunately, this park is very popular so all you need to do is find the closest groups of tourists looking up and follow suit.
Millennium Manuel Antonio – if El Faro is fully booked (it’s popular) and Makanda is outside your budget, Millennium  is another extremely popular hotel in Manuel Antonio. Located with views of the Manuel Antonio National Park (yep, you’re that close), you’re in a great spot and the rooms are bright and clean.
sunset in quepos over the beach in Costa Rica
The sunsets on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast are some of my favourite in the world offering a hot, fiery orange glow as the sun sinks behind the horizon. And what’s especially beautiful about the sunset in Manuel Antonio is how little effort is required to see it.  

This is the start of a series of posts about my time in Costa Rica and further afield. I’ll link below as I post more or you can sign up to my newsletter here. Until then, here are some of my older posts from my first trip to Central America.

10 Things To Do In Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Go early – especially if your base is Quepos, you’re in the perfect location to get there before the tour buses roll in. And they do roll in. 
Banged Up In A Panama Prison (True Story)
In this guide, I’ll give you a quick run down of the essential things to do in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica. This should keep you busy for a two or three night stay in the area. 

1. Spot sloths (and other wildlife) in Manuel Antonio National Park

sloth in a tree in costa rica national park
Here are the guides I’ve found very helpful for planning my various trips to Costa Rica and Central America.
12 Quick Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica
The Only Packing List You’ll Ever Need (with printable checklist)
Travel Insurance: Don’t get Screwed by the Small Print

2. Walk the nature trails in Manuel Antonio National Park

Also a book nerd? You might like my posts about how to read more books and the best travel books.
El Faro – The rooms are a bit snug but considering you’re inside a long, narrow container, they’re really well laid out with a bed fronting the floor to ceiling window followed by a kitchenette and a bathroom at the back. The breakfast was excellent and that floor to ceiling window – out to sea and serving sunsets daily. I’d highly recommend El Faro for location and experience.
And South America here if you’re on a longer trip
Sure, Quepos town seems to have grown up to support the tourists who come through here but that also means there are some excellent choices for souvenir shopping as well as cafes, restaurants and bars. 
Don’t forget your swimsuit – there are a couple of hidden beaches inside Manuel Antonio National Park so make sure you wear your swimsuit and pack a sarong or quick-dry towel to dry off after your swim (I pack one similar to this).
There’s a long and intriguing history around the CIA/Iran Contra plane that has been turned into El Avion pub and restaurant in Manuel Antonio.  These days, it’s the sale of seafood dishes that keep customers flocking to this plane-turned-restaurant. Whether you’re there for the history or the food (or both), it will be memory-making.
These two options come up on a lot of lists for things to do in Manuel Antonio so I thought I’d give them a passing mention:
Sandals/flip-flops should be fine – I walked the sloth trail and the mangrove trail and did it in flip-flops. Normally in a park or forest I’d have my trail runners on but the trails were well cleared and a local guide (rightly) recommended flip-flops for this visit, to make the beach stop easier. Here’s my favourite travel shoes, by type, if you’re interested.
While Manuel Antonio isn’t the best place to surf in Costa Rica, it does have some fun breach breaks that are perfect for beginners. 

3. Visit the beaches in Manuel Antonio

View of sandy beach through the trees in Manuel Antonio National Park
How to do it: Shop around to find one that suits you. The cruise I went on was nice and relatively sedate (I’m getting old) with a beautifully clean boat and excellent crewe. The price included a very good plate of food to keep the customers from turning sloppy, as well as plenty of fresh, tropical fruit (and punch, of course). This is the tour I took, which I highly recommend.
Universal Trail – this is an accessible trail with a good wooden pathway and braille in places.
I stayed in Quepos town in a container hotel and definitely recommend it for its quirkiness. I have a couple more recommendations below. When you do search, keep in mind that some of the hotels in Manuel Antonio meander up into the hills and away from the beach, and may be too far to walk to bars and restaurants.
Good to know: you might hear Manuel Antonio and Quepos used together. While a local geography expert might disagree with me, for tourist purposes, Manuel Antonio is the name of the broader area, beaches and national park while Quepos is the small town filled with hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars closest to Manuel Antonio National park. You can walk from Quepos to the beach and the National Park so it’s a great base in the area.
Don’t take food inside – no, it’s not a ruse to get you to eat at the cafe in the park, it’s because those damn monkeys can open a backpack zip faster than a pickpocket on the Subway in New York. Lost your chocolate bar? Check out the monkey in the trees enjoying a snack. And yes, he’s probably wearing your sunglasses and hat. 

4. Watch the sunset over Espadilla Beach

plane thats been turned into a restaurant in the jungle in manuel antonio in costa rica
Cathedral point – a slightly longer trail that takes you out onto a small island area for great sea views. 

5. Explore Quepos town

How does a walk in the national park followed by a swim at the beach sound for a day in Manuel Antonio? With two beaches  hidden inside Manuel Antonio National Park, you can do just that. And when your park entry ticket has expired, you can always visit the beach that fronts Quepos town. 
You can read more about the history and restaurant here as well as find out how to book.

6. Take surf lessons in Manuel Antonio

sunset in quepos over the beach in Costa Rica
Suft in Costa Rica or just sit back and watch the sunsets

Makanda By The Sea – Expect suites, lofts and villas at this 5-star adult-only hotel in Manuel Antonio. If you’re after luxury hotels in Costa Rica, this is going to provide it. Risk: you may not want to leave the hotel to explore nearby.
sloth in a tree in costa rica national park

7. Head up the coast to Jaco

Main trail – this runs parallel to the sloth trail and is a good option if you don’t want to walk in and out on the same trail. 
infinity pool with views out to sea in Costa Rica
How to do it: Since it’s walking distance from Quepos, you can take yourself to Manuel Antonio National Park, Although I almost always recommend going wildlife spotting with a guide, this park is pretty busy and filled with guides and groups. For that reason, it’s one of the few times I think it’s ok to go without a guide. All you need to do is find a guide pointing upwards and follow your gaze where they point.

8. Take a catamaran booze cruise

Selina Manuel Antonio (Hostel) – Located in a forest area, Selina is a bit far from the beach to walk but there is a pool on-site as well as a communal kitchen, restaurant and bar. Selina is a chain you’ll see throughout Central America and has varying standards but this one gets decent reviews. There are private and dorm rooms available.
Guide To Tortuguero National Park Costa Rica

9. Dine in a Cold War Plane

plane thats been turned into a restaurant in the jungle in manuel antonio in costa rica
How to do it: You can book lessons in advance online but the better thing to do is turn up and speak to one of the local surf instructors at the beach. You’ll also be able to make a better plan based on the weather and the waves when you visit. If you do prefer to book ahead, this surf school is popular.
The light woke me. I blinked, looked out of the bus window and smiled as I saw slithers of golden beach and aqua ocean glinting beyond the shade of the trees.
101 Tips for Cheap Flights

10. Sleep in a container hotel

Even the air had changed.
How to do it:  You can find out more and book El Faro here. I have a bit more detail about the hotel in my where to stay in Manuel Antonio section below. Including a picture of the infinity pool. 

A couple of extra suggestion for things to do in Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio Beach is also within the national park, on the opposite side of Cathedral Point. The beach is reached by walking the Cathedral Point trail, making it more remote and less busy. Take provisions if you’re going to spent time there as there are no facilities near this fantastic hidden beach.

  • Take a day trip to Tortuga Island – a blue flag beach, this island off the coast of Puntarenas offers some stunning white sands and if you have a day kicking around, it’s worth exploring. But expect a long day, reasonably high costs and the snorkelling is reportedly no better than you get on a local catamaran cruise. Perhaps one to look into if you have spare time in Manuel Antonio rather than making it a priority.
  • Go sports fishing – this area of Costa Rica is reputed for its sports fishing. I haven’t put it on the main list because I’ve not tried it and therefore don’t have much by way of tips to help you do it. However, if it’s your thing, have a search around when you’re in Manuel Antonio. 

Tips for visiting Manuel Antonio National Park

If you want an afternoon kicking back with an ever replenishing rum cocktail in your hand, take a catamaran booze cruise. Ok, strictly they’re promoted as sunset cruises but we all know that’s not the real draw. 
How to do it: Sit on the beach, grab a spot in a beach bar, or if your room has a view, sit on your balcony and enjoy one of nature’s finest offerings. 
DK Eye Witness Costa Rica – I especially enjoy the 3D images and historical details in the DK Guides.
black and white capuchin monkey sat in a tree in manuel antonio national park
There are a number of nature trails and walks in the park and many of them are accessible, which is wonderful. 
I only sailed through it by bus – my plans to return later in my trip were severed by that yucky pandemic so I can’t give you much detail except it seemed bigger than but similar to Quepos. I prioritised Manuel Antonio for the park but if beaches and surf are your jam, you might prefer Jaco. The good news is, you can travel between the two pretty easily. 
What’s in this post

Where to stay in Manuel Antonio

infinity pool with views out to sea in Costa Rica
The divine infinity pool at El Faro

Take binoculars – one of the best things I bought for my trip to Costa Rica was a cheap (under ) pair of binoculars. They were super light, easy to sling in a bag and made it much easier to see the wildlife, which is often hiding that bit too far (pesky toucans liking all that privacy). My binoculars are similar to these.
You can find out more about Manuel Antonio National Park on the official website here.  
Isla De Ometepe: My Barefoot Volcano Hike
How NOT To Visit Semuc Champey
15 Long Haul Flight Essentials: What to Take Onboard

My favourite Costa Rica guide books

Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur are both trails that will give you sea and beach views.
You can find all of my Central America posts here
How to do it: 
Lonely Planet Costa Rica– although heavy on detail and light on pictures, this is the best guide if you’re on a longer trip or planning as you go. Alternatively: this Lonely Planet will help you get around all of Central America 
Espadilla Sur Beach is located inside Manuel Antonio National Park and is a very welcome surprise after walking the main trail in the park. The water here is much calmer for swimming (though beware the riptides).
If you are going to hire a tour guide, consider going on a night tour. Though not in the national park, you’ll still be wildlife spotting, but in the dark, when a lot more wildlife is active. You can book a night tour here.

More of My Central America Blog Posts

Jaco is the competing option along this stretch of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast – it’s also a beach town and offers reasonable access to Manuel Antonio National park, being only an hour away.
How to do it: Go for sunset and stay for dinner – located opposite the beach and with a viewing deck, it’s a great spot for a sunset cocktail. While most of the dining takes place outside the plane and the seating area is large, I’d recommend booking because El Avion is popular and takes group bookings. Don’t forget the all-important photo in the cockpit. 
If you do only one thing in Manuel Antonio, it has to be a visit to the National Park. I don’t know about you, but I was there to see the slow, lumbering sloths and I wasn’t disappointed. But sloths are most certainly not the only wildlife in Manuel Antonio National Park. Other popular sightings include capuchin monkeys, iguanas and more bird species than you can count. 
How to do it: The public bus travels along the main beach road in Quepos to Jaco and the journey takes about 1 hour each way. You can plan your route here. If you have a car, even easier.
How to do it: I personally enjoyed Bar Las Gemelas. The food was excellent, the staff super-friendly and you get sea views. I’m not much for shopping but I’d recommend you keep your arts and crafts shopping until after sunset when the air is cooler.
This is the Costa Rica I came for.
Perezosos Trail (Sloth Trail) – popular for obvious reasons, the sloth trail promises the best chance of spotting sloths. And it didn’t disappoint when I was there.
Espadilla Beach is the main beach in Quepos. It’s an expansive stretch and a great place to chill out. The water can be a bit aggressive so it’s not ideal for swimming but is good for some whitewater surfing.
I know that Fodor’s and Moon are popular amongst my lovely USA readers – let me know in the comments if you’ve used these books and think they’re good.  

Blog posts to help you plan (and pack for) your trip

No selfies with the animals – Costa Rica has recently launched a huge campaign with the hashtag #stopanimalselfies Human interaction with the animals is bad for them and therefore discouraged. Be a good tourist. I loved the selfie opportunity at San Jose International Airport where you can pose with a stuffed sloth to your hearts’ content. 
I’ve slept in a lot of hotels – no, not the prelude to a humble brag, more that they all start to seem the same after a while. And then you check into a container hotel. El Faro in Quepos is quirky, well located and has floor to ceiling windows with staggering sea views. I’d definitely recommend putting it on your list of where to stay in Costa Rica.
From Semuc Champey to Flores by Chicken Bus
Manuel Antonio is one of the highlights of any Costa Rica itinerary and it’s earned its spot there. This coastal attraction offers the perfect Costa Rican blend of nature and beaches.

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