A complete guide to visiting Manuel Antonio National Park. Sloths, monkeys, beaches & more. Everything you need to know to plan your visit!
About Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park (Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio), is Costa Rica’s most-visited national park. Located on country’s central Pacific coast, this park is popular with both tourists and locals alike. At just 16km2, Costa Rica’s smallest national park certainly draws the crowds. With pristine beaches, dense rainforest, abundant wildlife coupled with its accessibility, it’s no wonder why.
A network of trails leads visitors through and around the parks mangroves and lowland rainforest to its stunning beaches. So whether you’re here for the wildlife, hiking or to lounge on the beach, Manuel Antonio has something for everyone.
Wildlife of Manuel Antonio National Park
For a small park, Manuel Antonio is packed full of wildlife, with over 100 mammal species. Arguably the parks main draw cards for wildlife lovers, is its population of Sloths. Worldwide, the 6 species of Sloth are split into two groups – two-toed and the three-toed sloths. Manuel Antonio is a fantastic place to see an example of both.
The more common of the two found here is the three-toed Brown-throated Sloth. As well as greater numbers, they are diurnal. This means they’re active during the day and you can often see them moving around, albeit very slowly! Male Brown-throated Sloths can be distinguished from females as they have a bright orange patch with a black stripe on their backs (scent marking glands).
Of the two-toed variety, Hoffmann’s Sloth can also found here. Other than their number of toes, two-toed Hoffmann’s Sloth is larger than the three-toed Brown-throated Sloth, has a shaggier, usually lighter coat. It has bigger eyes and a quite different face. It’s more active nocturnally in contrast to its diurnal cousin. Fun fact, the Hoffman’s Sloth is one of the world’s slowest mammals – so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat.
The park is home to 3 of the 4 Costa Rican monkey species – the White-faced Capuchin, Mantled Howler and the Central American Squirrel Monkey.
Being only found close to the Pacific Coast, means Manuel Antonio and Corcovado National Park are by far the best places to see the rare Central American Squirrel Monkey. Also known as the Red-backed Squirrel Monkey, they can be found both inside the park and in the vegetation around town. Aerial bridges over the road have been constructed to enable the monkeys access to both areas.
Of the other two monkey species found here, the Howler is often heard, rather than seen. It’s far more reclusive than the brazen White-Faced Capuchin, who is anything but shy!
Expect to see other mammals like Crab-eating Racoons, White-nosed Coatis, Central American Agouti and possibly White-tailed deer. And, if you’re really lucky and in the right place at the right time, a chance encounter with a Northern Tamandua is possible.
Despite it relatively small size, Manuel Antonio National Park consists of several ecosystems. These include both primary and secondary forest, mangrove, lagoons and beaches. And these diverse habitats enable a huge variety in birdlife. Manuel Antonio has over 180 different species (numbers seem to range from 180-350). With Toucans, numerous Hummingbirds and 5 species of Kingfishers, there’s plenty of beautiful birds around, even for those who aren’t usually that enthused.
A few colourful and frequently sighted birds to keep an eye out for during your time wandering through Manuel Antonio National Park:
- Charming Hummingbird
- Blue-Crowned (Lesson’s) Motmot
- Fiery-billed Aracari
- Red-capped Manakin
- Ringed Kingfisher
- Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan
Reptiles & amphibians
There’s several species of Lizard that are commonly seen in the park. On the beach area you can’t miss the Green Iguana and the Black Spiny-tailed Iguana (Black Iguana/Black Ctenosaur). Both these Lizards can grow up to and beyond 1m in length
Other lizards species include the colourful Green Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus Malachiticus) and the Common Basilisk. Usually referred to as the ‘Jesus Christ’ Lizard, the Basilisk has adopted this name due to the similarities with the biblical story of Jesus walking on water. As, when fleeing from predators, it can generate enough speed to run on water.
Of the amphibians, Manuel Antonio is a great place to spot some cool and colourful frogs. Like Corcovado National Park, the Green and Black Poison Dart Frogs are quite easily seen after the rains. Glass Frogs and the iconic Red-Eyed Leaf Frog are other stunners, easiest seen on a guided night tour.
Beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park
For some, it’s the unspoilt beaches that lure them into the park. Of the several beaches inside the park, the park namesake is the most popular. Manuel Antonio beach is not just picturesque, but a great place to don the snorkel gear and see what you can find below the surface.
Keen to avoid the crowds? Then both Playa Espadilla Sur and Gemalas Beach are good options. When we were at Gemalas Beach there were more lizards than people. The currents at Playa Espadilla Sur can be strong, so if you’re wanting to swim, Manuel Antonio beach is a safer option.
Facilities & infrastructure inside Manuel Antonio National Park
As we have eluded to, this park is quite different to others we have visited and its internal infrastructure is in stark contrast to that of Corcovado National Park. It’s certainly a very developed park, with structured trails throughout. The majority of trails are short, flat and easily achievable. Some, like the raised boardwalk Mangrove Trail (El Manglar Trail) are suitable for those in wheelchairs. You can also request a special permit at the entrance to enter the park, for a taxi if you have severe mobility issues. Other trails like the Miradores Trail involve some stairs to get to its viewpoints. Regardless of the difficulty, all paths in the park are structured, well maintained and easy to follow.
As well as the structured paths and boardwalks, there’s a number of other facilities inside the park. Toilets, showers, potable water stations and picnic areas are dotted throughout. There’s even a large viewing tower close to Manuel Antonio Beach, allowing you to get up high and look in the canopy for the creatures that call it home. It was from here we saw our first Hoffmann’s Sloth. It also made for a good shelter during a wet season shower.
Opening hours & entrance fees
The park is open from 7:00AM to 4:00PM Tuesday to Sunday all year. It is always closed on Mondays!
- US$16 for Foreigners
- ₡1600 for Costa Ricans and residents
- Children under 12 are free of charge
Grab you ticket from Coopealianza Manuel Antonio office, which is about 50m before the park entrance. Tickets can also be purchased the the Coopealianza in both Quepos and San Jose.
Tickets can be purchased online from HERE
Getting to Manuel Antonio National Park
Getting to Manuel Antonio National Park is easy and has great transports links. We travelled from Drake Bay after our time in Corcovado National Park by bus, details below:
- Take the 7am boat from Drake Bay-Sierpe – 1h-1.5h ₡8000 (get your accommodation to book it for you the night before)
- Catch a chicken bus from Sierpe to Palma Norte – 45mins ₡300 (or a taxi for around US$10- negotiable)
- Get the 9:45am local bus from Palma Norte to Dominical – 1.5h ₡2095
- From the same stop in Dominical, take a bus to Quepos (every 20-30mins) 1h45m
- Finally, take the Manuel Antonio shuttle from the same bus station in Quepos – 25mins ₡325
For information about driving or bussing from other areas including Quepos, Dominical, Uvita, Jaco and San Jose click HERE.
If driving, private parking is available near the entrance. Priced at ₡3000 – ₡5000 for the day, or look for free on-street parking nearby.
Accommodation in Manuel Antonio
There are abundant accommodation options in both Manuel Antonio and nearby Quepos. They range from budget dorms to luxurious hotels.
For our visit, we stayed right next to the park entrance at Millenium Hostels. It’s an unbeatable location, only 20m from Manuel Antonio National Park. With a variety of private rooms and dorms, this a perfect backpacker option. There’s a nice small kitchen for communal use and a small pool to cool down in. We would definitely recommend it.
Best time to visit Manuel Antonio National Park
Costa Rica, like much of Central America, has two distinct seasons – a dry and a wet. The dry season falls from December through April. The wet season (green season) spans a longer period falling from end the April through to November, with August-October generally the wettest. But it’s important to consider that ‘wet season’ doesn’t mean solid rain all day everyday. There’s pro’s and con’s to visiting in either season:
The dry season draws larger crowds. With a limit on the number of visitors allowed in the park at any one time, arrive before opening time to avoid long queues and potential disappointment. The sunny dry weather also means packed beaches. From a wildlife perspective the conditions are more favourable and it also coincides with the migrating whales. Accommodation prices will also be more expensive at this time.
The wet season has its pro’s too. The usually packed park has less visitors, meaning a more tranquil experience. May to July can be a particularly rewarding time as the rains aren’t too heavy, yet you avoid the high season crowds. During the wetter time of the year, the rains tend to fall later in the day, making it extra important to get to the park right as it opens. The wet weather does also make the Waterfall Trail worth a hike and a good time to see frogs. Generally the more persistent heavy rain can make wildlife viewing both difficult and disappointing as the wildlife takes cover. Accommodation prices will generally be cheaper at this time.
Guide vs independent
Unlike Corcovado National Park you do NOT need a guide to explore Manuel Antonio National Park. On our visit we chose not to use a guide. As avid wildlife lovers, we have spent a lot of time in national parks finding and photographing wildlife and we love nothing more than doing it independently. That said, there is no doubt hiring a good local certified guide, will increase what you will find and learn about the park.
If you do choose to go independently here’s a few tips:
- If you see lots of people standing around pointing up and photographing something, it’s worth investigating what they are looking at.
- Speak to others whilst in the park. Often just sparking up a conversation with someone can lead to a wildlife ‘tip-off’.
- If you have a target species such as a particular bird or frog, do your research. Google what it’s call sounds like, so you know what to listen out for.
If you do choose to go in a tour/with a guide here’s a few things to consider:
- Consider a private guide or a smaller group experience. Having a private guide means you can go at your own pace and look specifically for what you’re interested in. There’s no time constraints, as the group isn’t waiting for you to take photographs etc.
- As per the Manuel Antonio website, they ‘don’t recommend using any of the so-called “guides” near the entrance. Most of them are scammers, who dress as rangers or guides and will sell you overpriced parking and tours.’ You can book official guides through the parks website HERE.
- When selecting a guide, try to get a recommendation from friends, other travellers or online. That can really help in ensuring you get a good one!
Whether you choose to hire a guide or not is completely up to you. Reasons for your visit, interests and budgets will dictate this. Based on our experience, you certainly don’t need one to easily enjoy the park.
What to take with you
- Make sure you have plenty of decent ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen.
- Take a re-useable water bottle as there’s drinking water provided in the park at the potable water stations. Not only does it save the pennies, but drastically reduces plastic waste.
- For some people just seeing wildlife is enough. But if you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend taking a decent zoom lens. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm.
- A ‘dry-bag’ or waterproof rucksack is essential when travelling during wet season, or hiking and exploring particularly wet places like rainforests and cloud forests. They protect your camera gear and keep spare clothes dry.
- Likewise a good waterproof jacket is essential for wet season travel.
- There is a small kiosk near the beach, but it has very limited options. But there are picnic areas, so why not take a food with you so you can maximise your time in the park. But take note of what you can and can’t take into the park.
What foods can you take into the park?
As stated on the Manuel Antonio National Park wesbsite ‘we try to minimize the trash, impact on the environment, and the wildlife in the park, and kindly ask all visitors to contribute.‘ So please take careful note of what you can and can’t take into the park:
ALLOWED: Sandwiches wrapped in paper bags or Tupperware (no tin foil), prepared/cut fruit, cookies/crackers that do not come in a tin foil bag (on the inside). You can bring recyclable plastic bottles that you can refill with potable water at several stations throughout the park.
NOT ALLOWED: Chip bags of any kind, cans of any kind, junk food in plastic or aluminim bags, alcoholic beverages, nuts or seeds and no cigarettes.
- The park is closed on Mondays!
- Get there early. The park opens at 7am. Getting in as the park open means you will likely have a couple of hours of relative calm before the groups and beach-goers arrive.
- For wildlife (birds particularly), the best time for viewing is early in the morning. At the hottest parts of the day, the wildlife will generally take rest in the shade.
- Avoid weekends and holidays when the park is at its busiest.
- Likewise consider visiting just outside of the high season if you want to escape the worst of the crowds.
- Your ticket only permits one entrance, so you can’t leave, go and get lunch and then re-enter.
- Avoid the scammers! Ignore those offering their services as guides on the road leading to the park. They are dressed like officials and guides, some even have fake park ID’s. They are frauds trying to sell expensive tours and tickets. Don’t be intimidated or fall for their lies, head to the official Coopealianza Manuel Antonio office or online to purchase tickets and tours.
- Watch out for the naughty Capuchins and Raccoons. They will stop at nothing to pilfer your food. Don’t leaves bags unattended on the beach as these guys will ransack then and steal your food! Also, they may get stolen. Keep an eye out when eating, follow the rules of what you can and can’t bring into the park.
- Do NOT feed the wildlife. Despite the best efforts of the park rangers and guides, numerous people thought it was great fun to feed the capuchins, fuelling their bad behaviour. It was really frustrating to watch and wrong for so many reasons. Not only does it change their natural behaviours, but human food is not part of their natural diet and human bacteria can be very dangerous to them. And it is not only the animal’s welfare, a monkey bite can be very serious for a number of medical reasons. Remember the movie Outbreak?
When planning our time in Costa Rica, we were unsure how much we would enjoy in Manuel Antonio. We’d read a number of reviews describing it as ‘overly-developed’, ‘zoo-like’ and some comparing it to ‘Disneyland.’ But our visit in low season (May) surprised us, we really liked it.
Yes, it was busy. But getting into the park as it opened meant we had a couple hours of relative calm. The amount and variety of wildlife really impressed us. The parks accessibility also makes this a relatively cheap and easy wildlife experience. Comparing it against somewhere as magical Corcovado National Park is not really fair. They are 2 incredibly different wildlife experiences. But, in our opinion, a day or two here is well worth it, you just need go in with the right expectations.
We loved the beautiful beaches, great viewpoints and of course its abundant wildlife. And it certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the best places to see not one, but two different species of Sloth. Who wouldn’t want to visit and hang out with one of these adorable creatures in the wild?
If you liked the sound Manuel Antonio National Park, don’t forget to check out our Corcovado National Park blog. 3 days in one of the most amazing places we have ever been – Tapirs and Anteaters and so much more!
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