Ultimate Guide to Manuel Antonio National Park: Your Key to Adventure

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Manuel Antonio National Park. There’s only one shot at getting it right, and you want to ensure you see everything. I totally get it.

In this guide to the park, you’ll find out everything you need to know to do the park the way it should be done- especially if you are traveling to Costa Rica with kids. Let’s get started- and keep reading for a great tip on a guide that won’t cost you an arm and a leg!

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manuel antonio national park

About Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park is closest to the village of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, and is one of the most popular of Costa Rica’s national parks. It’s situated in the Central Pacific side of the country, in the Puntarenas province. It’s about 4 hours south of Costa Rica’s capital of San José, and accessible from the intercoastal highway 34. The park is home to several of the top Pacific Coast beaches in the country.

Established in 1972, Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest national park in Costa Rica, but also one of the most biodiverse given its balance of both tropical rainforest and ocean life. It’s a charming combination of land animal sightings and coral reefs.

The national park is closed on Tuesdays, you may visit any other day of the week between 7:00 am and 3:00 pm.

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Getting To Manuel Antonio National Park

The gateway to the park is the charming fishing village of Quepos, located just 7 kilometers north of the park. Between Quepos and the park, you’ll find a winding road packed to the brim with great hotels and restaurants. The road between Quepos and the park dead ends at a loop near Espadilla Beach. (Espadilla Beach is the main, long beach that runs just outside the park).

Before you get to the dead end though, you’ll take the very last left turn to head to the park. You’ll drive for two or three minutes before you see an official parking area on your right side, where you can park for 4,000 colones, or about $8US.

A note on parking- there are several parking lots just off of Espadilla Sur Beach, and the men who are working those lots are very aggressive about trying to get you to slow down or stop so that you will park with them. You can just keep driving, as you want to make the left turn towards the park so that you don’t have to walk so far to the entrance.

I recommend renting a car when traveling in Costa Rica, and you can use our discount code here to rent with Adobe Rental Car.

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Walking to Manuel Antonio National Park after the parking lot

Manuel Antonio Park Tickets

The biggest thing you need to know before you visit the park is that if you want to enter, you need to buy a timed ticket in advance.

You’ll simply go to the national park website, create a login and purchase the number of tickets you want and the time you want to enter the park.

At the time of writing, the park tickets were about $18 for adults and $6 for children. The park tickets do not include a guide. Once you get your tickets, I highly recommend writing down the confirmation number and making a physical copy of your reservation confirmation.

You will be asked for your ID and the credit card you used to book the reservation when you get to the park entrance. A copy of your passport should suffice if you are leery of carrying your actual passport.

If you are planning on a guided tour, what I would do is book your tickets for the earliest in the morning, or a later afternoon. These are the times when you will see more wildlife- especially in the morning.

From there, you can look for a guide separately knowing you have the park tickets for the time that you want.

If you haven’t planned ahead, you can also purchase tickets from scalpers at the park entrance. You will definitely pay more, but at least you’ll be able to see the park.

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Hiring A Guide For Manuel Antonio National Park

One of the questions I get a lot is whether or not a person should hire a guide to go into the national park. There are definitely pros and cons to both.

The biggest reason to hire a guide in the park is so that you can see the most species of wildlife possible. The guides that work the park are highly professional and can help you spot sloths, squirrel monkeys, and many species of birds you would not notice otherwise.

The guides also will give you a ton of information about the different flora and fauna in the park and can take you through the best hiking trails. Many people end up with phenomenal photos of animal species when they go with a guide because the guides are really good at taking cell phone photos through their binocular lenses. The memories are epic.

If you don’t have a guide, you can often still stroll through the park and see some forms of wildlife on your own. Also, there are times when everyone is stopped in the same place and looking at the same animals, so the guide really is not necessary if you want to try your luck.

Also- there are lots of animals around the cafeteria in the park (go figure) so if you hang around there you’ll at least see the white-faced Capuchin monkeys and the sloths.

When I went this last time I didn’t hire a guide because I was on my own. I definitely didn’t get as much out of the experience, but I also had all the time in the world to relax on the beach, which is what I wanted to do in the park.

If you have a nature guide, generally they will show you the animals on the way into the park and then allow you to relax at the beach afterward. I did see many guides, though that just let people be at the beach for just a little bit before continuing on with the tour. So just ask if you aren’t sure.

If you are looking for an official Manuel Antonio National Park guide, you can book a guide here. At the time of writing, the rates were $60 per adult and $40 per kid.

But I was looking at AirBnB experiences, and I found a good guide for much cheaper- just $31 a person. I would definitely go in that direction.

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When To Visit Manuel Antonio National Park

Costa Rican weather is always unpredictable, but you can reliably know that in the dry season (December-April), you’ll have clear waters on beautiful beaches, dry hiking trails, and some pretty serious midday heat.

If you are visiting in the rainy season (May-November), you’ll want to have a higher tolerance for mosquitos and the potential to see the beaches in the rain. The water in the rainy season won’t be nearly as clear.

You’ll see the most animals between 7-9 am, and then again between 2-3 pm, right before the park closes. So if animal sightings are important to you, I suggest going early.

Finally, don’t try to visit the park on a Tuesday because it’s closed. The park is open Wednesday-Monday of each week, from 7 am to 3 pm.

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Line to get into the park

Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park- The Day Of

Now that you’ve got your tickets and your guide for the park, it’s time to actually visit the park. Here’s everything you need to know in order to have a successful visit on the day of your visit.

First- allow yourself plenty of time to get to the park. There will be traffic on the main road, especially if you are first thing in the morning.

You’ll also want to leave time to get parked and all of your gear ready. You’ll walk about 5 minutes to the park entrance from the parking lot.

Finally- there will be lines to get into the park. You’ll have your bag checked for food and drink (no food is allowed inside the park) and then you’ll go into another line to be admitted into the park. This entire process took me about 45 minutes from the time I left our hotel (Karahe Beach Resort) to the time we entered the park.

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Menu of food available for purchase in the park

Packing For Manuel Antonio Park

You’ll want to check out our Costa Rica packing list for everything you need for your Costa Rica trip, but the specifics you need for the park are the following:

  • Comfortable walking shoes (I wore Chacos)
  • Bathing suit
  • Towel
  • Mosquito Repellant
  • Water
  • Sunscreen
  • Camera/Cell Phone
  • Binoculars (optional)

A few notes on the packing list:

  • You MAY NOT take any food or alcoholic beverages into the park.
  • There are bathrooms and changing rooms near the beaches in the park, so you don’t have to wear your bathing suit the whole time if you don’t want to.
  • In Costa Rica, you can drink tap water, so I took a reusable water bottle.
  • There is a cafeteria in the park with sandwiches, ice cream, a souvenir shop, and cold drinks.
  • There are lots of mosquitos in the park, so do make sure to have a plan for that
Trails in Manuel Antonio National Park aren’t very strenuous and are good for all ages

Hiking Manuel Antonio National Park

Keep in mind that Manuel Antonio is the smallest national park in Cota Rica, and there is not a lot of hiking to be done. Add this to the fact that a few of the hikes have been closed since the pandemic, you won’t really hike that much in the park.

Once you enter the park, there are two main walkways- one through the mangrove on an elevated walkway, and one that is a dirt road to the cafeteria. This walk is about 1.6 kilometers or about a mile. It doesn’t feel long, though, and if you have a guide it could take you up to an hour with all the tips to look at wildlife.

Once you reach the cafeteria you will hike another 3-5 minutes down to the beach areas. You will be able to visit either Manuel Antonio Beach, or Playa Espadilla Sur- it’s an extension of the same beach that’s not in the national park.

Punta Catedral, or Cathedral Point, is a lookout over the beaches in the park, but when I visited it was closed- and has been for a pretty long time. There is also Senderos Miradores, which is the lookout over another gorgeous beach, but it was also closed when I was there.

The main attraction of the park, once you’ve hiked in, are the beaches- especially Playa Manuel Antonio.

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Beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

The crown jewel of the park is Manuel Antonio Beach, a curved stretch of white sand, calm waves, and aquamarine water. This is the easiest beach to get to, and also the most crowded. We went about 11 am and it was packed to the hilt.

On the other side of the trail is Espadilla Sur beach, which is a long stretch of sand, blue water, and bigger waves. This beach was much less crowded, but not nearly as beautiful. It is an extension of the free beach outside the park.

Finally, there is Playa Gemelas in the park, which is not accessible for swimming but is visible from the lookout hike, when it’s open.

Final Thoughts

Manuel Antonio National Park is renowned for its wildlife and beaches. Thousands of tourists visit the park each year, and for good reason. It’s a neat area.

However, on my trip to this area, I also visited the town of Uvita, and the national park there. Hands down, I preferred Uvita to Manuel Antonio. There were just so many fewer people. We saw whales and orcas, walked the beach inside the national park at sunset, and stayed and ate for way cheaper than we did in Manuel Antonio.

If you are wondering if Manuel Antonio is for you, I’d say skip the long lines and drive an hour south to Uvita. But don’t tell anyone I told you to!

Manuel Antonio National Park FAQ

When is the best time to visit Manuel Antonio National Park?

If you are looking for sunny beach days, then December-May is the best time. Avoid Holy Week and Christmas, as these times tend to be quite busy. Avoid November, as it is the rainiest month and the water won’t be clear.

How do I get tickets to Manuel Antonio National Park?

You’ll need to purchase your tickets online in advance at the SINAC website.

What can I bring to Manuel Antonio National Park?

You may bring in water and other non-alcoholic beverages. You are not allowed to bring any kind of food into the park.

What days is Manuel Antonio National Park open?

The park is open every day except Tuesdays from 7 am to 3 pm.

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Christa Jimenez

Welcome! I’m Christa, a Spanish teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. We’ve spent over 25 years living in and traveling to Costa Rica with our daughters, and this website is my love letter to all things Costa Rica- and to bilingual parenting too. You can read my full story here. Thanks for stopping by!

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4 Comments

  1. Christa,
    I have heard that there are backlog reservation problems and that the guides have taken almost all of the reservations. Is this true?