In college, my mother spent a summer sailing along the coast of South and Central America in a catamaran. Why? Cause she is a boss, that’s why.
I grew up hearing stories of magical places far a wide but she always had a special place in her heart for Manuel Antonio. She described the white sand beaches melting into colorful coral reefs beneath crystal waters, the iguanas indifferent to human presence, and the mischievous monkeys playing in the trees. I dreamed of this place my whole life and in April 2017 I finally experienced Manuel Antonio for myself.
The town of Manuel Antonio has changed a lot since my mother’s hay day, but thanks to the quick work of the Costa Rican government, a large section of the jungle near the town has been perfectly preserved as a national park. The entrance ticket is a tad expensive (9,000CRC/16USD) but you can’t put a price on the experience you’ll have inside the park. There are miles of trails through lush jungle with waterfalls and cliffs overlooking the Pacific. If you are traveling with kids or a large group you can hire a guide for ($70 USD) but if you are traveling on your own or on a budget, you can easily tag along with another group to find animals in the camouflage of the trees. They don’t give out paper maps for environmental reasons so you’ll want to bring one with you. There are signs throughout the park but only at the trailheads which can be hard to find.
Pro tip: bring colones to pay for
your entrance ticket as the credit
card line is usually 10x longer
In your day bag
The park seems small on the map but it is only open from 7am to 4pm which isn't enough time to walk all the trails and enjoy all the beaches. So, come with a plan and be prepared to stay all day because the best time to see animals is actually on your way out of the park.
Bring plenty of water!
You will chug water like you wouldn't believe in the Costa Rican heat, especially when you are hiking around all day. There are water fountains to refill your bottles at Playa Manuel Antonio.
If you can help it, I actually don't recommend bringing food into the park. I know that's a long time without food but the Costa Rican breakfasts (Gallo Pinto) are extremely hearty so you won't be hungry for a while. The reason I say this is that food in your bag makes it a target for thieves. There are thieves all over the park. In fact, the park rangers encourage their prevalence in the park.
I'm speaking of the furry little monkeys and raccoons that are everywhere in the park of course! If you don't have food you have nothing to worry about but if you do, you'll have to be constantly vigilant. You may not care if they steal your lunch but if they drop your camera from the tree whilst digging in your bag, you'll be sorry. (I watched this happen to someone while I was there.)
If you plan on spending time at any of the beaches, be sure to bring a change of clothes. There are changing rooms everywhere and you won't want to hike out of the park in a wet suit.
If you want to get great picture in the park, bring a zoom lens for your camera. Most of the animals live high in the trees and are difficult to spot. A telephoto lens will help you spot them and save you some money on a guide.
Playa Manuel Antonio
This is the beach that you will find if you follow the main trail all the way into the park. This is also where you'll find the most people. Keep walking on the path to find more secluded beaches like Playa Espadilla and part of Playa Manuel Antonio past the rocky outcropping (pictured above). You can access this part of the beach at the trailhead of Sendero Punta Catedral. Beware of the thieving monkeys and raccoons on the beach. They can open zippered bags and run off with all your belongings.
Playa Espadilla Sur
This is a nice alternative to Playa Manuel Antonio as many do not walk the extra 100 yards to this beach. However, the waves are larger here as it is not as protected as Playa Manuel Antonio.
Playa Puerto Escondido
I did not personally visit this beach as I only have one day in the park. If you are an adventurous hiker, ask the guides at the park entrance the best time of day (low tide) to visit Playa Puerto Escondido. I believe swimming is not allowed at the this beach due to currents but you'll certainly be one of the few to make the trip.
This is the main trail that you will follow as you enter the park. It is a wide graveled trail and a very easy walk. Don't go too fast though because there are animals to be found in the trees everywhere you look.
Sendero Punta Catedral
This trail follows along the arrowhead shaped spit of land that is connected to the park by Playas Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur. This trail is an easy hike but made much more difficult by the heat and humidity. The moment you leave the beaches and begin climbing the stairs you'll see what I mean. Thought still very hot, it is a nice respite from the sun as it is entirely covered by dense jungle. On this hike I saw howler and capuchin monkeys. There are also two magnificent view points off the cliffs of Punta Catedral.
Sendero Playas Gemelas y Escondido
This is the longest trail in the park and for that reason, less crowded. Even if you do not walk the entirety of the trail, I recommend walking a bit on this route as you are more likely to see animals where it is quieter.
Sendero La Catarata
This is a very short trail you'll be tempted to take as it is at the very beginning of the park. However, do not walk this trail expecting to find a waterfall unless you are there in the height of the rainy season. During the rest of the year it is just a disappointing dry creekbed.
The parks' most interesting attraction (to me at least) are the animals. I saw lizards, iguanas, crabs, deer, several species of monkey, and my personal favorite, SLOTHS!
If you know me, you know I'm absolutely obsessed with sloths. When I found out I'd be traveling to Costa Rica, I was on a mission to hold a baby sloth. After doing my research, I found out that it's really bad for tourists to touch sloths because they have a special algae in their fur that keeps them healthy and contact with humans can kill that algae and damage the health of the sloths. It was a bummer but if you really love sloths you won't touch them, even if you find one by the side of the road.
So, new mission: find baby sloths in the wild.
I set off in Manuel Antonio Park with my telephoto lens and extensive research on spotting the little camouflage experts. Within 2 minutes of being the park, I heard a guide pointing out a sloth to his group. I got up right next to them and pointed my lens where they were looking but I couldn't see anything! I wandered the park for the rest of the day and saw tons of different kinds of monkeys, deer, and reptiles but still no sloth. As I was leaving the park with my head hung low in defeat, I heard a group say, "sloth!" I quickly pulled out my camera and went to their location. There before my eyes was a momma sloth and her little babe! It was a magnificent end to a great day in Manuel Antonio Park.
What are you most excited to see in Manuel Antonio?
Let me know in the comments.
Go confidently travelers!
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