Wildlife Watching Fun
Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio is not only the smallest national park in the country it’s also the most visited. Why does such a small patch of land attract so many visitors? Wildlife sightings are all but guaranteed with ease. Some of the country’s most iconic critters are nearly always seen when using the services of a guide including two and three-toed sloths, four species of monkeys, a variety of reptiles and birds. All are in viewing distance from a big easily walked path. The stunning sandy beach adds to the park’s allure.
Visitors are free to roam the park trails and beaches on their own but if you don’t have high end zooming optics and a great eye for spotting wildlife it’s highly recommended you use one. You can book tour guides in advance from many different companies. Alternatively there’s always a queue of licensed guides at the entrance that will be happy to take you – but you will have to wait for them to gather a big enough group before leaving. Guides carry expensive spotting scopes that will enable you look high up into the trees and see all the hiding animals up close. The average price for 2-3 hours is around $20/person.
The park is open from 7 am thru 4 pm. During most of the year it’s open every day, but from July-November it closes on Mondays to give the forest animals a break from the crowds. Being the most popular park in the country has its pitfalls – it can quickly become crowded, resembling Disneyland more than a serene rain forest. If you want to beat the crowds come when the park opens and you’ll also beat the heat of the day. Admission is monitored and limited to 600 people at a time (800 on weekends) and if you arrive late you can find yourself waiting in line just to enter!
The park’s main trail is flat, easy walking and you’re on it as soon as you enter the park. It cuts a fairly straight course right through the park until it meets the beach. This is the trail all of the guides will walk you through and spot wildlife on.
There are other less visited side trails, some of which are even paved and handicap accessible while others are simply dirt paths and less maintained. Some of my favorites were:
- Cathedral Point Trail – branching off to the right of the main trail it loops around Cathedral Point, a peninsula overlooking the ocean with great views.
- Waterfall Trail – Right near the entrance to the park is a short, newly paved trail that leads to a small but pretty waterfall.
- The Mirador Trail – longer and more challenging trail with opportunities to see wildlife (especially monkeys) without all the crowds around. There’s even a couple untouched beaches with wild iguanas sunbathing.
Once you’ve satisfied your wildlife craving escape the heat and head to the beach. There are 2 main beaches, Playa Manuel Antonio & Playa Espadilla Sur. The more popular beach, Playa Manuel Antonio is a half mile long. It’s crescent shape and soft white sand make it a picture perfect spot to catch some sun or head into the water for snorkeling. Be aware there are a number of raccoons and monkeys habituated to humans that will grab your bags and anything else in reach if left unattended. Playa Espadilla Sur is an extension of the public beach outside the park’s boundaries, Playa Espadilla and is also quite beautiful.