Manuel Antonio has become one of the most popular tourism destinations in Costa Rica due to its incredible national park, wildlife and beaches. It happens to be one of my favorite places in the entire country for those reasons!
It’s important to note that Manuel Antonio isn’t really a city, it’s a bunch of hotels and restaurants stretching along a single road that cuts through a big hill bordering the ocean. The road stretches from the hill’s beginning at Quepos all the way to it’s end at the public beach. For all intents and purposes this 4 mile long road is what’s referred to as “Manuel Antonio” – the actual city just before this road is Quepos. Quepos is also where the bus station, cheaper hotels, restaurants and shopping can be found. When searching for hotels online it will often show this city rather than Manuel Antonio.
Getting to Manuel Antonio
Via The Bus: Costa Rica’s bus system will take you directly from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, and is the cheapest option at roughly $8 USD. Many buses leave throughout the day starting early in the morning. I’m not posting exact times as the schedule changes frequently. Currently they depart from the Tracopa bus terminal (San Jose has more than a dozen terminals servicing different parts of the country, make sure your taxi drops you off at the right one). If you can, take the ‘directo’ (direct bus) as it makes less stops and arrives in roughly 3 hours. The non-direct bus takes 5 hours. Either will stop for a 15-20 minute break at a small restaurant.
Via Rental Car: If you plan to rent a car the drive time will depend greatly on road conditions and traffic. Driving in San Jose is very chaotic, and there are few road signs in the country. Make sure to have backup directions written down if you’re relying on a GPS navigation as they can lose satellite signal often. The main roads in Quepos and Manuel Antonio are well paved so you won’t need a 4 wheel drive vehicle if this is your only destination. You can view detailed driving directions here.
Via Shuttle: There are many shuttle vans for hire in Costa Rica that will pick you up at different cities and drop you off in others. From San Jose to Manuel Antonio they charge roughly $45-50 and don’t get you there any faster than the directo bus. Two companies offering services are EasyTransferCR.com and TropicalTourShuttles.com
Where to Stay
There’s a large variety of accommodations to be found and recommendations will depend greatly on your budget and expectations. If you want a room with air conditioning and ocean view you’ll be spending $100+ per night. Most of the hotels priced under that amount are aging, outdated and often have bugs. Costa Rica is a seasonal country and rates/availability vary greatly. I visited during the green off-season when discounts could be found and most places had plenty of rooms available without reservations.
Cheap: Hostel Vista Serena ($10-$16 dorms) – There are many hostels around for those on a tight budget. One that has an ocean view is Vista Serena. 14-bed dorms will run $10; but the real bargain is a 4-person dorm with A/C for $14-16.
Budget: Villa Romantica ($45-$80 rooms) – I stayed here several times after finding a reduced green season rate. The hotel is run by a friendly German family. It’s clean, has air conditioning and free wifi. It’s located near the end of Quepos, right next to a bus stop, gym, and several convenience stores.
Luxurious: Buena Vista Luxury Villas ($250-$1,000+ villas) – There are lots of luxury hotels in Manuel Antonio; I had the great fortune to stay at Buena Vista in a large 1-bedroom villa. The resort was beautiful with a private restaurant, private beach, and wonderful ocean views. The villa was comfortable with all the amenities you’d expect. If you’re going to splurge they’re a great option.
Check Agoda.com for more hotel choices as they often have discounted deals.
Getting Around Town
Quepos is a small town with parallel streets, and Manuel Antonio for the most part is a single road leading from Quepos and ending at the public beach. The simplicity makes it impossible to get lost. One of the great things about this town is it’s unique and awesome transportation.
Via The Bus: A public bus runs from the bus station in Quepos all the way through Manuel Antonio ending at the public beach. The bus begins running early in the morning (5:45 am) and continues all throughout the day and evening. For the normal hours of the day it comes each way every 15-20 minutes and will pick you up at any of the dozen or so bus stops along the way. The cost is currently 315 colones (under a dollar) to get on/off anywhere.
Via Taxi: Taxis can be negotiated with but due to high fuel prices they aren’t cheap. The one exception is that taxis driving to Quepos from Manuel Antonio have a fare set at 500 colones (roughly $1.00) per person, no matter the distance, because the taxi serves as a ‘colectivo’ – the driver will fill the taxi with all the people it can fit along the way back to town.
Where to Eat
One of the biggest surprises about Costa Rica was the high food prices and Manuel Antonio is no exception. Expect to pay $12-$20 for a meal in most places. If you don’t get a hotel with a view, you might want to splurge at one of the restaurants that offer incredible sunset views (more on that later).
El Gato Fish & Chips: Tasty and simple fish & chips. Pick the number of fish you want, pick your sauce and enjoy. They also have wifi.
Soda Sanchez: – In Quepos, traditional Costa Rican menu. Good food with a lower price than almost anywhere else. This is a local favorite and also offers free wifi.
Best Place to Watch the Sunset
Other than the national park, Manuel Antonio is most memorable for it’s absolutely stunning sunsets. The best place to view the sunset is atop the hill – unfortunately all the real estate on the hill is private property owned by hotels and restaurants. Even though I don’t like spending a lot on meals there are restaurants offering great views.
Barba Roja: My favorite place to watch the sunset hands down. Their outdoor seating offers unbeatable views and the food was very good, although expensive.
Ronny’s Place: Highly recommended by others but I haven’t been myself. It’s a little ways from the road making it inconvenient to get to without a ride/taxi.
The good news is that you can see the sunset for free at the public beach. Playa Espadilla offers stunning views from sea level at no cost. The beach is frequented by the locals and tourists alike, and while fairly safe you don’t want to leave anything valuable laying around, especially after dark. There’s a bus stop right next to the beach so it’s also easy to get there and back.
Visit Manuel Antonio National Park
The park is the obvious must-see-do of the area, and you can’t come to town without visiting. Although the smallest national park in the country it’s one of, if not the most visited. You’re guaranteed to see wildlife here with a skilled guide. Two and three-toed sloths, four types of monkeys, lizards and exotic birds are all commonly seen.
The current price of admission is $16 per adult & no guide is required (but recommended). The park hours are 7 am – 4 pm, and during some parts of the year it’s open everyday, others it closes on Mondays. All three times I visited were during the lowest season (October) and even then there were quite a few visitors. It’s become so crowded during the high-season that you’ll feel more like you’re visiting Disneyland than a wild park. There’s now limited admission to 600 people at a time (800 on weekends) and you’ll have to wait in line to get in if you arrive too late. Tip: Get there when it opens to beat both the heat & the crowds.
The main trail is wide, flat and easy walking. Some side trails are paved and handicap accessible while others are muddy and less maintained. After loads of wildlife watching you can escape the heat and cool off in the region’s prettiest beach – Playa Manuel Antonio; the main trail leads right to it.
Read more the wildlife I saw on my post about visiting Manuel Antonio National Park.
Enjoy the Beach
Playa Manuel Antonio: The area’s nicest beach, located inside the national park. It’s crescent shaped, has white sand, and is infested with racoons that will invade your belongings the second you turn your head.
Playa Espadilla: The public beach at the end of the road in Manuel Antonio, which extends South into the park boundaries. On the beach you’ll find massage services, surf lessons, and drinks. It’s a great spot for watching the sunset.
Additional Activities & Things to do
Rainmaker Forest Reserve: Mostly unknown when I first visited, tours to the Rainmaker Park are now being widely offered. I’ve visited multiple times for day and night tours and was always the only tourist there. It’s a very well preserved rainforest with hanging suspension bridges, waterfalls and wildlife. I spotted both poison dart frogs and eyelash vipers here.
Jungle Night Hike: Not for the faint of heart, but if you’re brave enough to venture out into the wild at night you will be rewarded for it! I consider a night tour a must for any wildlife lover. I did many of these tours in Costa Rica and the ones I had in Manuel Antonio were definitely the best. Nearly all the wildlife in the rainforest is nocturnal and won’t be seen during the day, only after dark. All guides aren’t created equal, I highly recommend Brian Jimenez from Night Tour Manuel Antonio.
Ziplining: Ziplines were invented in Costa Rica so if you’ve ever wanted to try one this is the right place to do it! Also called canopy tours, they’re safe and exciting fun when you need a break from hiking. Manuel Antonio has several companies offering tours, El Santuario appears to have the longest.
When To Visit? Wet vs Dry Season
Manuel Antonio weather is always hot – high temperatures reach the upper 80’s all year. The ‘dry season’ is December thru April. The rainy season is the slowest time for tourism, and a great opportunity for travelers who don’t mind risking a rainy day in exchange for significantly less overcrowding. Instead of paying inflated hotel prices and dealing with busy attractions you’ll have the town and it’s beauty to yourself. I visited in October, the rainiest month of the year and it didn’t rain once during the day – however showers occurred almost every night after sunset.