Manuel Antonio National Park: Monkey See, Monkey Do
As soon as I saw my first sleeping baby Capuchin monkey clinging onto its mama's back, my heart melted from the cuteness! The family trio didn't seem to mind hanging out alongside fawning visitors in their rainforest home.
One of the main draws of Manuel Antonio National Park is the opportunity to get within mere feet of wildlife, especially monkeys. Costa Rica's most popular park has boisterous Howler monkeys, rare grey-crowned Central American squirrel monkeys, and curious white-faced Capuchin monkeys.
Depending on the time of year, you can see BABIES! During our visit in December, Brad and I observed three baby Capuchin monkeys at different stages of growth. We also spotted a family of playful Central American squirrel monkeys jumping around the lush canopy.
Monkeys aren't the only animals you'll get the chance to see at Manuel Antonio National Park. Discover peaceful sloths, iguanas, colorful birds, crabs, strange insects, and White-tailed deer in the vibrant jungle.
Costa Rica's smallest park also has the most rules. Below I share practical insights and tips to make your trip a fantastic experience. The only caveat is braving the crowds!
Manuel Antonio National Park
The park is located in the Puntarenas Province nearby the resort district of Manuel Antonio. Visitors can also stay in the town of Quepos approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) north along the Pacific coast. Brad and I enjoyed our three-night stay at Villas Jacquelina which included a tasty free breakfast.
Established in 1972, Manuel Antonio National Park was created after locals protested a tourism land development project and beach restrictions limiting public access. The park covers 683 hectares (1,688 acres) of bio-diverse land including four white-sand beaches with pristine turquoise water, mangroves, and primary/secondary rainforests.
The most popular beaches, Playa Espadilla Sur and Playa Manuel Antonio, border the land bridge leading to Cathedral Point. Check out the smallest beach, Playa Las Gemelas, if you are looking for a picturesque escape from the crowds. We only had to share this oasis with a handful of others during the afternoon.
Swim next to forest-covered cliffs as you watch coastal birds fly overhead. Snorkeling is allowed along the coral reefs. Make sure to check the sand for adorable hermit crabs before you take a rest on the shore.
Try not to get too comfortable in the sun because there are 10 hiking trails to traverse with spectacular views! The well-maintained trails feature concrete paths, wooden planks, and gravel roads. In total, there are about 8 km (5 mi) of trails.
We spotted two Fiery-billed Aracaris bathing in a tree along the Sendero Puerto Escondido trail, several Central American squirrel monkeys along the Sendero Los Congos trail, and a baby Three-toed sloth with its mama along the Sendero Perezoso trail! Unfortunately, Brad and I couldn't complete the Sendero Miradores and Sendero Punta Catedral trails due to maintenance closures.
Manuel Antonio National Park is walkable (50 minutes) from the resort district of Manuel Antonio. However, the local bus is the most convenient method of transportation if you don't have a car or want to pay for a taxi. Brad and I boarded a public bus from the Quepos bus terminal in the center of town. Look for a bus with a Manuel Antonio sign on the windshield.
Buses leave roughly every 30 minutes making stops along Route 618. The final stop is a roundabout nearby the park. Walk north about 50 m (164 ft) and follow the Beach Trail lined with souvenir vendors. Once you reach the paved road, the main entrance will be on the right. Meet at the same bus stop when you are ready to return.
Tickets cost 395 CRC ($0.67 USD) per person each way. Try to pay with change or small bills in the local currency. The ride from Quepos takes about 25 minutes.
What to Expect Upon Arrival
An early start at Costa Rica's busiest park is not a guarantee to beat the crowds, especially during high season (December-April). With hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, chances are you'll be sharing the hiking trails and beaches with eager tourists. Tour groups are less common as you proceed farther away from the main entrance.
Manuel Antonio National Park requires a reservation made with a passport number. Tickets can only be purchased online via credit card with an available time slot. For example, Brad and I purchased tickets for Group 2 with an entry window of 8:00-8:40 AM.
The park is open Wednesday-Monday, 7:00 AM-4:00 PM, including holidays which don't fall on a Tuesday. Tickets cost $18 USD (9,720 CRC) per person. Bring your passport since it will be verified with your electronic ticket at the main entrance.
Watch out for imposter guides outside of the main entrance if you are visiting the park on your own. Don't be fooled by the realistic park ranger outfits and fake ID's. We had several people approach us trying to sell overpriced tickets, tours, and inconvenient parking.
Outside food is forbidden and your bags will be subject to search. Beverages such as water, soda, and juice are allowed. There is a small cafeteria near the center of the park with sandwiches, ice cream, drinks, and snacks available for purchase. Watch out for Capuchin monkeys looking for a bite!
Manuel Antonio National Park is on the central Pacific coast, so prepare for high humidity and hot temperatures. Brad and I were comfortable with our athletic gear and Tevas. Don't forget to bring a swimsuit and towel for the beach!
Showers, lockers, and changing rooms are nearby the cafeteria. Bathrooms are located at the main entrance, cafeteria, Playa Espadilla Sur, and Playa Manuel Antonio. Opportunistic thieves are not uncommon on the beaches, so keep a watchful eye on your possessions.
I recommend bringing sunscreen, insect repellent, and sunglasses. Consider a rain cover for your backpack or waterproof bag to protect your belongings, particularly electronics. A rain jacket or poncho is handy in a sudden downpour!
Take a picture of the trail map at the main entrance to use as a reference. Map placards and signs are located throughout the park. Overall the trails are easy to navigate and suitable for all ages. The Sendero Perezoso trail is wheelchair accessible.
If you desire to have a pair of trained eyes by your side to help identify flora and fauna, consider hiring a naturalist. Guided tours with bilingual guides are available to book online through the website. You'll be able to ask questions about the ecosystem and view distant animals through a spotting scope.
After a full day in the rainforest, I didn't regret searching for wildlife at our preferred slow and quiet pace. The animals seem to be used to humans visiting their habitat during the day. I wasn't expecting to get as close as we did!
Once I came to terms with the overzealous crowds, I was able to explore the park with an open mindset. Without visitors there would be no face-to-face interactions with animals or monetary support to help conservation efforts.
After our epic adventures in Monteverde and La Fortuna, I wasn't quite sure if Manuel Antonio would live up to the hype. Well, once I encountered a baby sloth, new species of Aracari, and three families of Capuchin monkeys, I can wholeheartedly say it did!
So follow my advice and visit this must-do attraction in Costa Rica; monkey see, monkey do!