Manuel Antonio National Park is one of Costa Rica’s most famous attractions. But the area offers more. So much more. Here’s what else to do whenever the park is closed or you feel like getting away from the crowds.
Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest, yet most visited national park.
It sits on the Central Pacific coast and is synonymous with tourism in Costa Rica.
So synonymous, in fact, the park gets lumped into some larger zone called “the Manuel Antonio area”. This zone starts below Esterillos and sweeps south towards Dominical and into the coastal cordillera where the Savegre and Naranjo flow before plunging through jungles and palm oil plantations and entering the ocean.
Not too shabby for a three-square-mile park.
The city of Quepos, a regional hub, also counts as part of this self-styled “Manuel Antonio area”.
The actual village of Manuel Antonio itself – a cluster of restaurants and souvenir places at the park entrance – sits at the end of a seven-kilometer road winding down from Quepos.
I often wonder how Quepos must feel, being overshadowed for eternity by its smaller, younger, more beautiful sister to the point where no-one quite remembers it exists.
Along the Quepos-Manuel Antonio road, hotels and vacation rentals nestle into the hills, all providing playspace for monkeys, sloths, parrots, coatis, and other jungle creatures.
This is Costa Rica’s flagship for luxury tourism, boutique hotels, and eco-development. And all thanks to the tiny national park dominating the area and casting its spell everywhere.
But what if the park is closed? Is it possible to appreciate this part of Costa Rica without its namesake?
Well, in fact, every Monday the park is closed to allow the animals who live inside a respite from the tourist hordes who come trampling through each day.
And when Tropical Storm Nate ripped through Costa Rica in October 2017 causing widespread damage and flooding, they also closed the park. It happens.
I’m not suggesting I want the jewel of Costa Rica’s national park system to close. Manuel Antonio is awesome. But if it was no longer around to attract tourists, the answer to the question above is an unequivocal yes. It is possible to appreciate this part of Costa Rica without Manuel Antonio National Park.
Not many people know Manuel Antonio better than the travel consultants at Costa Rican Vacations. So we asked them their reasons why you don’t need the national park to have a wonderful time in Manuel Antonio.
“Manuel Antonio is my favorite location in Costa Rica and it was my home for over eight years. I love this area because it’s the perfect combination of lush rainforest, wildlife (you will see monkeys when walking down the street!), gorgeous beaches, plus great restaurants and tons of fun adventure activities all close by. The charming rainforest village is picture-postcard perfect with stunning views. Manuel Antonio combines all Costa Rica’s highlights into one amazing destination!” Shay Tippie, Costa Rica Travel Expert
1. The views
Remember what I said about all those hotels and vacation rentals nestling into the hills between Quepos and Manuel Antonio? The operative word was “hills”. Manuel Antonio doesn’t have much in the way of beachfront, but it kicks ass with views. Those hills look out over some of the most beautiful coastlines you’ll see anywhere in the world.
The park itself is a source of much of the beauty as you look out from your balcony or your dinner table at the jungle crashing into the ocean at Cathedral Point.
You’ll discover great views all over Manuel Antonio with props going out to, according to travel consultant Aaron Vanecek, the restaurant Barba Roja as a perfect place to enjoy a sundowner while looking out over pristine ocean and coastline.
There’s a solid argument Manuel Antonio National Park looks better from outside and above than it does from inside.
“I sat one evening and watched multiple whales jump in the sunset, amazing and unique.” Leah Reeb, Costa Rica Travel Expert
2. The restaurants
No Jaco or Tamarindo (two of Costa Rica’s most prominent party spots), Manuel Antonio has a more tranquil vibe for the most part.
Shay Tippie lived in Manuel Antonio for years before moving to San Jose. When asked about her favorite dining spots, she lists Emilio’s Cafe and Cafe Agua Azul as her go-to restaurants when she’s back at the beach.
“Emilio’s has the best coffee and desserts, plus healthy salads and AMAZING National Park views. Agua Azul also has beautiful views and a friendly, local atmosphere,” she says.
Other top restaurants in Manuel Antonio include Claro Que Si and the Rico Tico Jungle Grill at the Si Como No Hotel and Kapi Kapi. Travel expert Joan Borreli says the pineapple fried rice at Kapi Kapi is worth the trip to Manuel Antonio alone.
3. The adventures
Any travel pro in Costa Rica knows the Arenal Volcano area in northern Costa Rica is the adventure capital of Central America.
But you know what? Manuel Antonio ain’t too far behind. There’s a school of thought it could even be ahead, seeing as Manuel Antonio has beaches and ocean and Arenal doesn’t.
For Shay Tippie, it’s all about the ocean.
“I love getting out on the water on a catamaran and seeing Manuel Antonio’s coastline, which is breathtaking with the lush green rainforest meeting the blue ocean – Spectacular!” Shay Tippie
But if hiking around the Manuel Antonio National Park isn’t your thing, you got tons of other stuff to do. River rafting, ocean kayaking, mangrove kayaking, zip lining, ATV-ing, jet skiing, wakeboarding, you name it.
You can spend weeks doing this stuff and forget a national park on your doorstep even exists.
4. The fishing
Anglers have long called Manuel Antonio the sportfishing capital of Costa Rica, years before Marina Pez Vela opened in 2013.
Since then, “many of the top charter boat captains in Costa Rica now call this area home,” says DeBoom.
“Quepos/Manuel Antonio offers endless fishing adventures, great for families, hardcore anglers, or anyone looking for a fun day on the water. You might also encounter whales, dolphins, turtles, and thousands of marine birds.” Justin DeBoom, Caribsea Sportfishing
Oh yeah – and the park looks beautiful too, from out in the ocean.
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5. The surfing
Manuel Antonio is not for hardcore surfers. It’s worth repeating that. Manuel Antonio is not for hardcore surfers. You have Palo Seco, Esterillos, Bejuco, Playa Hermosa, and Jaco up the coast from Manuel Antonio and Matapalo and Dominical down the coast, all providing the world-class waves Costa Rica is renowned for.
But Manuel Antonio itself, not so much. The beaches inside the park – Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Escondido – are better suited for lazy swimming and selfies on the sand than for surfing. Playa Espadilla, the main beach outside the park, across from the village of Manuel Antonio, is okay, with some fun waves.
The best surf in the area is around Boca Damas about a mile north of Quepos but in all honesty, it’s a pain to get to and there are crocodiles around. Oh – and at Playitas, at the north end of Espadilla. But that’s it.
So why on earth is surfing counted as something to do when you’re not in Manuel Antonio National Park?
Well, although Manuel Antonio isn’t for experienced surfers, Playa Espadilla is great for wannabe surfers. For novices and for families learning to ride a board together. Manuel Antonio is perfect for that.
“Manuel Antonio is where I learned to surf. The best part is you can learn even if you are a little thick in the middle. The instructors say “The bigger the belly, the bigger the board”. I needed a BIG board, but I got up to ride a wave after a few wipeouts!” Aaron Vanecek, Costa Rica Travel Expert
And also, never forget Costa Rica is a surfing Mecca. Just because the surf in Manuel Antonio isn’t as consistent as neighboring spots, it’s still probably better than where you’re from.
A fun day out in the waves can still be had where you don’t even think about the park.
So is Manuel Antonio National Park redundant?
No. The park is still the main draw. It’s crucial in these parts and throughout the country as one of Costa Rica’s flagship tourist attractions.
The chances are if you’ve never been to Costa Rica, what you imagine Costa Rica looks like is what Manuel Antonio looks like. So when it is open you gotta check it out.
But remember there’s a lot more to this area than these three famous square miles.
This post is sponsored by Greentique Hotels
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.