With monkeys coming up to us inches away and sloths turning their cute faces towards us when we first arrived, we knew this would be one of the best days ever. Manuel Antonio National Park left a huge impression on us and we recommend you to put this place on your travel bucket list.
Today we will share our experience and give you a guide for best enjoying your visit to Manuel Antonio National Park.
Let’s start by mentioning that Manuel Antonio is the smallest national park in Costa Rica but perhaps has the most impressive landscapes. It’s even been named the most beautiful park in the country by Forbes Magazine. There’s no arguing why! Its beauty of lush tropical forests, white sand beaches, and it’s fascinating wildlife is captivating.
With only a few hours to spare because the rain prevented us from visiting the day before, we found ourselves rushing through the rain forest before heading back to San Jose to catch our flight. This short time however, did not take away from our most amazing experience.
Our Experience and Guide to Manuel Antonio National Park
Park Hours and Information
To have the best experience during rainy season, arrive early like we did. The weather is cooler and there are less chances of rain as it usually pours in the afternoons. However, during high season it’s recommended to come in the afternoons when there are less crowds. We arrived early because animals tend to slow down a bit when the heat is at its highest. You will likely see them most active early in the morning.
Park hours are from 7Am to 4PM and it is closed on Mondays from July to November. Admission fee is $16 for adults and free for those under 12. For a 3 hour bilingual tour guide which includes a telescope, expect to pay near $45 each but make sure to bargain for a better deal. There are food restrictions, but sodas and water are permitted as well as packed sandwiches and ready cut fruit. Chips and peanuts are no longer allowed in the park for the animal’s best interest.
Guided Tour or Self Tour?
We almost did a guided tour but we decided to keep our $90 instead hoping that we’d be good at spotting animals. For us, doing a self guided tour was the best decision for two reasons. First, we had already enjoyed a guided tour in La Fortuna who spotted animals for us. Second, even though online we read a tour is highly recommended, we also read that it’s almost a 90 percent guarantee of seeing monkeys on your own. It couldn’t have been more true on this day. We saw plenty of animals without a guide.
By not having a tour guide, perhaps we missed a few animals. However, if we saw a tour group stop ahead of us, we knew to stop when we passed ourselves. Not having a tour guide also allowed us to go at our own pace, which varied from slow to fast depending on the animal we spotted. It allowed us to hike the longer trails and it saved us from waiting our turn to see an animals through a telescope shared by big tour groups.
However, we do recommend a tour guide if you want to learn more about the animals, want to spot smaller creatures, want to see more than one sloth, and enjoy meeting and talking to new people. This all depends on your Costa Rica itinerary and where you prefer to get tour guides.
Wildlife in Manuel Antonio National Park
Keep Your Eyes on the Trees
You will surely see Monkeys no matter what, but if you want to see sloths, you will have to look more closely at the trees. Most of them are up high and they sometimes blend in with the environment. If you’re lucky like we were, you might spot one quite low on a tree right on the trail.
A Monkey World
We never imagined we’d spot three kinds of monkeys that live in Manuel Antonio National Park, but we did. This made us extremely happy. The most common type to see is the White Face monkeys. If you don’t see them on your hike through the paved trail, there is no doubt you will see them at Manuel Antonio Beach inside the park. They like to hang out with people and even snatch your food and items if you aren’t careful. This goes for the raccoons as well.
You will also likely see Squirrel Monkeys. Where there is one, there are many. You can easily hear their squeaky sounds coming from the trees. Just make sure to look up and find the moving leaves.
The Howler monkey is the hardest one to spot as they don’t approach the trails as much. However, listening to their loud call was pretty darn cool. Luckily, we were able to spot one by following its sound through the trail. Though it was sitting a bit far from the trail, I was able to snap a couple pictures before it swung away!
Monkeys and sloths aren’t the only animals around, though we could argue they’re the coolest ones to see. Raccoons, white nose coatis, deer, birds, lizards, insects also share this beautiful rain forest with the long armed mammals. One we got excited about was the morph butterfly. They are quite beautiful with their size and blue color. Hopefully next time we are in Costa Rica, we spot the spider monkey.
Trails and Beaches
Sendero Principal (main trail): Sendero Principal will take you on the main entrance trail where you can take the other trails. This is also the main trail that leads to Playa Manuel Antonio.
Sendero El Perezoso (sloth trail)- Sendero el Perezoso will lead you deeper into the forest where you will likely spot sloths hiding in the trees. It’s also the path that will lead you to the fork that also takes you to Playa Manuel Antonio if you choose to forego the trail and prefer the beach.
Sendero Mirador (Viewpoint of Punta Serrucho)– Only a 1.3 km walk, this trail can be a bit steep and has a lot stairs. We recommend drinking water and taking breaks as needed. After a good workout, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of Punta Serrucho. If you continue on the trail, it leads you to Playa Puerto Escondido beach.
There are more trails inside the park and they are certainly doable in one day. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to enjoy each one!
What to take
If you plan to do walk a lot and do all the trails, comfortable shoes are best. Sneakers would have been great, but sandals worked just fine for me because the trails are paved. Also, make sure to wear light breathable clothing because the humidity will likely make you sweat. If you plan to enjoy the beach, bring your bathing suit and towel. Don’t forget to bring water and to wear sunscreen and bug repellent. Lastly, bring a good camera with a good lens. Our camera took great pictures, but when animals where at a distance we were bummed to not have a long distance lens.
The park is closed on Sundays so keep this in mind when planning your trip. Do not make the mistake of leaving it until the end like we did. In fact, we recommend starting here on your trip to Costa Rica, especially during rainy season. If rain prevents you from entering one day, you can always stay an extra day because this place is a must see. Manuel Antonio National Park is not the only thing to do. Take a day to explore the city where you will find Playa Espadilla, souvenir shops, vendors, and many restaurants with amazing views.
Where to Eat
With many options to choose from as we drove around looking for food, a plane and a train were the ones to catch our attention. They were a great choice of food!
El Wagon Pizza
For the best wood-fired pizza, stop at El Wagon Pizza. This is a great place to come for lunch while enjoying the beautiful decor of the restaurant and the views of Manuel Antonio. El Wagon has an antique rail car as part of its dining experience. Don’t be surprised if you see wildlife hanging out nearby such as sloths and monkeys as they come by to visit often.
A world famous restaurant and bar in Manuel Antonio includes a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane sitting at its property. Now converted into a pub and two level bar and restaurant, El Avion has amazing views of Manuel Antonio. Enjoy a spectacular sunset or enjoy some delicious dining.
Where to stay
Hotel La Mariposa
By far, this hotel had the best view we’ve ever experienced thus far. With a wrap around terrace from our room and with more than a 180 degree view of the beach, it’s no wonder we didn’t want to leave our luxurious room. Check out our review of the best hotel located in Manuel Antonio.
Hotel Mango Moon
This hotel made us feel like we were in a tree house in the middle of the rain forest. With partial but amazing views of the ocean and right in the middle of rain forest trees, this hotel is known to have monkeys, sloths and toucans hanging around on a daily basis. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any because of a storm, but we could hear them before the rain came by.
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