Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most popular national parks, but it’s also a cute little beach town, which people often forget to mention.
The star of the show, Manuel Antonio National Park, is a stunning combination of dense, green jungle and unspoiled white-sand beaches. A lot of the locals enter the national park just to spend the day at one of the perfectly picturesque beaches.
It’s also teeming with wildlife and diverse nature. Offering some of the highest chances of spotting monkeys, sloths, anteaters, coatis, ocelots, crocodiles, iguanas plus lots more.
The national park is the main reason why most people visit the town of Manuel Antonio. Little do they know that there’s actually an abundance of things to do both in Manuel Antonio and its surrounding areas!
You can spend days there without running out of things to do. There’s visiting waterfalls and exploring nearby towns such as Jaco and Uvita. Or something completely different like joining a tour and learning how chocolate is made.
Manuel Antonio National Park is most people’s sole reason for visiting Manuel Antonio as it is one of the most popular in the whole of Costa Rica.
In 1972, the people of Costa Rica decided to preserve the 683 hectares of some of the most beautiful and bio-diverse areas in the world. Hence Manuel Antonio National Park came into existence.
Despite being the country’s smallest national park, it’s home to a charming combination of habitats, including rainforest, beaches and coral reefs.
All of this means that there’s a diverse variety of both wildlife and vegetation. As you wander along the well-kept paths of the national park, you’ll need to keep your eye out for sloths, squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys and numerous birds.
Cast your eyes to the ground and you might see a deer leaping through the jungle, coatis foraging for food or thousands of colourful crabs scuttling around.
Once you’re tired out, you can spend the rest of the day lounging on the gorgeous beaches inside the national park. (We go into more detail on these beaches in #2)
Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio can be visited with or without a guide. We’d recommend hiring a guide if you want to spot more animals, learn about them and also understand the history of the national park.
Entrance to the park without a guide costs $18 per person, which has to be purchased online beforehand.
#2 Spend the day lounging on the beaches of Manuel Antonio
There are spectacular beaches both inside and outside of Manuel Antonio National Park.
Inside the park you’ll find 2 popular beaches, Playa Espadilla Sur and Playa Manuel Antonio. These two beaches sit on either side of the land bridge that connects the two sections of the national park.
Playa Manuel Antonio is the southern facing beach. It’s a picturesque half-mile long white-sand beach, perfect for spending the day frolicking in the ways or chilling on the palm tree lined beach.
Playa Espadilla Sur is just as spectacular, but has stronger currents, so if you’re not a strong swimmer we’d stick to the other beach.
Beaches outside Manuel Antonio National Park
Playa Espadilla, not to be confused with the one inside the national park, is a large public beach located near the entrance of the national park.
It’s one of the most popular beaches, so it can get pretty busy, but being over a mile long, you can still find your own secluded spot.
If you’re looking for a more secluded spot, then head to Playa la Mancha. The best things in life don’t come easy, and that’s the case here. To get to the beach you’ll have to walk down a pretty small trail that can be a little tricky.
It’s worth it though when you see the peace and tranquility of this dark-sand beach.
#3 Splash around at Nauyaca Waterfalls
There are lots of nice waterfalls in Costa Rica, but Nauyaca Waterfalls may be some of the best in the country.
They’re a 50 minute drive from Manuel Antonio if you have a car. For those without one, you can get the bus to San Isidro de El General and ask the driver to stop near Nauyaca Waterfalls as they’re near the bus route. The bus does take a bit longer, around 1.5-2 hours.
As well as being absolutely stunning, they’re also a great place to chill for the day and escape the Costa Rican heat.
At the entrance to the waterfalls you’ll need to pay $10 per person. From here it’s a 3km walk to the waterfalls, which should take around 1 hour depending on how fast you walk.
You can actually visit the different layers of Nauyaca waterfall. We’d start with the upper section of the waterfall that boasts cascades 45 metres high.
The power of the water is immense and infinite. From here you can also get a sneak peak of the lower falls, where you’ll be heading next.
This is where visitors spend most of their time as you’re able to swim in the waterfalls pool.
There’s plenty of rocks submerged in the pool, perfect for lounging on and soaking up the sun.
The 6 meter deep pool is surrounded by dense jungle, creating a relaxing jungle background symphony.
The best time to visit
We’d recommend visiting between December and April. This is when the water levels are at their best, not too much water and not too little.
During the rainy season the water can get too strong and make the pool unsuitable for swimming in.
Do get there early in the morning though if you want to avoid the crowds during the peak months. Nauyaca waterfalls are open Monday to Friday 7am-2pm and Sundays 8am-2pm.
New to Manuel Antonio? Check out this compact Manuel Antonio guide to find the best areas to stay, restaurants you don’t want to miss and many more tips for your visit to Manuel Antonio!
#4 Take to the oceans on a Catamaran Cruise
Embarking on a catamaran cruise has become a popular thing to do in Manuel Antonio. It’s a must-do if you’re visiting Manuel Antonio during whale and dolphin migration season between December and April.
As well as being a great day full of food, drink and beautiful views, you may also be able to spot some of these magnificent creatures.
Even so, it’s a fun day getting to admire Costa Rica’s coastline, snorkel around uninhabited islands and spot a variety of seabirds.
This all inclusive catamaran cruise for $85 lasts for 3.5 hours and even has its own jacuzzi and waterslides. You can make the most of the free alcoholic drinks, snacks and fresh fruit that are onboard, as well as the delicious dinner that’s included!
It’s guaranteed to be a day full of sun, sea and spectacular sights!
Although Manuel Antonio doesn’t have the same surfing reputation as places like Tamarindo or Santa Teresa, it’s still a great place to learn to surf.
Espadilla Beach and Manuel Antonio Beach are two of the best beaches to try and catch a wave. The waves don’t tend to get too big, which means it’s a perfect place for beginner and intermediate surfers.
There’s plenty of surf companies in the area that offers 1-1 or group lessons.
You can book a 3-hour small group lesson with the highly-rated Dantes Water Sports for $65. This also includes transportation to the beach, plus snacks such as fruit, water and coconut water.
Damas island, also known as Damas Mangroves, is one of the most significant remaining ecosystems in Costa Rica. It’s one of the largest mangrove systems in the whole of Central America!
This thriving natural habitat is home to a vast number of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.
The best way to explore these mangroves isn’t by foot, but by kayak. As you glide through the natural canals, you’ll be surrounded by intertwining roots and branches from the vegetation growing straight from the water.
It’s a non-profit organisation offering educational tours of their wildlife sanctuary that’s home to nearly 50 animals including monkeys and sloths.
Their primary goal is to rehabilitate the animals that they rescue to release them back into the wild. However this isn’t always possible with all of the animals.
The wildlife sanctuary is a great place to spend a few hours, and you know that your money is supporting a good cause.
Visiting the sanctuary is only possible if you join a tour, which you can book on their website. These run every day apart from Tuesday, from 9:30-11am. An adult ticket costs $65, whilst a child’s is $45.
#9 Join a chocolate and coffee tour
If we had to name some of the top things that Costa Rica is famous for, coffee and chocolate would be at the top of that list.
Costa Rica produces over 1.5 million bags of coffee per year, whilst cacao production is quickly catching up as the years go on.
We often consume both of these products without really knowing how they’re made or where they come from. This is why a coffee and chocolate tour can be very interesting and eye opening.
Manuel Antonio is one of many places in Costa Rica where you can join a coffee and chocolate tour to learn about the cultural, economic and social influences these two raw materials have on the country.
There’s nothing more peaceful than riding along a beach on horseback, taking in the sights of the ocean and listening to the waves crash against the shore.
It can also be an exhilarating experience if you want it to be, as you gallop along the shore, embracing the movement of the horse.
This 2-hour horse-riding experience for $65 takes you through the forest to Esterillos Beach. If you opt for the morning tour, you’ll get to enjoy an oceanfront lunch, or sunset drinks with the afternoon tour.
El Avion bar has become famous throughout Manuel Antonio and amongst travellers.
The two-level bar and restaurant has been built in, around and above the C-123 Fairchild cargo plane. It’s a unique dining experience or place to grab a drink, plus a great place to capture a great picture!
The El Avion Pub, situated inside the cargo plane sells cold domestic and imported beers, exotic tropical cocktails and quality wines.
Just as impressive as the plane, are the views from the outside bar and restaurant. The open-air spaces overlook Manuel Antonio and are the ideal place to catch the sunset.
#12 Take a day trip to Uvita
Uvita is a small beach town 2-hours down the coast from Manuel Antonio. If you don’t have enough time to actually stay in Uvita, a day trip gives you a good chance to see the main sights of the town.
You can drive or catch the bus to Uvita. The bus costs just $2.70.
Uvita waterfall is an adult playground. As well as being a stunning waterfall, it doubles as a natural slide.
You can climb up the cliff face using the ladder, before sliding down the waterfall. It’s not that high, but boy is it fun! There’s also a number of other jumping off points and turquoise pools to relax in.
Entrance to the waterfall is $4 and also includes access to a butterfly garden.
Ballena National Marine Park
Uvita is also home to Ballena National Marine Park, which is where you’ll find the iconic Whale Tail Beach, also known as Punta Uvita.
Every day during low tide, the sandbar in the shape of a whale’s tail emerges from the ocean. It’s a stunning sight! You can spend the day enjoying the beach and swimming in the warm waters.
An added bonus, if you’re there between December to March and July to November, you may be able to spot Humpback Whales carrying out their migration!
Entrance to the park costs $6 per person.
#13 Visit the popular beach town of Jaco
If you’re a big party-goer then we’d recommend spending a night in Jaco to experience one of the things it’s famous for, it’s nightlife.
For those with not enough time, you can visit Jaco from Manuel Antonio for the day. The best way to get there is by car, as the journey time will only be around 1 hour 20 minutes as opposed to over 2 hours on the bus.
Jaco is geared towards tourists which means that there’s a lot of infrastructure set up for them. You’ll find a huge choice of restaurants and bars here where you can enjoy some delicious meals.
Jaco beach is not just known as a surfing destination. The beach boasts kilometers of golden-sand, ideal for laying down a towel and picking up a book. If you can stay till sunset, definitely do!
The sunsets from Jaco Beach are pretty incredible!
#14 Spend the day on Tortuga Island
That tropical island paradise that you’ve been dreaming of? Tortuga Island is probably pretty close to that with it’s golden-sand beaches lined with palm trees and clear turquoise waters.
Sun-lovers will be happy to see a number of sunbeds to spend the day relaxing on. Whilst water babies will be thrilled at the sight of the hundreds of fish that dash around the boat as you make your way to the island.
More than just chilling at the beach
The day on Tortuga Island is likely to fly by with so many things to keep you busy. Aside from lying on the beach, you can go snorkelling, diving, hiking or eating your body weight in delicious food.
The best way to visit Tortuga Island from Manuel Antonio is by joining a tour. This way everything is arranged for you and a boat cruise is necessary to get to the island.
A tour should cost you around $150 and usually last for more than 12 hours, so it’s a pretty packed day.
You can’t really ask for a better location in Manuel Antonio than this one. Millennium Hotel is only 100 metres from the national park! That also means that you’re super close to the beach too.
The hotel has its own outdoor swimming pool, perfect for a refreshing swim after walking around the national park. The rooms are spacious and offer everything you could need during your stay. Breakfast is also offered for free in a nearby restaurant.
Peace of Paradise feels exactly that. All you have to do to see wildlife from here is sit on your balcony and wait. Before long, you may be able to see monkeys, toucans, birds and maybe a sloth passing by.
The rooms are large and spacious, offering their own kitchen facilities. You can simply make yourself a coffee or cook a full-blown meal. The hotel has a great location in Manuel Antonio though. Not far from bars and restaurants which may be more tempting than cooking your own meals.
Whether you’re travelling solo, as a couple or in a group, Hostel Plinio will suit your needs. There are both dorms and private rooms available, depending on what you’re looking for.
With the outdoor swimming pool and onsite Mexican restaurant, the place feels more like a mini-resort than a hostel. The breakfast in the morning will set you up perfectly for the day ahead, especially the delicious gallo pinto. And don’t forget to try out their Taco’s!