We’ve been going to Costa Rica nearly every year since 2005, and have returned on most trips to one of our favorite beaches anywhere, Manuel Antonio. It’s a world-renowned national park adjacent to a public beach, Playa Espadilla. Read on for our tips on visiting the park, where to stay on the beach, how to get there, and more.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is the most popular and most visited national park in Costa Rica. It is located about 120 miles from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, on the Pacific coast. It is small, about seven miles square, but it’s a crowd pleaser. It is one of the most biodiverse rainforest parks on the planet with the best swimming we’ve found anywhere. The park is closed on Mondays so plan accordingly.
Expect to do a lot of walking in the park. Only rarely to we see visitors moving along the path in a vehicle. Most visitors walk along a dirt and gravel path carved through the jungle with tour guides stopping along the path and planting their scopes to spot monkeys and sloths in the canopy.
If this is your first visit to the park, you may want to book a guide to learn more about the endangered white-faced monkeys, the sloths, and rainforest they live in. After a dozen visits, we head straight to the gorgeous beaches, knowing that we’re very likely to see monkeys, iguanas, butterflies and more. Our favorite hike in the park traverses Punta Cathedral. It’s a short, steep hike—just shy of a mile—that climbs the rocky peninsula between the beaches, and offers stunning views of the coastline below.
Be sure to take a bathing suit.
The park has two extraordinarily beautiful small cove beaches— Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Espadilla Sur. The surf is especially gentle on Playa Manuel Antonio, which is popular with both tourists and ‘Ticos’ —Costa Ricans—especially on the weekends.
We have learned not to take anything into the park that we aren’t willing to have a monkey steal. Protecting food from the monkeys and raccoons who come right down to the beach is a challenge. They’ve learned how to untie bags and unzip backpacks. We’ve seen monkeys snatch lunch bags and cameras, and race up a tall palm with them. They are becoming much more aggressive around food than they used to be. Make sure you don’t make encourage this behavior by feeding them. It’s not even good for them: we overheard a guide telling a man who was feeding a banana to a monkey that it is harmful to their digestive systems.
The entrance into the park is lined with guides, and vendors selling snacks, fresh coconuts and water. From now on, we plan to take only water, so we can enjoy our swimming without having to fret about whether the animals are stealing our stuff. The park is open from 7am to 4pm, so go early, don’t bring food, and then leave for a late lunch out of the park.
If you’ve brought any tech devices, including phones, make sure someone stays on the beach with the valuables while the rest of your group enjoys a swim. Swimming in the azure coves of park is always one of the highlights of our trip, so it’s worth a bit of planning.
Playa Espadilla — Where we stay
A great many of the hotels in the Manuel Antonio area are high on the hillside overlooking the sea. Only a few are located on the beach. If you don’t stay at one of the beach hotels, you have to walk or take a taxi or a bus down to beach area. The sign at the Verde Mar says “If you stayed here, you’d be on the beach already,” and that makes it our pick year after year.
The Verde Mar is not luxurious. It’s a small hotel with a corrugated metal roof that is dotted with solar panels. It’s low-key, with clean, air conditioned rooms, many with kitchenettes, and priced around $100 a night most of the year. The location is ideal—within walking distance of Manuel Antonio National Park and a lot of nearby restaurants and convenience stores. It is just steps away from the public beach, Playa Espadilla.
We prefer rooms in the Verde Mar’s main building with kitchenettes. It’s a short walk to the Super Joseth convenience store where we stock up on fruit, snacks, beer and wine for the fridge. The Verde Mar also has a restaurant which serves excellent pizza. One night, during a downpour when we didn’t feel like venturing out, we ordered a delicious vegetarian pie.
Jim gets up with the sunrise to do his yoga practice at the far end of the beach, in the shade of the almond trees. I usually sleep in, but eventually the aroma of the Costa Rican coffee he brews gets me out of bed and out for a walk on the beach. Some mornings, we can hear the roar of the Howler monkeys, reminding us that we are literally in their jungle. Sitting poolside with my coffee at the Verde Mar, I often see surfers who camped on the beach, and are now packing up their tent and grabbing their surfboards to catch some waves.
We don’t come to Costa Rica for luxury. We come for days on the beach and in the water, from morning to dusk. At least once a day, for lunch or dinner, we go to our favorite restaurant on the beach at Balu, a family owned very casual restaurant where we enjoy Costa Rican ‘casado’ platters with a beer or a margarita. We’ve been going there for more than a decade, and it’s always perfect.
There are more luxurious options. The most stylish hotel on the beach is Arenas del Mar, on a small cove over a rocky point at the opposite end of Playa Espadilla. It is hard to get to from the main beach because it’s separated by tides and rocks much of the time. If you can climb over the rocks at low tide, or take a cab, the food is great. We’ve also enjoyed several lunches and dinners at the Mariposa, a hotel high on the hill with a good restaurant and a splendid view of the sea.
In the evening, we float in the Verde Mar’s pool and watch the glowing horizon through the almond trees signaling the golden hour, a heads up that it’s time to grab a cold beer and head to the beach to watch the sunset.
What to do on Playa Espadilla
As soon as the sun comes up, so does the crew setting up beach chairs and umbrellas along the beach. There are so many options to explore— surf lessons, jet skis, SUP paddling, massages, parasailing and more.
There is a spot on the beach where large stand of almond trees provide shade and we hang our portable hammock and enjoy just swaying in the breeze. Ticos often use the phrase Pura Vida, and not only do they use it, they live it. Costa Ricans have been named some of the happiness people on the planet, and some of the most long-living people as well. We all have something to learn from their relaxed, simple way of looking at life.
We’re big paddleboard fans, and this beach is one of our favorite places to paddle. We try to book early, usually by 9am, so we can go out when the surf is the calmest. Most rentals are an hour and a half, which gives you ample time to paddle out into the bay, and over into the beautiful cove of the Manuel Antonio National Park.
I usually book a surf lesson. After watching the kids doing it, it looks so easy! I’m not such a natural, but I did pretty well with a lesson from Bryan at the Manuel Antonio Surf School. The waves were very gentle, which made it easy for me to paddle out. Bryan was very good about helping me to get positioned properly on the wave. Within my one hour lesson, he had me popping up and riding the waves all the way into shore.
Do you need to go into the nearby town of Quepos?
The town is primarily known as a center of a sport fishing with a newly revamped marina that includes more food, shops, sunset cruises, and other activities. You can take a taxi to Quepos from Manuel Antonio for about five or six bucks, or you can take the local bus which costs less than one dollar per person.
If you have a medical emergency, there is a Centro Medico de Quepos with English speaking doctors. You can also fill some prescriptions more cheaply than in the U.S. Quepos has several pharmacies and doctors who can help you.
Getting there —
By car, we especially like Janny at Lancaster Transportation. He’s personable, speaks English well, courteous and knowledgeable. The trip between Manuel Antonio and San Jose is about three hours, and the air-conditioned car has flawless WIFI so you can check in as necessary. — http://lancastercostarica.com/
By air, we book a 25 minute flight on Sansa, which depart from a regional terminal a short walk from the exit of San Jose’s international airport— http://www.flysansa.com/
(As flights to Manuel Antonio are usually scheduled only in the morning, we find that the drive is usually more pleasant, cutting out the stress of connecting to a flight after your international flight.)
Manuel Antonio National Park— https://manuelantoniopark.com/
The Verde Mar Hotel — http://verdemar.com/
Another popular hotel on the beach, Karahe — http://www.karahe.com/
Balu— we eat nearly all our meals here and also rent SUP boards.
Manuel Antonio Surf School— https://manuelantoniosurfschool.com
What we bring
Sun protection— Since we are literally out in the sun all day, sun protection is key, including rash guards with SPF, waterproof sunblock stick which we use liberally on our faces and lips, and a wide brimmed hat
Small binoculars – to spot monkeys and sloths in the trees along the beach.
Portable hammocks — for swinging in the shade on the beach.
A small umbrella — for the downpours that one should expect in the rainforest.
Mosquito protection — Some years we find mosquitoes at sunset; this year it was breezy and we saw only a few. If you forget to bring protection, we’ve found the Autan cream which is widely available is effective.
We were not compensated for this post. All opinions and images are ours.
See below for more photos from our 10 years of visits.