140km (87 miles) SW of San José; 69km (43 miles) S of Playa de Jacó
Manuel Antonio was Costa Rica’s first major ecotourist destination and remains one of its most popular. The views from the hills overlooking Manuel Antonio are spectacular, the beaches (especially those inside the national park) are idyllic, and its rainforests are crawling with howler, white-faced, and squirrel monkeys, among other forms of exotic wildlife. The downside is that you’ll have to share it with more fellow travelers than you would at other rainforest destinations around the country. Moreover, booming tourism and development have begun to destroy what makes this place so special. What was once a smattering of small hotels tucked into the forested hillside has become a string of lodgings along the 7km (4 1/3 miles) of road between Quepos and the national park entrance. Hotel roofs now regularly break the tree line, and there seems to be no control over zoning and unchecked ongoing construction. A jumble of snack shacks, souvenir stands, and makeshift parking lots choke the beach road just outside the park, making the entrance road look more like a shanty town than a national park.
Still, this remains a beautiful destination, with a wide range of attractions and activities. Gazing down on the blue Pacific from high on the hillsides of Manuel Antonio, it’s almost impossible to hold back a gasp of delight. Offshore, rocky islands dot the vast expanse of blue, and in the foreground, the rich, deep green of the rainforest sweeps down to the water. Even cheap cell phone cameras regularly produce postcard-perfect snapshots. It’s this superb view that keeps people transfixed on decks, patios, and balconies throughout the area.
One of the most popular national parks in the country, Manuel Antonio is also one of the smallest, covering fewer than 680 hectares (1,680 acres). Its several nearly perfect small beaches are connected by trails that meander through the rainforest. The mountains surrounding the beaches quickly rise as you head inland from the water; however, the park was created to preserve not its beautiful beaches but its forests, home to endangered squirrel monkeys, three-toed sloths, purple-and-orange crabs, and hundreds of other species of birds, mammals, and plants. Once, this entire stretch of coast was a rainforest teeming with wildlife, but now only this small rocky outcrop of forest remains.
Those views that are so bewitching also have their own set of drawbacks. If you want a great view, you aren’t going to be staying on the beach—in fact, you probably won’t be able to walk to the beach. This means that you’ll be driving back and forth, taking taxis, or riding the public bus. Also keep in mind that it’s hot and humid here, and it rains a lot. However, the rain is what keeps Manuel Antonio lush and green, and this wouldn’t be the Tropics if things were otherwise.
If you’re traveling on a rock-bottom budget or are mainly interested in sportfishing, you might end up staying in the nearby town of Quepos, which was once a quiet banana port and now features a wide variety of restaurants, souvenir and crafts shops, and lively bars; the land to the north was used by Chiquita to grow its bananas. Disease wiped out most of the banana plantations, and now the land is planted primarily with African oil-palm trees. The palms took hold and soon proved quite profitable, being blessed with copious bunches of plum-size nuts that are rich in oil. This oil is extracted and processed in plantations that dot the road between Jacó and Quepos. The smoke and distinct smell of this processing is often easily noticed. The processed oil is eventually shipped overseas and used in a wide range of products, including soaps, cosmetics, lubricants, and food products.
These plantations are a major source of employment in the area—note the small, orderly “company towns” built for workers—but their presence is controversial. The palm trees aren’t native, and the farming practices are thought by some to threaten Costa Rica’s biodiversity. To reach Quepos by road, you pass through miles of these oil-palm plantations.
Despite the above caveats, Manuel Antonio is still a fabulous destination with a wealth of activities and attractions for all types and all ages. If you plan carefully, you can avoid many of the problems that detract from its appeal. If you steer clear of the peak months (Dec–Mar), you’ll miss most of the crowds. If you must come during the peak months, try to avoid weekends, when the beach is packed with families and young Ticos from San José. If you visit the park early in the morning, you can leave when the crowds begin to show up at midday. In the afternoon, you can lounge by your pool or on your patio.