Manuel Antonio was Costa Rica’s first major ecotourism destination and remains one of its most popular. The views from the hills overlooking the park are spectacular, the beaches are idyllic, and the rainforest is crawling with howler, white-faced, spider, and squirrel monkeys, among other exotic wildlife. The downside is the abundance of the species Homo sapiens you’ll find here. Booming tourism and development have adversely affected the natural appeal of this place, which is often criticized because it’s so touristy. What was once a smattering of small hotels tucked into the forested hillside has become a string of lodges along the 7km (4 1/3 miles) of road between Quepos and the national park entrance. 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 shantytown than a national park.
Still, this remains a beautiful destination, with a wide range of attractions and activities that make it perfect for all sorts of travelers. Gazing down on the blue Pacific from high on the hillsides of Manuel Antonio, you’ll realize there’s a good reason so many people come here. Offshore, rocky islands dot the vast expanse, and in the foreground, the rich, deep green of the rainforest sweeps down to the water.
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 rare squirrel monkeys, three-toed sloths, purple-and-orange crabs, and hundreds of other species. Once this entire stretch of coast was 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 bear in mind that it’s hot and humid here, and that all that lush, green rainforest means there’s a lot of rain.
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, shops, and lively bars. Disease wiped out most of the banana plantations, and now the land is planted primarily with African palm trees.
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 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 Tico families from San José. If you visit the park early in the morning, you can leave when the crowds begin to show up at midday.