Manuel Antonio is a small park with three major trails. Most visitors come primarily to lie on a beach and check out the white-faced monkeys. Unless you’re experienced in rainforest hiking, you’ll see and learn a lot more if you hire a guide. You can always stay on inside the park after your guided tour is over. A 2- or 3-hour guided hike should cost between $40 and $80 per person. Almost any of the hotels in town can help you set up a tour of the park, or you can contact Manuel Antonio Expeditions ((tel) 8365-1057; www.manuelantonioexpeditions.blogspot.com). Avoid hawkers dressed as guides stopping you on the street and doing a hard sell.
Entry Point, Fees & Regulations: The park ((tel) 2777-5185) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 7am to 4pm. The entrance fee is $16 per person. The main park entrance is located almost about 1.5km (almost a mile) inland, at the end of the road that leads off perpendicular to Playa Espadilla at the corner featuring the popular Marlin Restaurant.
Another ranger station and exit point is at the end of the road from Quepos. It’s located across a small stream that’s little more than ankle-deep at low tide but that can be knee- or even waist-deep at high tide. For years there has been talk of building a bridge over this stream; in the meantime, access to or from the park via this point is prohibited.
MINAE, the national ministry that oversees the park, has been frustratingly inconsistent about which entrance visitors may use. However, for the past several years, tickets have been sold and entry allowed only at the inland entrance. This requires about 20 to 30 minutes of hiking along an often muddy access road before you get to the beach and principal park trails. Note: The Parks Service allows only 800 visitors to enter each day, which could mean that you won’t get in if you arrive in midafternoon during the high season. Camping is not allowed.
People feeding monkeys, and monkeys and raccoons stealing food, has become a serious problem, and the park service no longer allows visitors to bring in many types of foods.
The Beaches: Playa Espadilla Sur (as opposed to Playa Espadilla, which is just outside the park) is the first beach within the actual park boundaries. It’s usually the least crowded and one of the best places to find a quiet shade tree to plant yourself under. However, if there’s any surf, this is also the roughest beach in the park. Walk along this soft-sand beach or follow a trail through the rainforest parallel to the beach to get to Playa Manuel Antonio, which is the most popular beach inside the park. It’s a short, deep crescent of white sand backed by lush rainforest. The water here is sometimes clear enough to offer good snorkeling along the rocks at either end, and it’s usually fairly calm. At low tide, Playa Manuel Antonio shows a very interesting relic: a circular stone turtle trap left by its pre-Columbian residents. From Playa Manuel Antonio, another slightly longer trail leads to Puerto Escondido, where a blowhole sends up plumes of spray at high tide.
The Hiking Trails: From either Playa Espadilla Sur or Playa Manuel Antonio, you can take a circular loop trail (1.4km/.9 mile) around a high promontory bluff. The highest point on this hike, which takes about 25 to 30 minutes round-trip, is Punta Catedral ★★, where the view is spectacular. The trail is a little steep in places, but anybody in average shape can do it. This is a good place to spot monkeys, as is the trail inland from Playa Manuel Antonio. A linear trail, it’s mostly uphill, but it’s not too taxing. It’s great to spend hours exploring the steamy jungle and then take a refreshing dip in the ocean.
Finally, a trail connects Puerto Escondido and Punta Serrucho, which has some sea caves. Be careful when hiking beyond Puerto Escondido: What seems like easy beach hiking at low tide becomes treacherous to impassable at high tide. Don’t get trapped.
If you want to help protect the local environment and the vulnerable squirrel monkey, make a donation to the Titi Conservation Alliance ((tel) 2777-2306; www.monotiti.org), an organization supported by local businesses, or to Kids Saving the Rainforest ((tel) 2777-2592; www.kidssavingtherainforest.org), which was started in 1999 by local children.