Remember how I told you guys that we had to change our itinerary pretty frequently when we were in Costa Rica? Thank goodness for cancellable hotels! Luckily, our change of plans resulted in us spending 4 days in the paradise that is Manuel Antonio.
Initially, we had planned to spend a couple of days in Manuel Antonio then head to Drake Bay. The problem with that plan was that it’s close to impossible to drive to Drake Bay – apparently the roads are incredibly rough and have a tendency to flood during rainy season. It just so happened to be the rainy season when we went. Womp womp.
Manuel Antonio is by far the most expensive city we stayed in while in Costa Rica, but also the best place to relax. There are tons of great water sports and activities to do here, but we spent most of our time splashing around the gorgeous beaches. I’ll give you the lowdown on all there is to do there, but don’t be surprised if you turn into a beach bum like I did.
So without further idle chitchat: the budget travel guide to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.
About Manuel Antonio:
Manuel Antonio is located on the West Coast of Costa Rica, about 100 miles southwest of San Jose. It’s an incredibly popular expat beach town, and is home to gorgeous beaches and wildlife; it’s most well known for its national park. Because it’s an expat town, cost of living (or vacationing) is fairly high, but this guide includes some tips to help you save money cause that’s how I roll.
Getting to Manuel Antonio:
If you’re following the typical tourist route itinerary, it’s likely you’re driving or taking the shuttle to Manuel Antonio from Monteverde. Once you’ve rattled your way out of Monteverde’s rocky roads (hehe rocky road) then expect the trip to Manuel Antonio to take around 3 hours.
Where to Stay:
This is where I share my first money-saving tip: stay in Quepos, not in Manuel Antonio itself. Quepos is about 2 miles from Manuel Antonio and is easily accessible by car, local bus, or taxi. My family and I rented an apartment at Cabinas Mansion Tropical (affiliate link) and it was amazing. It’s super comfortable and clean with incredibly friendly staff. It also has AC, a washing machine, and a kitchen. While Quepos isn’t as snazzy as Manuel Antonio, we collectively agreed that we would choose to stay in Quepos again (and specifically at Cabinas) if we returned.
What to do:
There are tons of things to do in Manuel Antonio, but can categorically be broken down into the beach, hiking, and water activities. Although we considered hiking several times, the beach was so relaxing (plus we were lazy and it was hot) that we ended up swimming every day. #SorryNotSorry
Manuel Antonio National Park:
You can and should spend an entire day at Manuel Antonio National Park. This is the by far the best thing to do in Manuel Antonio, so if for some reason you’re in the city for just one day, this is where you should go. This national park is a beautiful rainforest that is home to a wide variety of wildlife, tons of hiking trails, and gorgeous beaches. We only hiked two trails because the mosquito situation was pretty unbearable. However, because we got to the park early, we also ended up at the beach early and had it all to ourselves for a while, which was amazing.
Know before you go:
- The park hours are 7am – 4pm Tuesday – Sunday. It’s closed on Mondays. Get here early to avoid the crowds both at the beach and on the trails.
- The entrance is a little strange – it’s located on a small road near Marlin restaurant. You can park at the lots near the entrance since there is no official parking lot.
- The only licensed place to buy your tickets is at the Coopealianza booth right outside the park. Don’t buy them anywhere else.
- Neither food nor drinks are sold inside the park, so bring your own lunch.
- There are several beaches within the park, so bring your bathing suit and towel.
- Wear hiking sandals! They may be ugly, but they’re the most practical thing to wear for both hiking and the beach. I recommend these.
Getting a guide:
When you get to the park, tons of people will offer to be your guide to help you find the animals. Although there seems to be mixed advice online as to whether or not you need a guide, my answer is: get a guide. They have a great eye for animals that we would have missed otherwise and have telescopes so you can really see them up close. Don’t hesitate to negotiate on prices either: we paid $30 for a private guide for the four of us. Some people later told me that they snuck behind groups that had guides and managed to spot animals that way, but we felt like we got a good deal for the two hours. The guide only leads you through the main trail, but we spotted bats, crabs, sloths, birds, monkeys and more. We would have never seen half of these animals without him. If you get to the park early, you’re more likely to get a private guide for a good price and you’re more likely to see animals because it’s still quiet. Win win.
Travel tip: Get the strongest insect repellent you can find, and put it on both under and over your clothes. I put some on underneath my leggings and on top of them and my legs were still bitten to death. The guide said it’s because I was wearing black, so I guess don’t wear black either.
Playa Manuel Antonio:
Once you’re tired of hiking, park yourself at the best beach in Manuel Antonio, Playa Manuel Antonio. This is one of three beaches in the park and by far the most popular. It’s an exquisite cove with crystal clear water and white sands that are perfect for a beach day. The only annoying thing about this beach is the monkeys and raccoons who have a tendency to steal stuff, so keep an eye on your bags. If Playa Manuel Antonio gets too crowded, then check out Playa Espadilla Sur further down the trail. It isn’t as pretty, but you do get more privacy.
Once we discovered Playa Biesanz, we didn’t go to a single other beach. You have to walk for about ten minutes through a rocky path, but once you arrive, the beach is yours for the taking. There aren’t many tourists due to its somewhat hidden location, but there are a fair amount of locals. There are a couple of vendors set up from whom you can rent beach umbrellas, chairs, snorkels, paddleboards, and more. There’s also a nearby stand selling a variety of snacks, drinks, and even ceviche. Plus, all the rentals are really inexpensive. While there are monkeys that hang out in the trees, none of them are daring enough to try to steal your things. The only drawback is that there are some bigger rocks in the water, so we had to wear our water shoes while swimming. Besides that and the path at the beginning, this beach is perfect. To access the beach, you enter through a small opening on the side of the road near the Parador Resort. There’s usually a parking attendant there who will point you in the right direction.
That’s more or less all we did in Manuel Antonio. We also spent some time exploring Quepos; we walked around the marina, the town center, and checked out the farmer’s market. But don’t worry – I’ve included plenty of options for the more adventure inclined below.
- Los Campesinos: Located about an hour from Manuel Antonio, this rural nature park is excellent for hiking. It has a small waterfall where you can swim, a self-propelled cable car, and a long hanging bridge. The highlight of this place is the $10 traditional lunch prepared by the local women. We actually tried really hard (and failed twice because #familytravel) to come here, and now that I’m writing about it, I’m pretty bummed we couldn’t go.
- Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation: Located 10 miles outside Manuel Antonio, this farm grows a variety of spices and essential oils including vanilla, cocoa, and cinnamon. You can come here for a half-day tasting tour and learn all about how these spices are cultivated. Yum!
- Rainmaker Conservation Park: This park is around 45 minutes from Manuel Antonio and offers a variety of tours including bird watching (early morning), river walk / canopy (daytime), and amphibians / reptiles (nighttime). There are also self-guided tours, hiking trails, and waterfalls. The trails are more challenging than Manuel Antonio National Park, and the park has different wildlife as well.
- Kids Saving the Rainforest: This rescue and rehabilitation reserve for injured and orphaned animals is located just 20 minutes from Manuel Antonio. You can tour the sanctuary and learn about the conservation work KSTR does, as well see a variety of animals up close. This is an excellent place to visit for animal lovers.
- Water sports and activities: There’s no shortage of water activities you can do in Manuel Antonio. Although the majority of tours are catered to tourists and are on the more expensive side, they’re definitely a great option if you’re willing to splurge. These include but are not limited to sunset sailing, white water rafting, surfing, diving, and more. One of the more unique tours is the kayaking excursion to Damas Island. It’s well known for its estuaries with mangroves and is home to a variety of unique animals such as boa constrictors, anteaters, and capuchin monkeys. There are several companies that offer these excursions but I can’t recommend one since we didn’t do these tours. There are a few tour offices in the city center (both in Quepos and Manuel Antonio) for research purposes.
Marisqueria Jiuberths: OMG. Guys, this place is SO good. If you like fresh seafood, come here. It has great views, mediocre ambiance, and amazing food. It’s definitely on the pricier side for Costa Rica ($20-$30 per person) but everything we ate was delicious, fresh, and flavorful. It’s in a somewhat random location on a hill but don’t be deterred by the neighborhood. This was definitely my favorite restaurant in Manuel Antonio.
Sancho’s Tacos: We spotted Sancho’s Tacos on our way back from Manuel Antonio National Park and once we saw the sign for fish tacos, we were sold. It’s actually attached to a hostel, but this turned out to be a win because the prices were reasonable. The food was delicious and served in American-sized portions. It was a refreshing change from Costa Rican food.
Runaway Grill: It just so happened to be Mother’s Day when we were in Costa Rica, so the four of us decided to go to the Quepos Marina and eat there. We found ourselves at Runaway Grill, a Mexican–American–Costa Rican restaurant located on the water. While it was overpriced by Costa Rican standards, I admit that the food was delicious and the sunset views were to die for. They even have a live band that managed to provide great ambiance without being overbearing. Win! For dessert, don’t miss the cute gelato shop at the Marina with tons of delicious flavors.
Travel tip/note: We also ate at Dos Locos in Quepos and Pizza Pata in Manuel Antonio. I found both to be mediocre and not worth recommending. If you’re looking to eat on a budget, find restaurants that have the word “Soda” in the name. These are budget-friendly local restaurants serving Costa Rican cuisine.
How long to stay in Manuel Antonio:
The answer to this one isn’t as straightforward as some of the other towns. I recommend anywhere between 2-5 days. It totally depends on which activities you want to do, how much beach time you want, etc. We stayed for 3.5 days and were happy with that decision, but you do you. As they say in Costa Rica, “pura vida.”
No matter how long you decide to stay in Manuel Antonio, it’s definitely a city not to be missed. Whether you’re a water sports fiend, beach bum, or something in between, I’m confident you’ll find plenty of things to keep you relishing that pura vida lifestyle.
Have you ever been to Manuel Antonio? What was your favorite part? Share in the comments below!
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