Manuel Antonio, a small peninsula on the Pacific coast side of Costa Rica, is one of the most visited and biologically diverse areas in the country. We recently expanded our coverage there, to bring you thousands of photographs of 16 properties, from a family-friendly jungle retreat to a romantic boutique overlooking the ocean. Beyond giving you the dish on various hotels, this primer is your go-to guide for what to eat, see, and expect in one of our favorite spots in Central America. Pura Vida (Costa Rica's motto, meaning "pure life") at its finest.
Getting to Manuel Antonio via bus or car from the international airport in San Jose takes between two-and-a-half and three hours on paved, tolled roads. Quepos serves as a sort of gateway town to Manuel Antonio; it's located on the coast just below M.A. and has more local flavor and cheaper hotel rooms -- but fewer attractions. Visitors will find soda-style restaurants, grocery stores, and a few nightclubs on the edge of town here. There's ocean frontage and a boardwalk, but no proper beach. It's about a five-minute drive up steep and winding roads from Quepos to get to Manuel Antonio.
The majority of hotels in M.A. are built on the hillside off of Route 618; almost all of them have sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, Manuel Antonio National Park, and the beach. Many visitors skip rental cars and use the bus or walk, but be advised -- sidewalks are intermittent, hills are steep, and traffic can be fast.
Though Manuel Antonio is built-up with hotels and restaurants that cater to international tourists, it was done in a careful way that focuses on nature and views. The only American chains are a Best Western hotel and a Subway sandwich shop in Quepos. This isn't a party spot. Many visitors are up with the sunrise for strong Costa Rican coffee, an early morning hike, and a day at the beach or in the national park -- finished with a cocktail by the hotel pool, early dinner, and early bedtime.
Food prices are high, especially for Central America. Expect to pay around $10 for a burger and $18 for a seafood entree. Local, Imperial brand beer runs around $3 for a bottle. Restaurants that overlook the ocean tend to charge more, but remember that you can't enjoy the vistas after dark. Cafe Agua Azul has some of the prettiest ocean views as it's on the second-story of a building holding a real estate office below. Service is super-friendly and the menu ranges from nachos to grilled fish sandwiches to fancy dinner entrees like tuna with crab rangoon.
For a healthy, quick lunch, try Falafel Bar, next to Banco Promerica. It serves made-to-order falafel sandwiches in soft pita bread, plus outrageously tasty fruit smoothies. Emilio's Cafe across the street is an excellent pick for breakfast and romantic dinners; it has an expansive dessert menu. Happy Hour specials can be found at most hotels, and many bars close right after the sun sets. Most restaurants are closed by nine. Dress is tropical casual, though coverups should be worn over swimsuits.
The majority of visitors to Manuel Antonio spend at least one day in the national park, located at the end of Route 618, where the Pacific Ocean meets the shore. The well-preserved park is lush and, quite literally, crawling with monkeys, iguanas, sloths, and snakes. Pelicans and toucans are regularly spotted in the trees. Guests can easily traverse paved, hilly paths to white sand beaches without a guide, but should be prepared for semi-aggressive touts at the park entrance that will all but insist they take you through the park. It may be worth it -- these guys can spot animals that most tourists would miss. Note that visitors are not allowed to stray off the path and wander through the jungle. The park shares a border with many of the hotels, so wildlife is regularly spotted poolside. Monkeys often swing through the tiki-themed pool at La Posada Private Jungle Bungalows.
Technically, all of the beaches in Costa Rica are public -- accessing them is the rub. The majority of the hotels in Manuel Antonio are located across the street and down an (often) steep hill covered with thick foliage. Exceptions to this rule include Karahe Hotel, which has gated beach access for its guests, and Tulemar Bungalow and Villas. There are rocky, rough, and gorgeous beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park, though you'll have to pay the park's entrance fee to access them. Adjacent to the park is Playa Espadilla, an easy-to-access public beach with cheap parking nearby. The waves are wild enough for surfing but calm enough for a swim; lifeguards aren't on watch. On the sand, visitors can rent chairs and umbrellas. Touts sell water bottles, jewelry, arts-and-crafts, and sno-cones. Parasailing and surf lessons can easily be arranged at kiosks. Sunsets over the water are stunning.
Another beach option is the calmer water at Biesanz Beach, though it requires parking on a narrow dead-end street and hiking down to the water via a rutted path. Monkeys are regularly spotted in the trees. There are vendors here, too, but the cove-like setting is calmer. Massages are available for $35, and snorkel gear is available for rent as well.
Things to Keep in Mind
- English is widely spoken in Manuel Antonio, though an understanding of Spanish is obviously helpful.
- Toilet paper should be thrown in the trash, and not the toilet, as the septic systems here are sensitive.
- U.S. dollars are widely accepted.
- It's completely safe to drink the tap water, which is treated and regularly tested.
- TV channels pick up English stations; expect Florida-based news.