Just two and a half hours from Costa Rica’s San Jose international airport lies the popular beach town of Manuel Antonio. Thousands flock to Playa Espadilla and its surrounding sands each year, drawn by breathtaking views of the Pacific and pristine beaches. Although a wide array of tourism businesses have sprung up along the forested hills, Manuel Antonio has managed to strike a fine balance between development and nature. You might be staying at a luxury hotel with all the amenities, but that won’t stop troops of monkeys from pattering across your roof or iguanas from sunning themselves at the pool. We’ve spent a lot of time in Manuel Antonio, both vacationing and living there. Below we share essential tips for planning your visit, including our favorite hotels, restaurants, and activities.
Manuel Antonio is about 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose on the central Pacific coast. It has one, almost mountainous, main road that climbs from the small city of Quepos, flattens at the top, and then descends to the beach near the national park. Although developed, Manuel Antonio still has plenty of thick tropical rainforest. Wildlife is plentiful all around town and is a highlight for most visitors.
When to Visit
The dry season, which runs from December to April, has the best weather and is the busiest time of year. During popular vacation weeks, especially the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the area can get congested. If you visit then, expect the beach to be near capacity, with tourists escaping the chill of winter and local families gathering to celebrate the holidays.
To avoid the crowds, plan your visit during the hedge months of May, June, or July. Although you might get an afternoon downpour, the rainy season doesn’t get too intense until later in the year. As a reward for putting up with some wet weather, you’ll enjoy lower hotel rates, more towel space at the beach, and the rainforest at its lushest.
For more information about when to travel, read our post Best Time to Visit Costa Rica.
Car or Shuttle
If you’re deciding whether to rent a car, everything in Manuel Antonio is located along one main road so it is possible to visit without one. A local bus runs frequently up and down the hill, and you will also find plenty of taxis. Keep in mind, though, that the road is very steep in parts and walking to get around is not always easy due to a lack of sidewalks.
If you are interested in exploring the area, a car is a great option. The drive time from San Jose is only about 2.5 hours. In recent years, Costa Rica has considerably improved the route from the capital to the central Pacific, so you’ll enjoy smooth travel along paved highways.
Shuttles are another option if you’re not comfortable driving. Keep in mind that they do take considerably longer since they stop at other towns and hotels for pick-ups and drop-offs. Rates are around $50 per person so it is often cheaper to rent a car if you are traveling with a group.
If you decide to rent a car, be sure to check out our Rental Car Discount to save some money.
The fastest way to get to Manuel Antonio is to take a small plane flight on one of the local carriers, Nature Air or Sansa. They leave directly from SJO airport and land in Quepos, just 15 minutes from the beach. Prices range from $50 if booked in advance to upwards of $150 depending on the season. These flights are fast and a fun way to see the country since they fly at a lower altitude.
Taxis from the airport are not cheap. Official taxis will run the meter and you should expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $200 or more. For this reason, arranging a rental car, shuttle, or private transfer is your best option.
The public bus is a great way to save some cash and will let you mingle with the locals. It’s about a 3.5 hour trip from San Jose and costs about $8. Be sure to take a direct bus (“directo”), which makes fewer stops than collective (“collectivo”) buses. The bus will drop you off at the main station in Quepos where you can connect to the local Manuel Antonio–Quepos bus for about $0.60.
Manuel Antonio is a convenient jumping off point for almost any tour you would want to do in Costa Rica. Zip lining, hiking, white-water rafting, canyoning, ATV tours, mangrove tours, parasailing, horseback riding, jet skiing, sportfishing, sunset cruises, whale watching, birding, and even segway tours are available. Below are some of the can’t-miss activities as well as some lesser known excursions that might not be in your guidebook.
Manuel Antonio National Park
You can’t come to Manuel Antonio without experiencing its famous national park. With sloths, monkeys, and exotic birds along even the main trail, you won’t have to look hard to find wildlife. Many trails in the park have been improved recently, so you will find well-maintained paths that lead to spectacular viewpoints, secluded beaches, and small waterfalls. This park gets busy during the high season (December through April), and with a cap on the number of daily visitors, it’s best to arrive early. Read our separate post for more information.
Kids Saving the Rainforest
Kids Saving the Rainforest is doing some amazing work to help ensure that Manuel Antonio’s development doesn’t harm local wildlife. They rescue and treat injured or orphaned animals like monkeys and sloths and have made great strides towards increasing the population of the endangered Titi monkey. You will probably see some of their monkey bridges hanging over the road on your visit. Tours of their wildlife sanctuary and volunteering programs are available. This is an especially good activity for children because they will be able to see wildlife close up.
Quepos is known worldwide for its spectacular sportfishing so if catching a trophy fish is on your bucket list, this is the place to do it. Sailfish, Marlin, Yellow Fin Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and Wahoo are often hooked offshore. When the fishing is better inshore, you can find Roosterfish, Snook, Snapper, Mackerel, and Jacks. Choose wisely when picking a boat to go out with. If you need any recommendations, we know a great captain in the area. Contact us at bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com for help.
Quepos Feria (Farmers Market)
Take a stroll through the feria near the seawall in Quepos to see local farmers hocking mammon chino, tamarindo, guanabana, and other exotic fruits and veggies. Cheese heads should be sure to make a stop at the artisanal cheese stand—their camembert is amazing! The market is open Fridays in the afternoon starting at 4:00 p.m. and Saturday mornings until about 2:00 p.m.
For more ideas, read our post 7 Off-the-Beaten-Path Things to Do Near Manuel Antonio.
Dining in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is one of the best places for dining in all of Costa Rica. It has dozens of restaurants with everything from authentic Italian, sushi, and falafel to American fare and fresh off-the-boat seafood. Because these restaurants cater to tourists, prices are on the high end for Costa Rica. Dinner entrees range from $10 to up to $30. But like most areas of the country, there are options for the budget traveler as well.
We have been lucky to try many of the restaurants in Manuel Antonio because we live nearby. Here are a few that we find ourselves always going back to. For a complete list, read our post Manuel Antonio Restaurant Guide.
El Patio de Cafe Milagro
For the freshest cup of coffee in town, head to local roaster Cafe Milagro. Enjoy your morning cup of joe on their nicely landscaped outdoor patio or try one of their creative dishes. They offer three meals a day and incorporate a lot of local ingredients. For breakfast, we recommend the tasty banana pancakes or mango crepes. And for dinner, their brined meats are delicious.
Barba Roja has been a go-to restaurant in Manuel Antonio since 1975. If you’re not lured in by the aroma of their smoked ribs, you will be by their friendly staff. Tuesdays are a big draw with 2-for-1 burgers and live music. Good food, good music, and good staff are staples here, but the view isn’t bad either. At sunset, you can have one of the best views in town while eating tasty morsels of sushi, juicy beef tenderloin, or tropical desserts.
Marina Pez Vela
With the addition of the Quepos Marina, the area now has several more amazing restaurants to choose from. Z Seafood offers contemporary seafood dishes, but also has delicious homemade pasta and steak. For a casual spot right on the water, there’s the Fisherman-themed Runaway Grill. Sunrice serves some of the best Asian food around, and we have heard great things about Gabriella’s for a fine dining experience. Be sure to finish your meal with a sweet treat from Gelateria Amorosi – we can never resist!
If you need a ride, the Marina has a shuttle that will pick you up from your hotel in Manuel Antonio and bring you for free. Just ask your hotel to make the arrangements.
If you need a frosty beverage after a long hot day in the sun, get off your towel and head across the street to the beachfront Marlin restaurant. With 2-for-1 happy hour from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Marlin fills up quickly with thirsty gringos looking to kick back with a cold one. While other restaurants on the beach have come and gone, Marlin has been there for years because of its consistently good Costa Rican food. We always seem to end up here when we have people visiting from out of town.
Lodging in Manuel Antonio
Like restaurants, lodging in Manuel Antonio is numerous and ranging. Over 75 hotels line the main road between Quepos and the national park, with more vacation rentals on side roads and in the hills. You can find everything from luxury bungalows and condo-style resorts to kid-friendly eco-lodges. Although prices tend towards mid-to-high end, there are plenty of budget-friendly choices as well.
Gaia Hotel and Reserve
For a luxury escape, head to the elegant Gaia Hotel and Reserve. The Gaia is a boutique hotel set in a nature reserve with beautiful jungle and ocean views. The property is very intimate, making it perfect for couples and honeymooners. Customer is king here, and a personal concierge is available to tend to your every need. $200-500. Check Rates and Availability Here.
The Parador Resort is one of the most popular hotels in town. It is a larger property located on a quiet point, surrounded by ocean and lush jungle filled with wildlife. The resort has three pools, including one for families, nature trails on-site, a few restaurants, a spa, and easy access to the secluded Biesanz Beach. Because of its larger size, it can accommodate families and groups. $200-500. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel La Mariposa
La Mariposa is a mid-size hotel in a great location. It is perfectly situated at the highest point in town so has the best ocean views. Several restaurants and a market are within walking distance. The beach is a short drive away, but the property has a few nice pools on-site. $150-300. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Plaza Yara
An excellent value for the area is Hotel Plaza Yara. Plaza Yara is located right off the main road, closer to Quepos. The hotel is modern and tastefully decorated with local artwork throughout. Spacious, recently renovated rooms have kitchenettes for when you want to stay in. A small pool on the property is surrounded by forest. It also hosts the delicious Italian restaurant Gondola Gourmet. $100-150. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Costa Verde
Another good mid-range choice is Hotel Costa Verde. This hotel sits high up on a bluff giving some of the rooms sweeping ocean views and great sunsets. There are also four pools to take in the vistas and a fuselage suite inside an old 757 airliner. $100-200. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Vela Bar
Hotel Vela Bar is located at the bottom of the hill, very close to the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park. Although it doesn’t have ocean views, the main beach, Playa Espadilla, is just a short walk away. This is a smaller, adults-only hotel with 20 rooms. Most of the rooms have been freshly renovated. $70-180. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Verde Mar
One of the few hotels right on the beach is Verde Mar. This hotel has basic rooms, but people love it because of its location. It is just steps from the main beach so you go from resting in your room to lounging on the sand in minutes. $60-120. Check Rates and Availability Here.
There is much more to say about Manuel Antonio than we could possibly fit in this post. With all of the opportunities for adventure and good food, one could easily spend a week or more exploring and enjoying the area. When we used to vacation in Costa Rica, we always made sure that Manuel Antonio was one of our stops. Now that we live here, we visit whenever we can.
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Have you been to Manuel Antonio? What was the most memorable part of your visit? Leave a comment below.
Last Updated: November 1, 2016
Looking for more info to help plan your trip? Check out these posts:
- Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide: Trying to figure out which destinations pair together? This guide gives an overview of what the different towns are like so that you can plan quickly.
- How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in San Jose, Costa Rica: Where to stay and eat to get the most out of your overnight near SJO airport.
- Costa Rica Rental Car Discount: Save 10-25% with this special discount for our readers.