Just two and a half hours from Costa Rica’s Juan Santamaría 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, gray sand beaches. Although a wide array of hotels, restaurants, and other 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 of 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, most recently, living there. Below we share a few essential tips for planning your visit, including a list of our favorite area restaurants and attractions as well as some recommendations for hotels to get you started.
Manuel Antonio is about 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Costa Rica’s capital city of San José on the central Pacific coast. The town has one, almost mountainous, main road that climbs from the small city of Quepos, flattens a bit at the top, and then descends to the beach near Manuel Antonio National Park.
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 somewhat 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 August. 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.
Car or Shuttle
If you want the freedom to stop and go as you please, a rental car is a good option. San José has plenty of rental companies to choose from and rates are fairly reasonable, ranging from $50-100 per day for a four-wheel drive SUV. The drive time from San José is about two and a half 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—that is, unless there is construction, which is always a possibility. If you prefer the convenience of a shuttle, check out Gray Line and Interbus (both about $50).
Taxis from the airport are not cheap. Official taxis will run the meter and you should expect to pay anywhere from $150 to upwards of $200. For this reason, arranging a shuttle or private transfer is your best bet.
The public bus is a great way to save some cash and will let you mingle with the locals. It’s about a three and a half hour trip from San José 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. Watch out for pickpockets when retrieving your bags from under the bus. Although crime is not too common in Costa Rica, petty theft does happen, especially in busy areas like bus stations.
Dining in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio has dozens of restaurants offering everything from international cuisine like Thai, sushi, and falafel to American fare and fresh off-the-boat seafood. Because these restaurants cater mainly to tourists, prices are on the high end for Costa Rica, with dinner entrees ranging from $8 to up to $20. But like most areas of Costa Rica, there are options for the budget traveler as well.
Ronny’s Place, Restaurante y Mirador Mi Lugar: This open-air restaurant situated on a peninsula overlooking the ocean has one of the best views of sunset around. You have to work a little to get there, but the vista, fun atmosphere, and good food is worth it. As you drive up the hill from Quepos, look for Amigos del Rio rafting and kayaking company on the left. Take a right and follow the bumpy dirt road for 800 meters.
La Luna Restaurant at Gaia Hotel and Reserve: For fine dining and first-class service, head to La Luna Restaurant at the luxury Gaia Hotel. You will be whisked away by friendly hotel staff on a golf cart to the plush open-air restaurant on top of the hill. Enjoy a gourmet dinner or, if you’re on a budget, get the experience for less with a happy hour cocktail in the lounge (4 – 6 p.m.). Our favorite is the pineapple jalapeno margarita.
Mar Luna: A Costa Rican friend recommended Mar Luna on one of our first visits for a romantic night out. Mar Luna delivered. This rustic restaurant isn’t fancy by any means, but the warm wooden decor, candlelight, and beautiful ocean view is guaranteed to set the mood. Don’t leave without sampling the seafood, it’s their specialty.
Barba Roja: 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 probably will be by their friendly staff. Tuesdays are a big draw with 2-for-1 burger night and live music. Good food, good music, and good staff are staples here but the view isn’t bad either. At sunset, you can watch the sun sink into the Pacific while eating tasty morsels of sushi, juicy beef tenderloin, or tropical desserts.
El Avión: If you’re wondering why a US military plane sits as if it crashed into the hillside of Manuel Antonio, you’re not alone. The story behind El Avión can be found on the back of their menu and reading it is a good excuse to sit down for some great food and drink. Before you leave, make sure to take some selfies in the plane’s cockpit which is also the bar.
El Patio de Café Milagro: For the freshest cup of coffee in town, head to local roaster Café Milagro. Café Milagro serves up creative dishes with local ingredients for three meals a day, but if you’re going for your morning cup of joe, try one of their tasty breakfast offerings like banana pancakes or mango crepes—they are delicious.
Sol Frozen Yogurt: Looking for something in between meals? For a sweet treat that won’t break the bank or your waistline, head to Sol Frozen Yogurt. Serving up new flavors all the time, you can bet you’ll find something here that will dazzle your taste buds.
Marlin: 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, serving up solid, casual fare for the whole family.
Pizza Pata: Had enough rice and beans? Surprise your palate at Pizza Pata. Their rectangular pizza is sold by the meter and comes with yummy homemade dipping sauces like pesto and spicy oil. They don’t serve alcohol but will be happy to run over to the soda next door to grab you an Imperial. Delivery available.
Salsipuedes: Kick back with a guaro sour at this relaxing tapas bar on top of the hill. Portions on the tapas are big and good for sharing. Our favorites were the black bean soup, tuna sashimi, and tuna poke.
Lodging in Manuel Antonio
Like restaurants, lodging in Manuel Antonio is numerous and ranging. Over 50 hotels line the main road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park, with more vacation rentals located in the surrounding hills. You can find everything from luxury bungalows and condo-style resorts to kid-friendly eco-lodges and family-run cabins. Although prices tend towards mid-to-high end, there are plenty of budget-friendly choices as well.
For a luxury escape, head to the elegant Gaia Hotel and Reserve ($300-500). The Gaia is a boutique hotel set in a nature reserve with breathtaking jungle and ocean views. Customer is king here, and a personal concierge is available to tend to your every need. The Parador Resort ($200-$350) is a larger property located on a secluded point. The Parador has three pools, nature trails on-site, a few restaurants, a spa, and easy access to the secluded Biesanz Beach.
A good mid-range option is Hotel Plaza Yara ($80-120), located right off of the main road, closer to Quepos. This hotel has spacious, recently renovated rooms with kitchenettes and a small pool on the property that is surrounded by the jungle. Another good choice is Hotel Costa Verde ($100-175). 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.
Hotel Vela Bar is a less expensive option (rooms starting at $60), which 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. One of the few hotels right on the beach is Hotel Verde Mar (rooms starting at $65). This hotel has simple rooms and is conveniently located to the main beach and about a 10-15 minute walk to the Park entrance.
Manuel Antonio is a convenient jumping off point for almost any tour you would want to do in Costa Rica. Zip-lining, ATV tours, white-water rafting, mangrove tours, kayaking, parasailing, horseback riding, mountain biking, jet skiing, sportfishing, sunset cruising, surfing, snorkeling, whale watching, birding, and even segway tours are available. Below are some more 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 visiting 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. This park gets busy during the high season, and with a cap on the number of visitors per day, it’s best to arrive early to avoid lines. Read our blog 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 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.
Quepos Feria (Farmer’s Market)
Take a stroll through the feria along the seawall to see local farmers hocking mammon chino, tamarindo, guanabana, and other exotic fruits and veggies you probably have never heard of. 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.
There is much more in Manuel Antonio than we could possibly fit in this blog. With all of these opportunities for adventure and good food, one could easily spend a week, two weeks, 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, and 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, we’d love to hear about it.
Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde