Hiking the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge

At the end of the road, south of Puerto Viejo on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, you’ll find the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Mixed Wildlife Refuge. This protected land is the ideal place to spot amazing wildlife like sloths, monkeys, birds, lizards, and even snakes. It also has picturesque beaches and gorgeous coastlines. In this post, we’ll share our experience hiking the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge with a guide.

cove with tan sand and palm trees

Location and Layout

The Gandoca-Manzanillo National Mixed Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional Mixto de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo) is located on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast near the popular destination of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. From San Jose or SJO International Airport, the reserve is about 4.5-5 hours away.

The reserve has two ranger stations where you can start your visit.

The most popular is the Manzanillo Sector, found at the end of the paved road (Route 256). This is about 25 minutes south of Puerto Viejo. The other entrance is the Gandoca Sector. This is closer to the Panama border and harder to access.   

In total, the Gandoca-Manzanillo refuge protects an impressive 25,910 acres (10,485 hectares). About half is wild jungle, while the other half is coastline and reefs.

Gandoca-Manzanillo Mixed Wildlife Refuge Sign

Remoteness and Safety

A deterrent for some thinking about visiting Gandoca-Manzanillo are reports of robberies along the trail.

People have had their cameras, backpacks, phones, wallets, and other belongings taken by thieves who approach them on the remote trails. This doesn’t happen all the time but enough to be worrisome. This was a concern for us too, which is why we hired a local guide.

Our guide knew everyone in the area, including all the reserve employees, parking attendants, coconut vendors, and other guides we passed. He also carried a small machete in a sheath on his belt, just for good measure.

We did not come across any sketchy people along the trails but still felt much better having a guide with us. He also added a lot to our experience, which we will explain below.

Tip: See the end of this post for more info on how we can help you hire a guide.     

Hiking the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge

Meeting Our Guide

After driving south from our hotel in Playa Cocles, we arrived in Manzanillo around 8:00 a.m. Through the rows of palms, we could see that the beach outside the entrance was already getting busy with locals. It was a Sunday and school vacation in Costa Rica.

We soon found our guide, Haniel.

Entering the Reserve

Haniel led us to the small ranger station where he paid our entrance. Gandoca-Manzanillo is still a small, uncrowded reserve and entrance is by donation only.

Quick Wildlife Sightings

As we crossed the short suspension bridge to enter the reserve, Haniel pointed out some things in the creek below.

Two Night Herons were perched in a tree and a Jesus Christ lizard skittered along the bank. These lizards are known to run so quickly that they can cross the surface of the water without falling in.

short suspension foot bridge crossing a murky river
Crossing the creek to enter the reserve

On the other side, Haniel asked what we were hoping to see today. Our kids quickly told him they wanted to see a jaguar (a far reach), but we also mentioned wanting to spot snakes and cool birds.

Haniel asked if we liked sloths. We, of course, said that we did. He then pointed out one that was directly above us in a tree. 

Sloth hugging a branch
Three-toed sloth cozy in a tree

We continued a few hundred feet and Haniel showed us a helmeted iguana basking on a small tree. We had only seen this type of iguana once before in Costa Rica so were excited to get some pictures. They have a funny shaped head and sort of resemble chameleons.

Iguana with crested head clinging to a branch
Helmeted iguana (basilisk) blending in

Off the Tourist Trail

While most visitors followed the wide main trail along the coast, Haniel directed us inland on a trail he liked called the Hidden Bridge Trail (Sendero Puente Escondido). There were no other people around.

After a short walk through the rainforest, we came to a rustic covered walkway.

Here, we saw another helmeted iguana and a coati (a raccoon-like animal with a long snout) up in a tree.   

Later, back on the dirt trail, Haniel took out his flashlight. Kneeling next to a rotting log, he asked our kids to look inside. There, hiding in the shadows, was a large tarantula!

Tarantula inside a hallow log
Creepy tarantula!

When this trail came to an end, Haniel led us through the woods on a very faint path. Without him, we wouldn’t have even noticed it. This was where our tour really went off the tourist trail. 

Magnificent Trees

As our family followed Haniel over the crest of a small hill, we realized we were in thick primary forest. Tall trees surrounded us and the forest floor was covered with undisturbed leaves. Haniel began telling us all about the different trees we passed.

We saw balsas, known for their lightweight wood that is often used to make boats. We gazed at towering guacima colorado trees that were well over 100 years old. There were even rubber trees.

naturalist guide standing next to giant rainforest tree with large roots
This tree is thought to be hundreds of years old

Haniel took a few moments at each one to tell us some quick information. We learned about the giant mountain almonds that nearly went extinct for their desirable wood. They are also the favorite tree of the endangered Great Green Macaw, which we had seen at Ara Manzanillo nearby.

At the base of one tree, Haniel found a long stick and began tapping the roots. Soon some bullet ants came rushing out, investigating what was going on. These ants have a powerful sting that people say hurts as much as getting shot.

Poison Dart Frogs

Around every corner, there seemed to be another surprise. Haniel told us he thought he could find some snakes and was leading us to a spot he knew.

Along the way, we came across a couple of interesting frogs. One was a tiny strawberry poison dart frog. These bright red frogs are like the blue-jean poison dart frog but lack the blue color on their legs. With small black speckles on their red skin, they do resemble strawberries.

A tiny red frog climbing the trunk of a tree
Cute strawberry poison dart frog climbing a tree

Another exciting encounter was a Talamanca rocket frog. We had never seen this before. They are endemic to the area and similar to poison dart frogs, but without any poison. 

Small black and gold frog peeking out from a hole in the ground
Talamanca rocket frog hiding in its little den

Snakes

It wasn’t much longer before Haniel found our first snake of the day. It was an eyelash pit viper. This one was brownish and blended in with the tree trunk.

These snakes can be all sorts of different colors. Later, we saw a bright yellow one. Haniel approached it and carefully took some close-ups with our phone. He told us that these snakes are not aggressive but highly venomous. 

Yellow snake curled up on a branch
A yellow eyelash pit viper

Beautiful Birds

As we weaved through thick forest and underbrush, Haniel continued to show us special plants, seeds, insects, spiders, and many birds.

Some of the birds we spotted were the Common black hawk, Yellow-throated Toucan, Crested Guan, and Collared Aracari.

A colorful bird with large beak perched in a tree
Collared Aracari up in a tree

Finishing with a Coastal View

Folding away some leaves, not even on a path at this point, we suddenly stepped back onto the main trail. A few people walking past seemed surprised to see us.

We followed the trail north, back toward the ranger station, until we reached Miss May Point.

A wooden boardwalk surrounded by palm trees
The walkway out to Miss May Point

Miss May Point is probably the most iconic spot in the reserve. Many people come here to take pictures of the small island just offshore and jungle-backed beach.

View of a tropical coastline with a small island offshore
The view from Miss May Point

This was a touristy part of our visit but something we wouldn’t have wanted to miss. The views were gorgeous.

Just 15 minutes later, we were back at our car sipping some coconuts with our faithful guide. It was the perfect ending to our wildlife-filled hike through the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge!

How to Visit the Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge

Hours

Open every day from 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (last entrance)

Cost

Voluntary donation to enter (cash or credit card). Proceeds go toward trail maintenance and park administration costs.

Self-Guided Hike

From the ranger station, the main trail is 5 km (3.4 miles) to Punta Mona. According to the ranger, this takes about 2.5 hours there and back. Miss May Point (Mirador Manzanillo) is only about 15 minutes from the ranger station along a well-trodden path.

Hiring a Guide

While we usually hike on our own, we were happy that we hired a guide for our visit to Gandoca-Manzanillo. We never would have seen as much wildlife without him and he made us feel safe on the trails.

If you are interested in using the same guide we did, please send us an email at bookings(at)twoweeksincostarica(dot)com. Include your preferred date and the number of people in your party (adults and children, with ages of kids).

Guided tours cost $60 adults, $30 children ages 6-11 and go from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m./12:00 p.m. Entrance and fruit are included. *Transportation available for an additional charge.

Have a question about visiting the Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge or want to share your experience? Leave a comment below.

Need more information to help you plan? Check out these articles:

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Caribbean Cool in Costa Rica – Learn about where to stay, what restaurants to eat at, and fun activities to do in the Puerto Viejo area.

Ara Manzanillo: A Great Green Macaw Tour – This quick tour will let you see dozens of beautiful Great Green Macaw parrots flying all around you in the wild.

Cahuita National Park: Wildlife Just a Step Away – Another less remote park in the area with outstanding wildlife and beautiful beaches.

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