Last Updated: May 20, 2021
Just 2.5 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 Manuel Antonio
The dry season, which runs from December to April, has the best, most consistent, 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 visiting during rainy season, check out our post, Rainy Season in Costa Rica: How Wet Is It?
If you’re deciding whether to rent a car, know that 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 improved the route from the capital to the central Pacific, so you’ll enjoy smooth travel along paved highways.
If you decide to rent a car, be sure to check out our Rental Car Discount to save some money.
Shuttles are another option if you’re not comfortable driving. Shared shuttles hold up to 15 passengers. These are very affordable at around $55 per person from San Jose (SJO) Airport. They run on a set schedule and do take longer since they stop at other towns and hotels for pick-ups and drop-offs.
Private shuttles are a faster option. These pick up at a custom time, are for only your group, and include some time to make stops along the way to see an attraction or get a bite to eat.
A private shuttle from SJO Airport to Manuel Antonio is around $190. We work with a reliable local company if you would like help making the arrangements. Visit our Private Shuttle Van Transfers page for more information or to make a booking.
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.
Activities in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is a convenient jumping-off point for almost any tour you would want to do in Costa Rica. Zip lining, hiking, whitewater rafting, waterfall rappelling, ATV tours, mangrove boat or kayak tours, jet skiing, sportfishing, sunset cruises, birding, and even parasailing tours are available.
Below are some of the can’t-miss activities as well as 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.
For more information about visiting the park, including Covid protocols and how to buy tickets online, read our separate post.
Guided vs. Unguided Tour
Although wildlife is fairly easy to see along the trails at the national park, we still highly recommend hiring a naturalist guide. A good guide will teach you about the birds and animals you encounter and be able to spot more than you with their trained eye.
There are guides lined up outside the park every morning, but you have to be careful because not all of them are trained naturalists. We work with a company with excellent, certified guides and would be happy to set you up with them. Contact us through our Tour Booking Service page or simply email us at bookings(at)twoweeksincosta(dot)com for more information or to reserve a guide.
A fun way to take in Manuel Antonio’s scenic coastline is on a catamaran cruise. From the deck of this big 100-foot boat, you’ll follow the coast to enjoy views of the lush green rainforest. The boat visits the marine portion of Manuel Antonio National Park and then the secluded Playa Biesanz for some snorkeling in the jade green water.
The catamaran is equipped with jacuzzis, a slide for jumping in the water, and trampolines for sunning. Drinks are plentiful and it’s a party setting, although you will see many families on board too.
For more information, including how to book a cruise, read our separate post.
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 squirrel 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.
Prices start at around $550 for a full-day inshore or $850 for a full-day offshore (up to 5 people). This is for a boat for only your group. In Costa Rica, shared charters are not common.
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 12:30 p.m.
Looking for more ideas for things to do? Check out our posts:
Restaurants 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.
Our favorite restaurant in Manuel Antonio is Emilio’s Cafe. Emilio’s strikes the perfect balance of having nice ambiance, but in a comfortable environment. Their ocean view is outstanding from way atop the hill. (Update, May 2021: Emilio’s is currently doing contruction to get an even better view. In the meantime, the ocean view is somewhat obstructed.)
The food is great too and they have things that you won’t find anywhere else like homemade burrata cheese. Some of our favorite dishes are the octopus with garlic and potatoes and we love their sandwiches. If you like dessert, their homemade cheesecakes and mousse pies are outstanding.
Emilio’s recently opened another location in the Quepos Marina.
Most people don’t come to Costa Rica for Middle Eastern cuisine, but Falafel Bar is worth a stop. The falafel and hummus are some of the best we have ever had. Plates and sandwiches are served with delicious hand-cut fries and you can balance your meal with some super fresh veggies from the salad bar. They also make yummy fruit smoothies; one of our favorites is the mango-ginger.
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.
Buena Vista Beach Club Bar & Grill
This spot is one of the only restaurants right on the beach in Manuel Antonio.
Buena Vista Beach Club Bar & Grill is run by friendly locals who serve up casual cuisine that incorporates local ingredients. You’ll find fresh seafood, healthy salads, and an assortment of sandwiches on the menu.
The food is good but the best thing about eating here is the scenery. Tables are set up right on the sand with palm trees and the ocean just steps away. Located at Buena Vista Beach Villas.
Marina Pez Vela
With the addition of the Quepos Marina, the area now has several more amazing restaurants to choose from. For a casual spot right on the water, there’s the Fisherman-themed Runaway Grill. For a fine dining experience, Gabriella’s is our go to. And be sure to finish your meal with a sweet treat from Gelateria Amorosi – we can never resist!
Lodging in Manuel Antonio
Like restaurants, lodging in Manuel Antonio is numerous and ranging. Over 50 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.
Need more ideas? For a full list of hotels in Manuel Antonio, read our post, Manuel Antonio Hotel Guide.
Gaia Hotel and Nature Resort
For a luxury escape, head to the elegant Gaia Hotel and Nature Resort. 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. $225-1,300/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
The Parador Resort is one of the most popular hotels in Manuel Antonio. 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. $200-700. 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 very nice pool on-site. $150-350. 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. Has a couple of pools surrounded by forest. $120-200/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Hotel Costa Verde
Another good mid-range choice is Hotel Costa Verde. Costa Verde consists of a mix of traditional-style hotel rooms, freestanding bungalows, and even a couple of fuselage suites made from old airplanes.
It sits high up on a bluff giving some of the rooms sweeping ocean views and great sunsets. This hotel is especially good for families because wildlife like monkeys are always roaming the grounds. $100-400/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Millenium Manuel Antonio
This small hotel has private rooms right in the heart of Manuel Antonio. Millenium is located just outside the main gate for the national park and walking distance to restaurants, small grocery stores, and the main beach. Rooms are nicely maintained and have A/C. $100-165/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
Manuel Antonio Hotel
Manuel Antonio Hotel is a simple, no-frills hotel in an excellent location. It’s at the end of the road right across the street from the beach and just a short walk to the national park. We stayed here years ago on one of our first trips to Costa Rica and loved the ocean view. The rooms are basic, but clean, and you can’t beat the location. Private room with A/C, $70-120/night. Check Rates and Availability Here.
There is much more to say about Manuel Antonio than we could possibly fit in this post. With all 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.
Last Updated: May 20, 2021
Have you been to Manuel Antonio? What was the most memorable part of your visit? Leave a comment below.
Check out these posts for more information to help plan your visit to Costa Rica:
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.
Best Airport Hotels Near SJO: Where to stay to get the most out of your overnight near SJO Airport.
Costa Rica Rental Car Discount: Save 10% on a car and get free extras with this special discount for our readers.
Family Travel: If you’re visiting with kids, be sure to check out our Family Travel articles for more ideas for places to visit and things to do.