Best Things to Do in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica: Stay, Play, Eat

Manuel Antonio is a gooooorgeous beach town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. We spent half of our trip in Manuel Antonio (the other half was in La Fortuna) and we had several locals in La Fortuna tell us that Manuel Antonio was their favorite beach in Costa Rica. We have to agree – there were tons of fun things to do in Manuel Antonio and the beaches were stunning.

Manuel Antonio is interesting because it is the name of the city, the national park, and a beach. Manuel Antonio National Park is very popular and is known for having an abundance of wildlife. Of course, you’ll see a lot of that wildlife outside the national park, in the surrounding city and beaches, as well.

Our time there was a mash up of a relaxing tropical vacation and a rainforest retreat merged together. Here are our favorite things to do in Manuel Antonio, plus the best places to stay and eat!

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Where to Stay

I highly recommend staying at.Hotel Costa Verde, a beautiful resort property.! The hotel area was really beautiful and jungle-y. Although it is called a hotel, there are a variety of accommodations.

Our unit was a bungalow a detached little “cottage” set in the jungle. We had private outdoor space with plants and flowers, and a detached, outdoor covered eating patio with views to the sea. Other units are more traditional hotel style rooms.

A fun feature is a 727 Boeing Fuselage Home – a refurbished 1965 Boeing 727 frame that is converted into a little home in the jungle, with another Cockpit Cottage 100 meters away, accessible only by a hanging suspension bridge in the forest. Both have been featured on hundreds of TV shows, and offer a unique lodging experience in the jungle with beautiful ocean views.

The tag line of the resort is “there are still more monkeys than people,” and I can confirm that that is definitely true.

Truly one of the best things to do in Manuel Antonio is observe wildlife, and we saw dozens of monkeys climbing and swinging through the trees every morning and multiple times throughout the day. There were monkeys running across our roof, and we could hear howler monkeys out the window.

It was super cool and made Manuel Antonio unique from other beautiful tropical destinations I’ve visited.

We also saw several agouti and iguanas, multiple varieties of monkeys, and a toucan right outside our rooms. 

What made Costa Verde particularly nice was that it really felt like just being on the property was a Costa Rican experience. The hotel wasn’t just a place to sleep and get ready for the day, with the monkeys, other wildlife, and rainforest vibe, it was its own attraction – just spending time on the patio was a great thing to do in Manuel Antonio. I can’t recommend it enough!

Check current rates for Costa Verde here!

I caught this guy jumping onto the roof of our deck!

Pool and Beach Area

One thing to note about staying in the Manuel Antonio area is that there are not many properties that are beachfront. It was a five minute walk from our unit to the pools (the resort is large!), and a ten minute walk from our unit to the beach, down a steep hill. The tradeoff is that while you aren’t beachfront, we did have an ocean view and we were immersed in the rainforest and the animals, which was really, really fun and felt like a uniquely Costa Rican experience. 

There were three pools at the hotel. Two of the pools were located in different lodging locations within the resort. There was also an adult-only pool with poolside bar and restaurant service, which featured a beautiful patio that overlooked the ocean, providing gorgeous sunset views. See more photos of the pool areas here!

Note: In any hotel in Costa Rica it’s important to always lock your valuables in the hotel room safe. House cleaning staff are known to steal valuables, particularly phones or electronics. In general, don’t ever leave your personal items unattended in public. Theft is a common problem, not only from humans, but we watched monkeys literally jump on tables and steal from unsuspecting tourists!

Tip: This hotel did not provide beach or pool towels (and neither did our hotel in La Fortuna), so we had to bring our own. I highly recommend these microfiber camping towels – they pack down super small but are still very absorbant and dry extremely fast. They are super useful – we’ve brought them on camping trips, canoe trips, and our trip to Iceland!

Best Things to Do in Manuel Antonio

Hang Out On the Beach

The most popular public beach is Playa Espadilla – this beach was very close to our hotel and we spent a lot of time here. The beaches inside Manuel Antonio National Park are also popular. On Playa Espadilla, we rented surf boards, played in the waves, and hung out in the sun.

Surf boards were available to rent on the beach for $10/hour or $20/day. If you are a newbie to surfing, you can also take some lessons to learn the basics and the technique! Check availability for surfing lessons here!

A woman in a white and flower drapey kimino sits on a white sandy beach. Blue skies and blue ocean water are in the background. The fronds of a palm tree hang down in the foreground.
Relax in the sun and then play in the waves – repeat 50X

Parasailing

Going parasailing is certainly not something you can only do in Costa Rica, but the way that we launched was unique and very fun, and one of the most exhilarating things to do in Manuel Antonio!

What made this particularly cool is we did a running beach launch to start parasailing – they hooked us up to the parasail right on the beach, had the ropes running out to the boat in the water, and then we started running into the water as the boat pulled us up in the air.

A teenage boy and a woman are getting in a harness and attached to a parasail on a beach. Two workers are helping them.
Getting hooked up to the harness and parasail
Aaaaand run!

It was about a 15 minute ride, which is slightly longer than most parasailing tours. When the ride was over, we landed gently in the water, and the workers came out in a jet ski, unhooked us, and we rode back into shore on the jet ski.

The whole activity was exhilarating, and my family members who had done parasailing before said that the running beach start was way more exciting than starting off the back of a boat (which is the more common way to start parasailing). Because of the novelty of the launch, definitely consider adding this to your list of things to do in Manuel Antonio!

Check current rates for this parasailing experiences here!

Snorkeling Sailing Tour

Snorkeling tours are very popular and a relaxing way to enjoy an afternoon. You can watch the scenery and look for marine wildlife as you sail along, eat a freshly cooked hot lunch, and then cool off by snorkeling, or even just going down the slide off the boat! It’s both a relaxing and a high energy thing to do in Manuel Antonio. Check availability for this snorkel sail tour here

Go On a Night Hike

While you might see a lot of animals by day, there are a whole host of nocturnal animals to see by night! On a night tour, you get to see animals such as tropical snakes, vibrant colored frogs and toads, as well as sloths or other larger animals.

It’s a totally different experienced doing a night time animal tour! Unlike a daytime walk through the jungle, where you can do a self-guided or guided tour, night tours are all guided. Don’t forget your closed toe shoes – they are required! Check availability for this night hike here.

Explore Manuel Antonio National Park

This is the most famous thing to do in Manuel Antonio and is known for having a lot of wildlife to see. There’s a lot to know about visiting Manuel Antonio National Park, so buckle up!

Parking

The parking situation is honestly confusing and aggressive. There is no official parking lot or area for the park, you have to buy parking from one of the many aggressive and bold parking lot “owners” that will try and attract you into their lot and convince you to hire their “official” guides. 

These parking lot guys will sometimes even stand in the streets, with official looking shirts and whistles, and look a lot like traffic control people. Sometimes they will literally stand in front of you and stop your car to try to get you to park in their lot. All of these parking places will try to sell you their tour guides. They look official, but are not official tour guides at all.

Every one of these parking lot places say they are the last parking before you reach the entrance for Manuel Antonio and make it sound like you can’t go past them (you can, up until you are actually at the gate).  This happened like 5-6 times. 

The problem is you don’t actually know when the last parking lot is. Certainly, you can just park somewhere and walk up, but some of the parking places are pretty far away. Watch your maps and navigation – I would try to park within the last 200 or so meters before the national park entrance.

Tickets

The most important thing to know about visiting Manuel Antonio National Park is: FOR SURE, 1000%, BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE

We did not do this, and it was a huge hassle – it took a long time to get tickets on-site and it was really, really complicated and difficult. They had a computer off to the side in Spanish that you could get tickets from. The workers there only spoke Spanish, no English.

After you have bought your tickets and paid, you must take a picture of the screen or write down your confirmation number.  It does not email or print off any ticket or receipt, so you have to write or take a picture of it yourself (and the computer doesn’t tell you you have to do this).

If you don’t do this, you will have no ticket, and will have to come back and buy tickets again. This is what happened to the person ahead of us, so we knew what to do (and not to do). It was a whole mess – save yourself the headache and buy them online before you arrive. 

When you buy the tickets, they make you select a time to go in. We were trying to enter at 8am, and when purchasing the tickets it said that it was sold out and the next available time was 11am. Thankfully, someone at the checkin told us that the time didn’t matter and that they didn’t check times at the gate. So we bought 11am tickets and used them at 8am.,. They were, however, checking ID’s so bring some form of ID with you. 

The park is open every day but Tuesdays.

Guides

Lots of the parking lot areas will be offering official looking tour guides. In the park, a lot of people had guides carrying telescopes with them. As we passed, we could hear guides often pointing out birds or small animals or frogs. We didn’t get a guide, but if you are a bird lover or a frog lover, or just enjoy hearing fun facts from a guide, the tour guides might be really interesting for you! 

I will also note that often when there were animals, especially bigger animals such as sloths or monkeys, visible, people would stop and watch them, and often point them out to the next group coming by. If you look where other people are looking, you will see animals. So even without the tour guides, it was easy for us to see a variety of bigger animals in the park. 

However, if you want to avoid the parking situation + dealing with tickets, then a guided tour with transportation might be a really good option for you. This tour offers transportation to/from your hotel, the entrance tickets, and a telescope to see animals up close. Check availability for this tour here.

A sloth is hanging upside down and climbing along a branch. Green tropical leaves surround the sloth.
We got this incredible, close up view of a sloth right as we were about to leave the park!

Food

No food is currently allowed to be brought into Manuel Antonio due to COVID, but there is one place to buy food inside the park.

However, be very aware because the monkeys are ON THE PROWL by the restaurant. Stay alert and keep your food by you. If you look distracted, monkeys will notice and grab the food from right beside you.

We actually saw this happen twice – each time, someone was sitting down eating, but a little distracted, or even just had their food a little off to their side, by their elbow. The monkeys scampered over and quick as a flash grabbed the bread or cake right next to the person and jumped up onto a tree. I’m not going to lie, it was really entertaining to watch!

A black monkey with a white face waits on a picnic table, looking up into the trees. Around the picnic table is gravel and trees.
The monkeys were on the prowl

Beaches

The beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park were gorgeous. There are 3 distinct beaches: Playa Manuel Antonio, Playa Espadilla Sur, and Playa Gemelas. Playa Gemelas was much farther into the jungle, whereas Manuel Antonio beach was the most obvious and easily accessible beach. This is the beach we stopped at, and it was incredibly gorgeous.

A strip of sandy beach is in the foreground, with beautiful blue ocean in the back. The skies are blue. There is some land and trees off to the sides. About 10 people are in the water swimming.
Playa Manuel Antonio

I wouldn’t say the beach was crazy crowded, but there were quite a few people there. What we didn’t realize until almost the end of our day is that if you go just a little bit farther you can get to Espadilla Sur beach, which only had a handful of people on it. 

Continue on the path marked in red (don’t go down onto the beach) until you reach that blue path. The blue path is only ~50 meters long and you can see right to the other beach – Playa Espadilla Sur. There are waaay less people over there and it’s just as gorgeous as Playa Manuel Antonio.
Playa Espadilla Sur

We were excited to walk around Cathedral Point (the #5 Punta Catedral path on the map above), but it actually was fairly meh. There were a ton of stairs and only a couple of viewpoints out to the sea – most of the time you were just in the jungle again. I mean, the jungle is super cool, but by that point we wanted either to be on the beach, or to have views of the sea the entire time. I will say that, unsurprisingly, there were way less people here than on the paths closer to the entrance.

From Espadilla Sur beach, there is a boardwalk path (#2 on the map above) that takes you back to the park entrance and out. I really liked that part of the park, as it was through the mangroves and unique from anything we had walked through in Costa Rica thus far. 

Heading into the mangroves

One last thing to note: Watch out for the poison tree! If you get the sap on your hands, wash it off quickly or it will start to burn badly. My brother, Jonathan, accidentally touched a poison tree while we were watching a sloth, and a tour guide confirmed that yes, you need to wash that off immediately. Thankfully, a thorough washing was sufficient and he didn’t have any problems with his hands.

Should You Go to Manuel Antonio National Park?

For us, we felt like we had seen a bunch of wildlife already in La Fortuna and staying at our gorgeous jungle-y hotel in Manuel Antonio. Because of that, we felt like instead of seeing more rainforest and wildlife in the National Park, we would’ve preferred to have that full day at the beach. We ended up only having one full beach day, with a couple of hours other days at the beach, so we were definitely wanting more!

If you are only doing beach stuff in Costa Rica, then I would FOR SURE make going to the national park your #1 thing to do in Manuel Antonio. If you’ve had a lot of time in rainforests and seen a lot of animals already and have less time at the beach, I would consider skipping or shortening your time at the park. 

Where to Eat

All right, time for some restaurant recommendations! One of the very best things to do in Manuel Antonio, or really on any vacation, is eat!

We ate so much delicious food in Manuel Antonio – I don’t think I ate one thing that wasn’t really fantastic. The food options here were quite a bit different from the options in La Fortuna. The focus here was, unsurprisingly, much more on seafood, and I didn’t see casado, or rice and beans featured prominently like in La Fortuna

Like in La Fortuna, batidos (smoothies) were still ubiquitous, THANK GOODNESS. 

Every restaurant in Costa Rica is open air – which we loved!  A lot of the restaurants along Manuel Antonio had views out over the ocean. 

Here are our favorite places to eat:

The Falafel Bar

This restaurant had such a chill vibe – the benches had cushions and backs and the table was low – it almost felt like you were eating dinner on your friend’s back deck, sitting around a coffee table and hanging out. It was loungey and homey.

the patio of a restaurant is shown. There are low tables and reclining benches to sit on. It is night, and there are string lights on and palm fronds around.

The food here was also top notch – they served plates such as kebabs, shawarma, and falafel. The real star of this restaurant honestly was the salad bar. Every entrée was served with an open spot to fill with whatever veggies you want at the salad bar. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a fresher, more vibrant display of vegetables – and they tasted super fresh and delicious. Highly recommend this spot.

Four pies and two brownies are each on their own plates, sitting on a black tabletop.

Emilio’s Cafe

We came to Emilio’s specifically for the desserts, but then were blown away by how delicious the entrees were. The fish in particular was just so good – tender and flavorful and not fishy at all – but literally every dish that we ordered was incredible. 

But the desserts — ooooooh the desserts! They were to DIE for. They had a big case full of different cakes, cheesecakes, and brownies. We got a bunch to share at our table, and then got another few to bring home with us, they were just that good. Our favorites were the passionfruit cheesecake and the almond cheesecake.

Note that Emilio’s is closed on Tuesdays.

La Baguette

This little breakfat place is right next to El Avion restaurant and was right across the street from our hotel. They offer many coffee options, as well as savory and sweet breakfast pastries – our personal favorites were the ham and cheese croissant and pain au chocolat.

Hours: 7am-2pm

El Avion

A restaurant is built around an old airplane. Potted plants decorate the sides of the airplane and you can see tables under the patio. The ocean is in the distance.

This restaurant has the coolest dining room. The restaurant is built around an old airplane, and you can actually go in and up into the cockpit! Most of the tables are situated behind the airplane and look out over the ocean. There were some incredible sunset views! You’ll want to come early if you want a table right by the railing with the best vantage point. 

The mahi mahi here was a dream, and the virgin pina colada was the absolute best drink I had in Manuel Antonio. 

Parasailing Company

A yellow, mango smoothie is being held up on a beach, with sand and waves in the background. A straw and pineapple wedge are also on the cup.

Okay, this isn’t a restaurant, but I think it’s worth mentioning. On Playa Espadilla, one of the main public beaches in Manuel Antonio, there are not a lot of food vendors – in fact, the only food available on the beach for purchase are coconuts to drink. 

So we were pleasantly surprised when the parasailing company we booked with also gave us free parking at the beach, beach chairs and an umbrella to use all day, and beachside service. The food was expensive, but we were very happy to be able to just sit on the beach all day long and not have to leave for food. 

Everything we ate was really high quality, but I have to give a particular shout out to the smoothies – the mango smoothie tasted like you were drinking a straight up mango and was my mom’s favorite smoothie in Manuel Antonio. 

Check out this parasailing company here!

Beach Travel Essentials for Manuel Antonio

I love this light, airy, beachy dress – it comes in a whole variety of prints and colors and is perfect for a tropical destination.

This straw hat is waterproof, totally compressible (you don’t have to baby it in your luggage, just smoosh it flat), and it looks great in photos.

I also love these rattan tassel earrings! They come in a two pack and work great as a beach accessory.

This cover up (right photo) is floral and lightweight and works great as a kimono over an outfit or a coverup on the beach.

Sunscreen of course is important at the beach – I always wear this facial sunscreen for acne-prone skin (it’s the best!), but Matthew, with his non-sensitive skin, always just uses this very convenient sunscreen stick.

As I mentioned above, you’ll need to bring your own beach towels, and I’ve used these microfiber towels everywhere! They pack down really small but are somehow super absorbant and also dry extremely fast. Highly recommend!

These are my favorite travel sandals! They are super cushy and have great arch support and keep my feet very happy, even after a long day of walking around.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Securing some travel insurance is an important part of prepping for any international trip – you never know when something might happen, and your regular insurance generally won’t cover you overseas. Costs for a medical emergency on vacation can add up extremely fast, so it’s just better to be safe than sorry. (If covid has taught us anything, it’s that you never know what could happen!)  

I like booking insurance at Insure My Trip, as they offer a variety of plans with different coverages to choose from, so you can find the right option for you. Plus, they have great customer support if you need help before, during, or after your trip.

Check rates at Insure My Trip here!

Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio is a fantastic beach destination in Costa Rica. There are tons of incredible things to do, and the accommodations and food really help to enhance the experience. I hope you have a great time!

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