Manuel Antonio National Park
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Manuel Antonio National Park may be tiny, but this 682-hectare national park epitomizes everything tourists flock to Costa Rica to see: stunning beaches, a magnificent setting with islands offshore, lush rainforest laced with a network of trails, and wildlife galore.
Despite its diminutive size, Manuel Antonio is one of the country’s most popular parks. In 1994, the park service began limiting the numbers of visitors to 600 per day (800 on Sat. and Sun.), and the park is now closed on Monday.
Nonetheless, at times the Sloth Trail can seem as crowded as New York’s Central Station. Consider visiting in the “green” or wet season. Pack out what you pack in.
Howler monkeys move from branch to branch, iguanas shimmy up trunks, and toucans and scarlet macaws flap by. About 350 squirrel monkeys live in the park, another 500 on its outer boundaries. Capuchin (white-faced) monkeys and crab-eating raccoons welcome you on the beaches, where they will steal your belongings given half a chance. Some of the monkeys have become aggressive and attacks on humans have been reported.
Note: It is illegal to feed the wildife! If you’re caught doing so, you may be ejected from the park.
Beaches and Trails
The park has four lovely beaches: Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio, Escondido, and Playita. The prettiest is Playa Manuel Antonio, a small scimitar of coral-white sand with a small coral reef. It’s separated from Playa Espadilla Sur by a tombolo—a natural land bridge formed over eons through the accumulation of sand—tipped by Punta Catedral, an erstwhile island now linked to the mainland.
Playa Espadilla Sur (also known as the Second Beach) and Playa Manuel Antonio offer tidepools brimming with minnows and crayfish, plus good snorkeling, especially during dry season when the water is generally clear.
At the far south on Playa Manuel Antonio, you can see ancient turtle traps dug out of the rocks by pre-Columbian Quepoas. Female sea turtles would swim over the rocks to the beach on the high tide. The tidal variation at this point is as much as three meters; the turtles would be caught in the carved-out traps on the return journey as the tide level dropped. Olive ridley and green turtles still occasionally come ashore at Playa Manuel Antonio.
Between bouts of beaching, you can explore the park’s network of trails, which lead into humid tropical forest. Manuel Antonio’s wildlife carnival is best experienced by following the Perezoso Trail, named after the sloths that favor the secondary growth along the trail.
Hire a guide. The Asociación de Guías Naturalistas (c/o Amigos del Parque, tel. 506/8894-1358) offers licensed guides by the two park entrances ($20 pp for 2–5 hours). A guide can spot (and inform you about) wildlife you’re not likely to see without assistance, such as the superbly camouflaged and unusually immobile sloths. They’ll also show you interesting tree species—among them, the manchineel tree (manzanillo), or “beach apple,” common along the beaches. The manchineel is highly toxic and possesses a sap that irritates the skin; its tempting apple-like fruits are also poisonous. Avoid touching any part of the tree.
Theft is a major problem on the beaches, not least by the monkeys. Don’t leave your things unguarded while you swim. There’s parking by the creek near the park entrance ($4), but security is an issue. Don’t leave anything in your vehicle.
Manuel Antonio National Park is open 7 A.M.–4 P.M. Tuesday–Sunday ($10). There are two separate entrances, linked by a trail. The main entrance is 600 meters inland of Playa Espadilla, in the village. The second entrance is at the southern end of Playa Espadilla, where you wade across the shallow Río Camaronera; rowboats are on hand at high tide ($0.50), when you may otherwise be waist-deep.
Park headquarters (tel. 506/2777-5185) is within the park; there are restrooms here.
Camping is not allowed in the park. There are no accommodations or snack bars, but there are showers by the beach and toilets on the Sloth Trail, near the park headquarters.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition