Though it is only small, Manuel Antonio is the most popular national park in Costa Rica. This is obviously for a reason; the park is the perfect combination of jungle, wildlife, and beaches.
Because the park is so small, you can easily cover it in one day. There are several trails that you can walk, and there are various beaches to chill at. If you want to visit the park multiple times, you will be charged an entrance fee of $16 every time, there are no day or week passes. Keeping this in mind, the best tip is to go to the park very early in the morning and to spend a full day there.
If you are planning to go to Manuel Antonio for a weekend or multiple days, I would recommend not to do anything crazy on the day you arrive. Obviously depending on what time you get there, the best thing you can do is head into the tiny city center and get some good coffee or good food. There is not a lot going on in the village itself (maybe a party here and there), but there are various really good restaurants, and most of them have an incredible view over the sea. Because Costa Rica is very close to the equator, the sunset is every day around the same time, which is 5:45 pm. Make sure that by that time you have found yourself a nice spot at a restaurant with a cocktail in your hand and an appetizer on the table, because the sunset in Manuel Antonio is amazing.
For coffee with a view, Emilio’s Cafe is the place to be. Their terrace looks out over the national park and the ocean, and the atmosphere is really good. The iced lattes are a good option to cool down a bit, and the cakes that they sell looked amazing. Of course, they also have other types of meals, but really I would go for an iced coffee and cake, because is there really anything better? For dinner, Barba Roja is a very good spot to enjoy the sunset while drinking a cocktail and listening to some live music.
If you are planning to go to the national park the next day, make sure you get there as early as possible. The park opens at 7 am, so if you can get there by then, do it. Arriving early has multiple advantages, such as the fact that it is not as hot then as it will be later during the day. Also, the animals will be much more active in the morning. Finally, and this is the most important thing, it will not be as crowded yet. As stated in the beginning, Manuel Antonio is a very popular national park, which means that it can get quite busy at points. If you get there early, you can beat the crowds and still get some parts of the jungle to yourself. The park also only allows a maximum of 600 visitors during weekdays and 800 visitors on the weekends. This way, you avoid having to wait to be able to enter the park.
When it comes to visiting the park, there are two options; going on your own or getting a guide. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. For example, a guide has a telescope which makes it easier to spot animals that are high up in the trees. You can also take pictures through their telescope. However, they are obviously not free and they usually only stay on the main road, which is a fairly big path that is not really in the jungle. If you go without a guide, you have the freedom to go on whichever trail you want. There is a good chance that guides will come up to you at the entrance of the park to ask if you want to join their group. They will also tell you that without a guide, you will not see any animals, which is not true. The monkeys are very used to people by now and are not shy at all, so you will probably see them walk across the paths in between the visitors. In the end, it is completely up to you if you want to get a guide or not.
There are six trails, besides the main road, of various lengths. All of them are very accessible and you do not need a full hiking outfit to be able to walk them. Some good shoes are sufficient, though there are also people walking around in flipflops. Something to take into account is the fact that the waterfall at the end of the waterfall trail is seasonal, which means that in the dry season (November till April) it is really tiny. Just so you don’t get your hopes up only to be disappointed when you reach the end. The trail itself is still very beautiful though.
Once you are ready for some refreshment, the ocean is right there waiting for you. Though it is probably pretty warm, it is also very calm so perfect for some relaxed floating. There are multiple beaches, but Playa Manuel Antonio is the most popular beach. It is also often named as one of the most beautiful beaches in Central America or even the world.
Some practical tips to keep in mind: the park opens from 7 am till 4 pm and is closed on Mondays. To get to the park, you can catch a bus that runs from Quepos until you are almost at the entrance. This bus is only 335 colones, which is not even a dollar. You can also take a taxi, which will be a bit more expensive, obviously. You cannot buy tickets online beforehand, only at the Coopealianza offices in the park or in Quepos. You can, however, get the tickets the day before, so you don’t have to wait in line to buy them on the day you want to visit. The entrance fee is $16 for adults and children over 12 or 1600 colones for people from Costa Rica. Do note that they only accept Visa credit cards and no Mastercard, so if you have Mastercard, make sure you have enough cash on you if you do not also want to go to an ATM at the park. If you want a guide, it is advised to book them in advance. You can bring some food and drinks into the park, however, not everything is allowed. They check your bags before you enter the park, so if you have any doubts about whether you can bring something or not, check the frequently asked questions page on their website.
To get to Manuel Antonio from Finca Escalante, you will have to walk into the city or take a taxi to the Tracopa terminal in San Jose. There you can take a direct bus for 4980 colones or a little less than $9. It leaves about nine times a day, but if you want a specific bus at a certain time, it is advisable to get rather early to the bus station, as the busses fill up very quickly.