Costa Rica is known as the land of pura vida -- or pure life -- for good reason. In addition to its gorgeous coasts, stunning beaches, and wonderfully friendly people, this small Central American country also boasts an absolute treasure trove of biodiversity, and nowhere else in Costa Rica illustrates that fact as well as Manuel Antonio National Park. Inside this small gem you’ll discover an astonishing variety of flora and fauna as well as one of the most beautiful stretches of sand on Earth.
Here are eight tips for exploring this incredible place.
1. Hire A Guide Ahead Of Time
First things first: Do your research online ahead of time and hire a guide while you are planning your trip to Costa Rica, not once you arrive. Granted, there are people right outside the park who will offer to take you inside, but these vary in quality, competency, and knowledgeability.
We opted for a guide from Manuel’s Tours, and we were not disappointed. In our minds, our guide’s expertise was absolutely worth the cost. We are not biologists or trained spotters, and our guide pointed out creatures in the dense jungle that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, including huge spiders, colorful birds, and even a dangerous fer-de-lance (a venomous pit viper, thankfully off of the trail!). Our guide brought along a small telescope so that we could better spy the adorable sloths hanging far above in the jungle canopy. He was also able to explain exactly what we were looking at, from medicinal plants to the weird raccoon-like coatis. If we’d been alone, we’d have been left to guess what we were seeing.
So be sure to get a guide -- a good one -- to help you take in the sights of Manuel Antonio. You won’t regret it!
2. Bring The Basics
Again, a little bit of planning goes a long way toward an unforgettable experience at Manuel Antonio. There aren’t any services inside the park, so you’ll want to bring plenty of water and food to get you through the day. Also, bring a floppy hat, sunglasses, and high-SPF sunscreen -- Manuel Antonio is very near the equator, and the sun is wickedly strong. Wear light-colored clothing, sturdy boots or sporty sandals, and insect repellent. Obviously, a camera is a must: Only you can decide if your smartphone is enough. Consider binoculars, especially if you decide not to hire a guide. Finally, bring a waterproof bag for your belongings if you plan to hit the beach.
3. Don’t Leave The Trail
This should be plain common sense -- you are in the middle of a rainforest jungle preserve, after all. However, some folks, in their zeal to better glimpse or photograph wildlife, might be tempted to step a whisker or two off the trail. Do not do it! In our case, the aforementioned fer-de-lance was just a short distance off the trail. Thankfully, our guide heard monkeys screaming above, knew that it meant some sort of predator was nearby, and took steps to move us inside the path. It’s awful to think about what might have happened if an overeager tourist had wandered off a bit.
Additionally, this is a fragile ecosystem. To trample upon any part of it, even inadvertently, could be devastating. Remember that you’re a guest in the environment; for your own safety and for the sake of the many creatures around you, treat the place with the respect it deserves.
4. Don’t Feed The Animals
While you’re gushing over the howler and white-faced monkeys in the trees and the cute but strange coatis on the jungle floor, be sure to keep your food packed up. These guys have become a bit too bold for their own good and have been known to rummage through unattended sacks or even snatch food from people’s hands. While such close encounters aren’t likely to injure you, and might even be rather cute, keep in mind that Mother Nature provides well for these creatures in the jungle. They don’t need human foods that could make them sick, so keep your snacks under wraps!
5. Don’t Forget Your Towel And Bathing Suit
Just an easy 30-minute hike from the park’s front gate, Manuel Antonio Beach is a showstopper. With its sugar-white sand and inviting, crystal-clear waters, it’s a great place for a dip after a morning of exploring the forest. Don’t make the same mistake we did -- remember to pack your swimsuit, a towel, and even snorkel gear, since the biodiversity of this special place continues underwater.
Keep in mind that there are none of the typical beach amenities here -- no services, umbrellas, or chairs. If some beach lounging is in your Manuel Antonio plans (and we hope that it is!), you might also consider wearing a rash guard. The sun here is at its most direct and can cause serious damage in a short amount of time on unprotected skin. There’s nothing like a scorching, painful burn to ruin a vacation, so be sure to take the proper precautions while enjoying the beach.
6. Stay Away From The Manchineel Trees
While on Manuel Antonio Beach, you’ll likely see some inviting-looking trees dotting the area near the water. You might be tempted to hang your towel from their branches to dry, or seek them out for shade and shelter. However, proceed with caution!
While manchineel trees should be marked with caution signs or red flags, you’ll still want to keep an eye out for -- and stay away from -- what the locals call the “poison guava.” The entire tree -- flowers, green apple-like fruit, leaves, and bark -- is highly toxic, causing horrible blisters and burns. Ingestion of the fruit or leaves can even be fatal. Indigenous people used manchineel sap on the tips of their arrows to inflict further suffering on their enemies.
A good guide will point out the manchineels on Manuel Antonio Beach and keep you away from them. If you’re flying solo, be aware that the trees are out there and keep an eye out for warning signs or flags identifying them.
7. Consider The Time Of Year
The time of year you visit Costa Rica will very likely affect your experience at Manuel Antonio. While most areas of the world have four seasons, Costa Rica only has two: a dry season from December through April and a wet season from May through November. The temperature is fairly constant year-round -- around 80 degrees on the coast where the park is located -- but the climate varies greatly. While visiting the park during the dry season means you won’t likely be dodging storms, it’s also when prices are at their highest. If you visit during the off-season, you’ll likely have to contend with heavy rain and humidity; however, it also means lower prices and a verdant, lush park. You can’t go wrong either way, since the animals will be there regardless of the time of year. Just be sure to pack gear -- such as waterproof layers and boots -- appropriate for the time of your visit.
8. Prepare To Be Amazed
We can’t overstate how incredible our time at Manuel Antonio was. Hiking through the thick jungle on the well-marked trails, it seemed like we were in a zoo without fences or enclosures. With help from our guide, we were able to spot an amazing array of creatures: great and small, colorful and drab, loud and silent. Each species -- and there are hundreds of them in this small, wild space -- contributes in its own way to the fragile ecosystem. Visiting was truly a bucket-list experience. Remember to use common sense, take nothing and leave nothing, and be prepared, and you’ll have a wonderful time.
Manuel Antonio National Park is open every day except Monday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Foreign visitors pay $16 for admission. We recommend that you arrive early, since the Costa Rican government has set daily admission limits. Expect to pay $50 to $70 for a half-day guided tour booked in advance, which will cover admission to the park.