Wednesday 3/22: Manuel Antonio National Park day

Day 12 in Costa Rica, Wednesday 3/22

Wednesday was our day to visit the famous Manuel Antonio National Park! This is the most visited national park in Costa Rica- a park full of wild animals, jungle, and beautiful beaches.

Timed entrance tickets are required (purchase online only). The big debate here was if we should get a private guide or not. Most recommendations online, in travel books, etc. “strongly suggest” hiring a private guide. The main purpose of a guide here, though, is to help visitors spot animals in the trees (sloths, monkeys, birds, etc.). I am sure they also share details about the plants and trees and history of the area.

Everything I read indicated a guide was totally worth it, but, we ultimately decided to skip hiring a guide this time. The biggest reason was because we were almost done with 2 weeks in Costa Rica, and frankly, we had already seen a lot of wildlife! (And we had already paid for several guided nature tours.) I just had a hard time thinking they would spot too many things we hadn’t seen already elsewhere.

A private guide would have made our tickets significantly more expensive- probably at least double the cost. And, it was really, really hot in Manuel Antonio. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be tied to a guide and forced to stay on the trails for a certain amount of time, if we really just wanted to go dive into the ocean!

So, no guide for us. (Ended up being 100% the right choice, I think, in our case!). I would say though, if you visit Manuel Antonio National Park and you haven’t done any guided walks yet in Costa Rica (and won’t be otherwise), then yes. Definitely go for the guide. Without our guide, we basically only saw some monkeys, a couple huge iguanas, and one sloth. The guides have those telescope things to find animals that are basically invisible to the average person just walking by.

I had reserved tickets for the 9-9:45 time slot window. This meant we had a little time to relax after getting up.

pretty tropical view from our Airbnb kitchen sink

Sat outside, as usual, with my tea in the morning. Another beautiful, blue sky day! After a several evenings of some rain in La Fortuna during the first leg of our trip, I’m happy to report that we basically had no rain in Monteverde or Manuel Antonio at all (minus a brief rain shower on our very last night).

We drove to Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s a bit of a zoo around there. I was a little apprehensive about this whole day, because I’d read that the national park is just super busy, parking is insane, it’s crowded, etc. Didn’t exactly sound like my cup of tea, yet it was on all the “must do” lists…. so….. I felt weird skipping it.

As you approach the NP, there are “scammers”, I’ll call them, who line the streets and try to act official, trying to wave you in to paid parking lots along the way (NOT the official park parking lots). There were pretty persistent! I can see how this would be really confusing if you didn’t know about this in advance. I had read to just keep going past all of them until you get to the very last lot- that’s the “real” one. (Not that you couldn’t park in those other ones, but you’d just be MUCH farther away and have to walk super far.)

lots of little shops and stands line the streets near the national park

After only some minor confusion about which lot was the actual lot we needed, we parked, walked up and checked in. One thing to be aware of here: The do not allow any food or single use plastics in the park. And they are strict about it! They literally search your bag. I knew this, but somehow it slipped my mind that our “underwear bag” where we packed dry underwear to change into after swimming was a big (plastic) ziploc. So the lady made me throw it away!! 😦 I was annoyed, because I wanted to re-use that bag on the way home in my luggage.

in the entrance, getting Asher lubed up with sunscreen

There were lots of semi-pushy guides at the entrance offering their services. We told them no, and one guy said bluntly, “Come on. Do you want to see animals, or do you not want to see animals?!” And I basically said, “We don’t care! We’ve been here for 2 weeks and we’ve already seen animals!” 🤷‍♀️

The park is comprised of a bunch of trails, though it’s relatively speaking quite small, especially for a national park. You could easily walk all of the trails in a single day if you desired.

Setting out on the first trail

The biggest issues I saw with this park visit day were two things. One, like I said, is that it’s a very popular and crowded park. I had read so much about this that I fully expected the crowds. (But that doesn’t mean I liked it.) See trail below- the initial trails were FULL of groups + guides, everywhere.

If you remember from my previous posts, most trails we’d hiked on so far in Costa Rica were practically empty. I greatly prefer quiet hiking trails.

Also, it was probably at least 93 degrees out, full sunshine, and very humid. I was dying before we even walked for 5 minutes. I knew right then that we made the right choice in not getting a guide. I honestly didn’t really care what was in the trees- I just wanted to get into the water. We saw all the groups of people standing and listening to the guides, with beads of sweat just dripping down their faces…. no, gracias.

So, we just walked along at a fairly brisk pace and headed for the first beach. That’s the other thing that’s special about this park- it is home to I think a total of 5 beaches that are completely protected and only accessible to people within the park. I had read that they were the most “pristine” beaches in the area (compared to the public beaches- though I found the public beaches to be perfectly nice?).

The first one we came to was Playa Manuel Antonio.

As you can see in the photo below, we were not the only people who decided to kind of ditch the trails and just hit the ocean.

Look at all the people!

I mean, compared to the beach we visited once in Barcelona where I don’t think I could even SEE THE SAND it was so crowded, this wasn’t crowded. But for my picky standards, this was crowded. The water was pretty full of people floating and swimming.

But, oh well. I kind of wrinkled up my nose at how many people were in the water, but I was freaking roasting. So we immediately headed to the water to cool off! And it was a beautiful beach, with clear water and clean sand.

And it really wasn’t so bad. Once we were in, I kind of stopped noticing the others and people ended up spreading out. And the water temperature was incredible. Once I was in, I never wanted to get out. Haha.

Unfortunately, these turned out super dark!! 😦 Would have been cute.
My mom stayed up with our stuff on the beach for this part.

Oh, the other issue I have with this national park is that there are zero amenities on the beach. Again, I guess I get it- it’s a national park, not a resort. But it’s also like 500 degrees there, and there are NO umbrellas or chairs or anything and pretty minimal shade. And you can’t bring in food or water! (Unless it’s in a reusable bottle, which we hadn’t packed in our carry-ons, unfortunately.)

All of that makes it a bit difficult to really want to settle in and spend a whole day there…. what are you supposed to eat?? There is a small cafe inside the park, but apparently it’s been closed for the last couple of months! Not sure why.

More beach pics:

Ivan was not overly impressed with the park on the whole either and was asking why we went there if it’s basically the same beaches as the public beaches, but without shade, food, or water??? Haha. I was like, Well, I don’t know! It’s supposed to be a “must see” thing in Costa Rica…. and the beaches were a bit more pristine there (since that land is more protected from vendors, tourists, food, litter, etc.)….

We kind of decided that we would make the rounds to see a few of the beaches, and then head out and spend the afternoon at the public beach (with umbrellas + food!).

I don’t mean to speak ill of the place, because it truly was beautiful, and I think I am glad we went there for at least a few hours. It was worth it to me to see it once. But I don’t think I would go back. There are too many other equally beautiful but less crowded places in Costa Rica.

After a while at Playa Manuel Antonio, we got out of the water and headed down a trail to another of the national park’s beaches, Playa Espadilla Sur.

There really were many spectacular views from inside the park! The combination of these dense jungle against the blue water is very unique and quite stunning.

There were also plenty of monkeys! We watched a bunch of them together at one point. This one monkey was hilarious- he kept sticking his hand inside this hole in the tree, and something in there was either pecking at him or biting or stinging him! He kept withdrawing his hand like, ow! But then he’d put his hand back in again and reach around trying to get at whatever was in there! it was very amusing! It was so funny and cute.

This guy just kept staring down at us while he gnawed on this tree branch.
This group of monkeys was all stretched out sleeping, and some were grooming each other.

Along the way we came to this observatory tower, so my Dad and I went up that. The boys and Ivan had gone ahead to get back to the ocean! Sooo hot….

Not exactly much of a view, as we basically just looked out right into the trees. You could kind of see the ocean. Ah, well. Nice to take a look at least.

This is Playa Espadilla Sur:

This beach was beautiful! It was very long/ wide and had much fewer people on it, for some reason. Not sure if everyone does the same loop from the entrance or what, so everyone started at Playa Manuel Antonio, as we had?

We had the same issue here though that there really just wasn’t a lot of shade. There were some big logs under some of the trees at the back edge of the beach, but many of the “shady areas” were already occupied by other people. We did find a log to sit on, but it was fairly crowded with some other guests. And it still felt so hot in the shade!

This big reptile came walking through near where we were sitting! Not sure if they are friendly or not, so I steered clear. He was interesting to look at.

We spent a while longer swimming. The water at this beach was also a wonderful temperature. It wasn’t as clear and blue though, since it’s on a more open, outside stretch of beach (not in the smaller protected cove/bay like the first beach was). So I think more of the sand swirls up in the water with the waves here.

The boys had a lot of fun! I went in again too to cool off.

cute pic of Asher!

We didn’t stay super, super long. I’d say we maybe spent just over 3 hours in the park. After a bit we told the boys we had to go, but that as soon as we left the park we would head straight for the public beach to spend the rest of the afternoon there. (And we would rent umbrellas/ chairs).

It took maybe a good 20 minutes to walk the trails out.

I really love the combo of the palm trees + ocean! Always so beautiful.

a neat shot
This would have been a cool spot to get a family photo, if the kids hadn’t been up way ahead of me and there weren’t like 12 other people in the photo. Hahaha.
boardwalk trails on the way back

We did see a sloth on the way out! Hard to tell in this photo though. It was easier to see in person. 🙂

We finally made it out and we were just so hot! I don’t mean to keep mentioning this, because overall I was thrilled that it was hot on this trip. I mean, I want our tropical vacation to have tropical weather. But this particular activity of walking/hiking under all the dense trees (seemed to heat things up even more!) just felt really, really…. hot. I mentioned repeatedly that I was soooo glad I had planned our more active hikes and activities for La Fortuna and Monteverde where it’s not nearly as hot!

I am not normally a huge gelato fan- I prefer good old fashioned ice cream- but I was dying for something cold. So we all got gelato the second we stepped out of the park.

Walked back to the car…..

Once our SUV cooled off enough to get inside of it, we drove back to Playa Espadilla Norte. It’s the same beach we were at all day Monday. We loved it there, loved the easy parking set up and lack of crowds, and we even decided that we’d just get lunch again at that same beachfront restaurant! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


We grabbed a table at that same Buena Vista Restaurant. Smoothies and quesadillas for the win. I could probably eat a quesadilla every day for the rest of my life, TBH.

In my new sun hat I picked up from a vendor outside the National Park! Folds up nicely/ is packable.

The service seemed a bit slow on this day, however, and the boys were itching to get out of the heat and back in the water. Fortunately, we could literally see the beach from our table, so we let them go.

Asher went down the beach to find the guy to ask about surfboard rental for the afternoon. He wanted to just practice on his own! He impressed me with his boldness and willingness to just go up to anyone and speak in Spanish. I was proud of him.

Beach Afternoon

We spent the rest of the day at the beach! Again, so very wonderful.

Livin’ the life.
My mom enjoying the beach!
Isn’t my hat pretty?? I like this shot. 🙂

The sky was very pretty that afternoon, as the sun had just started descending. We stayed all the way through sunset. The boys swam and swam and swam. Asher surfed (as best he could, on his own without an instructor). He did pretty well! Not quite as well without the instructor giving him a boost/ telling him which waves to go for, but he sure had fun. I couldn’t believe how long the boys stayed in the water. They literally never got out until it was dark and we had to go.

Behold, another 50 sunset pictures….. 🙂

The beach was a little crowded at first.


It seemed to clear out, allowing for some great photos!!

We stayed even after the chair guy had to put our lounge chairs away.

My little “station”. 🙂

Finally, time to go! Here’s looking back to the beach, from the restaurant and parking area. Such a great spot!


The rest of the night was also a pretty standard evening for us. Went back to the Airbnb, some of us showered quickly/ cleaned up, and then we went to get dinner. It turns out there was a new restaurant just across the street from our Airbnb basically, down a steep driveway (so we hadn’t even noticed it!) that was perfect! They had live music and it was a great outdoor patio place. Really nice! And so convenient.

I got some chicken tacos.

And that was the end of Wednesday! Overall, I’d say I’m glad we went to see the national park, though of all the amazing things we did on this trip, it doesn’t rank too highly for me personally. I’m happy though that after hearing so much about it, at least now I know what’s there, what the beaches are like and all of that. I can check it off the list. 😉

On to our last FULL day in Costa Rica! How can it be?!

3 thoughts on “Wednesday 3/22: Manuel Antonio National Park day”

  1. The boys have got to be unhappy about the quality of smoothies now that you’re back in Wisconsin!

    Looks like a fun day and I’m glad you went to that national park even if it was as amazing as you wanted it to be because otherwise you would have wondered about it the whole time!


  2. I hate winter/cold, but I also melt in heat – so hard to please. So I bet I would really struggle with those temperatures you’re describing.

    I’ve had some disappointing experiences on vacation that I don’t regret mostly because I feel like if I hadn’t done it myself, I would always have wondered if X/Y/Z was worth seeing? Like in Paris we did a particular walking trail that was underwhelming and took quite a bit of time to get to/from. I was grumpy with myself at the time for adding it to my itinerary, but it got SUCH rave reviews online and my brother also highly recommended it. If we HADN’T gone, I think I would have felt disappointed to not have checked if off my list, but now I know if/when I go back to Paris I don’t need to do that hike again!

    Also – you had spectacular weather. I’m so, so glad you got lots of heat and blue skies and sunshine ❤


  3. The scammers and crowded trails would have been frustrating. But those beach views! You guys have seen so much wild life on this trip so it makes sense to go the self-guided route. I thought of you guys when Paul and I read a picture book about how Sloths go to the bathroom. I had no idea that was what the book was about but it actually ended up being really cute/funny. Apparently it’s very dangerous for them to go to the bathroom as they have to go to the floor of the rain forest where there are a lot of predators, so they only poop once/week and lose something like 20% of their weight! It talks about how they do this little dance to make a hole in the ground, and then do it again to cover up their poop. Anyways, Paul and I found it very interesting and I thought of you guys since you saw real life sloths recently so figured you might appreciate hearing about this book!

    I would love to do a trip like this some day with Phil and the boys when they are older!


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