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Manuel Antonio National Park
At only 7 square km (3 square miles), Manuel Antonio National Park—Costa Rica's smallest park—has an impressive collection of natural attractions: wildlife, rain forest, white-sand beaches, and rocky coves with abundant marine life.
The forest is dominated by massive gumbo-limbo trees, recognizable by their peeling bark. It's home to both two- and three-toed sloths, green and black iguanas, agoutis (similar to the guinea pig, but with longer legs), three species of monkeys, and more than 350 species of birds.
Trails are short, well maintained—and heavily traveled. Make no mistake about it: this is no undiscovered wilderness. In fact, Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica's second-most-visited attraction. There are 5 km (3 miles) of coastline, and it's one of the few parks where you can combine nature walks with swimming off idyllic beaches. There's absolutely no commercial beach development, so the beaches are picture-perfect pristine.
Best Time to Go
Visit any day but Monday, when the park is closed, and any month but September or October, when it's very wet. Come early, ideally between 7 and 8 am, because park rangers allow only 800 people at a time inside.
The park's territory is too small to support all of its monkeys, so forested corridors and suspended bridges have been built to allow the monkeys to come and go.
Best Ways to Explore
Don your hiking shoes and set off on the main trail from the ranger station. You'll immediately find yourself in rain forest and then emerge onto sparkling Playa Espadilla Sur. Another trail leads to Playa Manuel Antonio, which has a good coral reef for snorkeling. These two beaches lie on either side of a tombolo, a sandy strip that connects the mainland to rocky Punta Catedral, which used to be an island. Farther east, where fewer visitors venture, Playa Escondido is rocky and secluded. Trails from the entrance to Punta Catedral and Playa Escondido are in good shape. Trails farther east are progressively rougher going. Sturdy walking sandals are good enough for most of the trails, but light hiking boots or closed shoes will help you avoid nasty encounters with biting ants.
Manuel Antonio is famous for its monkeys, especially the noisy white-faced monkeys that pester tourists at the beach. A troop of rarer squirrel monkeys also lives here, one of the few places in the country where you can still find them. These tiny monkeys—mono titi in Spanish—are an endangered species. Catching sight of them is a real wildlife coup. The smallest of Costa Rica's four monkey species, these little guys have squirrel-like bushy tails but they only use them for balance—they can't swing from them.
Watch, too, for less-active creatures, such as the more-or-less stationary sloth, especially along the park's Sloth Trail. They sleep much of the day, curled up high in the trees. Look for clumps of green and brown and watch carefully to see if they move.
You'll see many more animals and birds with a guide than without one. You can hire an official guide at the park entrance. If you're interested in seeing birds, be sure to hire a guide carrying a scope, so you can get close-up views of faraway birds.
Top Reasons to Go
Gorgeous beaches without any commercial clutter or noise are one of the best reasons to visit Manuel Antonio. Bring your own snorkeling gear, snacks, and drinks because there's nowhere to buy them. There are basic toilet facilities and cold-water, open-air showers.
Along with the ubiquitous white-faced monkeys performing for visitors on the beaches, you'll also find howler monkeys (congos) draped over tree branches in the forest, and more rarely, the endangered, diminutive squirrel monkey.
Just off Playa Espadilla, you can swim out to some rocks and tread water while pelicans dive for fish, oblivious to visitors who bob quietly in the water.
For a fabulous coastal view, take the steep path that leads up to Punta Catedral's rocky hill, draped with thick jungle. You'll pass a lookout point from which you can gaze out at the Pacific and the park's islets.
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