Costa Rica's smallest park packs in an impressive collection of natural attractions: lots of wildlife, rain forest, white-sand beaches, and rocky coves with abundant marine life. Trails are short, well maintained, and easy to walk. The forest is dominated by massive ficus and gumbo-limbo trees, and is home to two- and three-toed sloths, green and black iguanas, agoutis, four species of monkeys, and more than 350 species of birds. This is one of two places in Costa Rica to see adorable squirrel monkeys. It's also one of the best places to see white-faced capuchin monkeys. The great diversity of wildlife is easily spotted from the well-marked trails, and because the animals are so used to humans, this is one of the best places to see them up close.
From the ranger station a trail leads through the rain forest behind Playa Espadilla Sur, the park's longest beach. It's also the least crowded because the water can be rough. The coral reefs and submerged volcanic rocks of white-sand
Playa Manuel Antonio make for good snorkeling. The 1-km-long (½-mile-long) beach, tucked into a deep cove, is safe for swimming. At low tide you can see the remains of a Quepos Indian turtle trap on the right—the Quepos stuck poles in the semicircular rock formation, which trapped turtles as the tide receded. Olive ridley and green turtles come ashore on this beach May through November. Espadilla and Manuel Antonio beaches lie on opposite sides of a tombolo, or a sandy strip that connects the mainland to Punta Catedral (Cathedral Point), which used to be an island. The steep path that leads up Punta Catedral's rocky hill draped with thick jungle passes a lookout point from which you can gaze over the Pacific at the park's islands.
Farther east, Playa Escondido (Hidden Beach) is rocky and secluded, but it's also more difficult to access. Before you head out to Escondido, find out when the tides come in so you're not stranded. Kayaking trips might take you down to Punta Serrucho near the southern border of the park, whose jagged peaks explain its name. (Serrucho means "saw.")
Despite being Costa Rica's smallest national park, Manuel Antonio is its second most visited, after Volcán Poás, so it is no undiscovered wilderness. A few tips to make the most of a visit:
Hire a private guide with certification from the Costa Rica Tourism Board—you'll walk away with a better understanding of the flora and fauna and see things you probably would have missed otherwise.
Get here as early as possible—between 7 and 8 am is ideal. Rangers permit only 800 people inside at a time, and during peak season visitors line up to enter. Early morning is also the best time to see animals (and it's cooler too.)
Beware of manzanillo trees (indicated by warning signs)—their leaves, bark, and applelike fruit secrete a gooey substance that irritates the skin.
Manuel Antonio, Manuel Antonio, 60601, Costa Rica