13 Best Sights in Manuel Antonio and the Central Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park

Fodor's choice

Costa Rica's smallest park packs in an assortment of natural attractions, from wildlife sheltered by rain forest to rocky coves teeming with marine life. Meandering trails framed by guácimo colorado, mangrove, and silk-cotton trees serve as refuge to sloths, iguanas, agoutis, coatis, raccoons, monkeys, and birds. This is one of the country's best places to see squirrel monkeys and white-faced capuchin monkeys. The great diversity of wildlife is easily spotted from the well-maintained trails, and because the animals are so used to humans, you're likely to see them up close, especially near groups of tourists eating lunch at the beach. Security guards now inspect bags at the park entrance as new restrictions allow visitors to bring only fruit, sandwiches, and nonalcoholic beverages. The mass amounts of junk food stolen and consumed by wildlife has led to serious health problems for the animals. As tempting as it may be, do not feed the wildlife.

Just beyond the entrance, the park's main trail leads to Playa Manuel Antonio, with white sand and submerged volcanic rock great for snorkeling. A second trail winds through the rain forest and spills onto Playa Espadilla Sur, the park's longest beach, which is often less crowded due to rough waters. Farther east, Playa Escondido (Hidden Beach) is rocky and secluded, but not open to the public due to safety precautions; however, you can view it from afar.

Despite its size, Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica's most-visited national park before Poás Volcano. A few tips to make the most of a visit:

Park entrance tickets are sold exclusively at Coopealianza offices in Quepos and Manuel Antonio, one of which is located 50 meters (164 feet) before the park entrance. Tickets are valid for one year from date of purchase, for a single visit. Hire a private guide with ICT certification issued by the Costa Rica Tourism Board.

Arrive as early as possible—between 7 and 8 am is the best time to see animals (and it's cooler, too). Keep in mind the park closes at 3 pm.

Beware of manzanillo trees (indicated by warning signs)—their leaves, bark, and applelike fruit secrete a gooey substance that irritates the skin.

It's common for noncertified guides to approach tourists and offer their services. Even if you ask to see identification, they might show only a Costa Rican ID or a driver's license. Make sure that you hire only a guide that has a badge reading "ICT" with a valid expiration date. Noncertified guides often charge as much as ICT-approved guides, but tours last only an hour to 90 minutes (as opposed to three hours), and you won't see a fraction of the wildlife you might with an experienced guide.

For more information, see the highlighted listing in this chapter.

Catarata Manantial de Agua Viva

This is Costa Rica's tallest waterfall, cascading 600 feet into freshwater pools where you can cool off after a strenuous 3-km (2-mile) hike to the river basin. You're not likely to see other tourists here—it's not one of the more well-known waterfalls. This trek is not suitable for children, the elderly, or those with health conditions. Bring drinking water and wear proper shoes as rocks can be sharp and slippery.

On dirt road 4 km (2½ miles) past Hotel Villa Lapas, Tárcoles, Costa Rica
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Rate Includes: $20

Croc's Casino

Only in Jacó would you find a mini Las Vegas, with a casino of slot machines, table games, and free cocktails for gamblers. There's always a game on the big screen and country music playing poolside. For those who've had one too many rounds, you can stay the night at the massive Croc's resort, which is comfortable but devoid of Costa Rican character.

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Playa Biesanz

For a less turbulent swim and smaller crowds than at other Manuel Antonio beaches, head to this quiet beach within a sheltered cove. There are a few tide pools near a cluster of rocks and, during low tide, you can see fragments of turtle traps dating back to AD 900, when the area was inhabited by the indigenous Quepoa people. You can rent snorkeling gear for $10 and kayaks for $30. Prepare to pay $1–$2 to the unofficial parking attendant who monitors cars. Bring your own food, drinks, and bug spray since there are no amenities and a few mosquitoes on the jungle trail. You're likely to see monkeys and butterflies on the trail connecting the road to the sand. Amenities: none. Best for: snorkeling; solitude.

Near Hotel Parador, Manuel Antonio, 60601, Costa Rica

Playa Espadilla

As the road approaches Manuel Antonio National Park, it skirts the lovely, forest-lined beach of Playa Espadilla, which stretches for more than 2 km (1 mile) north from the rocky crag that marks the park's border to the base of the ridge that holds most of the hotels. One of the most popular beaches in Costa Rica, it fills up with sunbathers, surfers, volleyball players, strand strollers, and sandcastle architects on dry-season weekends and holidays. For most of the year, it is surprisingly quiet, especially at the northern end below Arenas del Mar. Even on the busiest days it is long enough to provide an escape from the crowd, which tends to gather around the restaurants and lounge chairs near its southern end. Though many people often swim and surf here, beware of rough seas and deadly rip currents. There are usually lifeguards on duty closest to the park. If you plan on surfing on the north end, beware of the rocks lurking just below the break closest to the cliffs. You can access this isolated section of Playa Espadilla by way of a 1-km (½-mile) dirt road near Arenas del Mar. There's free parking on the sand, accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles only. Amenities: food and drink. Best for: surfing; walking.

Manuel Antonio, 60601, Costa Rica

Playa Esterillos

Serious surfers from Jacó and Playa Hermosa head to Playa Esterillos to ditch the crowds when waves are pumping. This isolated beach break dishes up hollow barrels, and gets more swell than neighboring surf spots. It works best at high tide with a south or southwest swell direction, but beginners will want to stay clear of the pounding waves. Lessons ($60) and board rental ($20) can be organized through Encantada Ocean Cottages, but if you're a novice surfer, it's best to stick to the inside whitewash with supervision. At low tide, this dark beach looks like a chocolate field, perfect for beachcombing or an afternoon stroll. You can walk for miles without seeing another set of prints in the sand. Other than a couple sodas in Esterillos Oeste, there are no beach amenities, and those within local hotels are exclusively for guests. Just offshore in Esterillos Oeste is a mermaid statue that you can walk to at low tide. If you drive here, don't leave any valuables in the car. Amenities: parking (roadside; no fee). Best for: solitude; surfing.

Costanera Sur, Esterillos Este, 60901, Costa Rica

Playa Hermosa

Despite its name, "Beautiful Beach" is hardly spectacular. The southern half of the wide beach lacks palm trees or other shade-providing greenery; its sand is scorching hot in the afternoon; and frequent rip currents make it unsafe to swim when there are waves. But surfers find beauty in its consistent, hollow surf breaks. Beginner surfers should stick to Jacó since waves here are powerful and punchy, and will close out on big days. The beach's northern end is popular because it often has waves when other spots are flat, and the ocean is cleaner than at Jacó, except after heavy rains when there is floating debris. There is also plenty of forest covering the hills, and scarlet macaws sometimes gather in the Indian almond trees near the end of the beach. Amenities are all at the Backyard Bar. Amenities: food and drink; showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; surfing.

Playa Hermosa, 61101, Costa Rica

Playa Herradura

If sportfishing, boating, and golfing are your priorities, this is a good option. If you're looking for seclusion, a beautiful beach, or a bargain, keep driving. Rocky Playa Herradura is a poor representative of Costa Rica's breathtaking beaches, although its tranquil waters make it considerably safer for swimming and stand-up paddleboarding than most central and southern Pacific beaches. It gets its name from the Spanish word for "horseshoe," referring to the shape of the deep bay in which it lies. Playa Herradura's safety factor, coupled with the fact that it's the closest beach to San José, has turned it into a popular weekend getaway for Josefinos, who compete for shade beneath the sparse palms and Indian almond trees that line the beach. On the north end is Los Sueños, which includes a large marina, shopping center, hundreds of condos, a golf course, and a massive Marriott hotel. This is the sportfishing capital of Costa Rica, so expect plenty of boats anchored offshore. The rough black sand makes the water look somewhat dark and dirty at times. The best spot to grab a bite is Restaurante El Pelicano across from the beach. Amenities: food and drink; toilets; water sports. Best for: swimming.

Near Los Suenos Marriott, 4 km (2½ miles) north of Jacó, Herradura, 61101, Costa Rica

Playa Jacó

This long, palm-lined beach west of town is a pleasant enough spot in the morning but can burn the soles of your feet on a sunny afternoon. Though the gray sand and beachside construction make this spot less attractive than most other Costa Rican beaches, it's a good place to soak up the sun or enjoy a sunset. The beach is popular with surfers for the consistency of its waves, but when the surf is up, swimmers should beware of dangerous rip currents. Smaller waves make this beach ideal for surf lessons or longboarders. Bigger waves are found 5 km (3 miles) south at Playa Hermosa (a blue flag beach). During the rainy months, the ocean here is not very clean. The stretch near Jacó Laguna Resort is less crowded and their tiki bar is a great spot to grab a cocktail at sunset. Amenities: food and drink; toilets (at local restaurants and hotels). Best for: sunsets; surfing.

Jacó, 61101, Costa Rica

Playa La Pita

About a kilometer (½ mile) south after the entrance to Tárcoles, the Costanera passes this small beach that provides your first glimpse of the Pacific if you're coming down from San José or the Central Valley. The beach is rocky, and its proximity to the crocodile-infested Río Tárcoles makes the water murky and dangerous for swimming, but it's a nice spot to stop and admire the ocean and birds. Amenities: food and drink. Best for: sunset; walking.

Tárcoles, 61102, Costa Rica

Playa Manuel Antonio

The town's safest swimming area is sheltered Playa Manuel Antonio, the second beach in the national park. Its white sand makes it attractive for lounging around, and the warm, clean water is good for snorkeling. There are plenty of palm trees where you can find shade on this wide stretch of sand, and just outside the park are vendors selling fresh coconut water and lychees. Keep watch over your food as raccoons and monkeys are known to steal lunches while people are swimming. Huge mounds of lava rock shelter this cove on both sides of the rugged coastline. Several shacks just outside the park rent beach chairs for about $15 a day. Beaches inside the national park do not have lifeguards or food vendors, unlike those near the entrance. Amenities: parking; showers; toilets. Best for: snorkeling; swimming; walking.

Manuel Antonio, 60601, Costa Rica

Rainforest Spices / Villa Vanilla

Thirty minutes north of Quepos, this spice plantation produces vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa, pepper, allspice, turmeric, and a variety of exotic fruits, essential oils, and medicinal plants. Half-day tours include a visit to the harvesting warehouse, a walk through the fields, and a tasting of Ceylon cinnamon and chocolate gourmet treats prepared by the in-house pastry chef. If you get hooked on the vanilla-bean cheesecake, the cardamom ice cream, or the cinnamon tea, you can stock up on organic spices at the shop on your way out. Tastings and transportation from the Quepos–Manuel Antonio area are included in the tour price. Be sure to bring bug spray.

Rainmaker Conservation Project

This private nature reserve is spread over Fila Chota, a lower ridge of the Talamanca Range 22 km (13 miles) northeast of Quepos, and protects more than 1,500 acres of lush and precipitous forest, with river-walk or canopy-bridge routes to follow in the lower section. The reserve is home to many of Costa Rica's endangered species, and you may spot birds here that you won't find in Manuel Antonio. You are likely to see scarlet macaws and toucans, due to a repopulation of the species in the Quepos Biological Corridor. Their longtime resident sloth "Charlie Rainmaker" helps educate guests about rain-forest conservation. The reserve encompasses five ecozones and represents 75% of the species found in Costa Rica. It isn't as good a place to see animals as the national park, but Rainmaker's forest is different—lusher and more precipitous—and the view from its bridges is impressive. Guided tours are available from Manuel Antonio, or you can stop and take a self-guided tour on your way to or from Quepos. The park also offers an early-morning bird-watching tour and a night reptiles-and-amphibians hike. The restaurant serves lunch ($8), and there's an on-site microbrewery that utilizes Rainmaker's mountain waters. It's best to visit Rainmaker in the morning, since—true to its name—it often pours in the afternoon.