Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica is one of my family’s favorite spots! It’s a great place to see tons of animals, beautiful beaches, and just enjoy pura vida. However, there are a few things that are confusing and surprising when visiting Manuel Antonio. Make sure you are prepared with this helpful guide filled with tips for visiting Manuel Antonio so that you and your kids have a successful and memorable trip..
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Check the website before you go
The official website for Manuel Antonio National Park, found here, has tons of good information, including closures, rules, and it’s the only place you can buy tickets into the park. Currently, the park is closed every Tuesday so make sure you keep that in mind as you make travel plans.
Book a Guide
Manuel Antonio National Park is PACKED with animals. And no matter what you do, you’ll definitely see SOME of them. But so many of the most interesting creatures are hiding, and almost impossible to spot.
A guide has a ton of expertise in spotting the specific animals that live inside Manuel Antonio. Plus, all the guides that work inside the park work together and share intel. So your guide will be hearing about the sloth that was spotted on the other side of the park, or the Basilisk Lizard that likes to hang out by the stream.
Guides are great with kids as well. They will take the time to make sure even the tiniest explorers get a chance to spot every creature. Guides are eager to answer all of the kids questions and do their best to keep them engaged. One of our guides said that children will be treated like royalty on the tour- my kids loved it and wanted to ALWAYS be treated like royalty after that tour!
Also, be aware that there are people posing as guides at the entrance of the park. They may not be the best, or even qualified as guides. Book your guide ahead of time through a reputable source. You can find quality guides on AirBnb experiences, Viator, or directly through the official Manuel Antonio website. Looking for a recommendation? We love Jason and his team, bookable on AirBnb Experiences.
Some of the guided tours include transportation from your hotel, and will reserve a time and purchase park tickets for you, while others will just meet you at the entrance, and you need to purchase your own tickets for entry. Make sure you read your booking carefully to make sure you book exactly what you want, and you understand exactly what is included.
Get Tickets online before you go
Tickets for Manuel Antonio must be purchased online, in advance, and direct from the official website here. Make sure you do this! It’s another simple thing that is easy to forget! Tickets for a particular day and/or time do sell out so you’ll want to go ahead and purchase your ticket as soon as you can. During peak months of February, March, and April, tickets can go fast!
Visit in the morning
Manuel Antonio is open from 7am to 4pm, and that includes the beach that can only be accessed with park entry. With an early closing time, you’ll want to make sure you give yourself enough time to see everything. And trust us- the day can go pretty quickly, especially if you want to see animals and walk through the park AND check out the beautiful beach (and we definitely recommend doing both).
Also, if you are willing to get up REALLY early and make it to the park right when it opens, you’ll beat the heat, and the crowds and see more animals than any other time of day. Many animals will be most active in the morning, before it gets hot. And early mornings are a great time for birding.
Even if 7am isn’t going to happen for your family, we still recommend heading out sometime in the morning too. You can easily spend 4+ hours in Manuel Antonio. With the early closing time of 4pm, the day can quickly get away from you.
Eat before you go
Manuel Antonio has a strict no food policy at this time. The rule is designed to prevent the intentional, or unintentional feeding of wildlife. But it is a tricky rule for families with kids! The good news is there is a small food kiosk within the park with snacks, sandwiches, salads, drinks, pastries, and ice cream. But the kiosk is down by the beach, and pretty far from the entrance of the park. Guided walks and tours typically end at the beach, so expect to wait until the end to be able to get something to eat.
At times, the kiosk is closed, and instead, the park will allow you to bring some snacks into the park. The park rangers will explain, but typically they allow things like fruit and sandwiches wrapped in paper or reusable containers. This is tough for travelers but we’ve found the park employees to be kind and understanding, so talk to them if you have trouble with anything.
Do your best to get the kids to have a good meal before entering the park since it can be awhile before the next opportunity for a meal. Drinks like juice and milk, and, of course, water are allowed in reusable containers.
There is also a no re-entry policy. So you can’t leave and come back without getting new reservations and paying another entry fee, unfortunately.
This rule is so tough for families with younger kids, but with careful planning, you’ll be able to do it! We also find that the heat does make us a little less hungry.
Don’t fall for the parking scams
When driving toward Manuel Antonio, streets get narrow and a bit confusing. People will aggressively sell spots in their parking lots. Many of them tell you that you can’t go any farther down the road, which isn’t true, or that there are no other parking spots farther up the road- also not true. They may even bang on the hood of your car and shout. It can be a little scary and intimidating. But we hope this warning will help you be prepared and not afraid to continue past the scammers.
Chalo, the owner of the parking lot closest to the entrance of the park, is reputable, trustworthy, and not aggressive. Make your way to his parking lot where you can park safely (though we still recommend not leaving any valuables in the car).
Dress for heat and bring plenty of water
Temperatures and humidity in Manuel Antonio are high. And a walk in the jungle can get really uncomfortably hot really fast, especially for children. Be sure to apply sunblock, and dress for high temperatures. We love Primary Kids StayCool line– they are lightweight and quick dry, plus they come in tons of bright colors.
You’ll also want to pack plenty of cold water. We are obsessed with Hydroflask water bottles for the whole family because they actually stay icy-cold all day. These straw bottles are great for kids and are our favorite! We recommend packing extra water so everyone can stay hydrated. It really helps keep everyone cooler and more comfortable for the hot jungle walk!
Consider bringing binoculars for the kids
If you book a guide, your guide will definitely bring a spotting scope that is ideal for spotting every animal out there. But kids may enjoy challenging themselves to spot something without the help of the guide. Or they may enjoy just looking around the jungle to see what they can see. The binoculars are typically not as good as the guide’s spotting scope, but they are still handy to have. We enjoyed looking at the flowers, beetles, trees, and other things that the guides weren’t pointing out (because there were SO many things to see). And the kids enjoyed using their binoculars to look while waiting for everyone to get a turn with the spotting scope, .
One reason you may want to skip the binoculars: Our kids did not care to share binoculars. So that meant we end up bringing 3 pairs of binoculars – one for each kid, and one for the adults. And when everyone gets hot and tired and the strap started to rub on the kids necks, that means 3 binoculars for me to carry along with everything else. Overall, we’d did enjoy having the binoculars even though they were a bit more to manage.
The beach within Manuel Antonio is beautiful and an experience you won’t want to miss. Make sure you pack for the beach so you can enjoy it after exploring the park. The food kiosk is near the beach area, and there are also bathrooms and showers. The beach is a great place to stop and eat something, and enjoy the water and the sand. The animals love the beach as well. So you will have more opportunities for animal spotting while you enjoy the beach.
We prefer to just wear our swimwear under our clothes for the beach. That way, we won’t have to wait in line for change rooms and can just head straight out. After the beach, you can shower before heading back down the trail. However, note that the shower lines do get pretty long. As an alternative, we like to just dry in the sun and skip the shower until we get back to the hotel.
We recommend packing or wearing swimwear, and bringing towels. Sand Cloud towels are our favorite because they pack up super small and easily fit into a backpack but they are still totally absorbent. And they dry super fast! You may also want to consider bringing alternative shoes for your walk back after visiting the beach. However, the walk from the beach back to the park entrance is about a mile. So you’ll likely want something more sturdy than flip flops. If you plan to stick with your sneakers, consider bringing an extra pair of socks to put on after the beach.
Manuel Antonio National Park is sure to be a highlight of your family’s trip to Costa Rica. We hope these tips help you plan for your trip so that everything will go perfectly!