On the second day of our trip to Costa Rica, we went to the Pacific coast and the smallest but the most visited national park – Manuel Antonio. We caught a pink Tracopa bus at the bus stop which looks a bit like a summer cinema. The waiting room is full of plastic chairs with a few stands selling snacks, empanadas, and coffee.
We paid 9$ for a one-way bus ticket to Manuel Antonio. It was the best bus on our whole journey. It was spacious, air-conditioned and it had a large storage compartment. It was the kind of a bus to which we are used in Europe.
The bus ride lasted less than 4h with one stop in front of the restaurant “La cuchara Tica”. When we got off the bus, we almost had a heat stroke. We went from the European 5°C through the 24°C in San José to the steaming 35°C! Still in our jeans and leggings, with jackets tied around our waists, we reached for the fresh fruits from the stands in front of the restaurant. We could choose between the classic orange mango, green sour mango, pineapple, watermelon, and other delicacies. At one stand they even made skewered kabobs!
The closest city to the Manuel Antonio National Park is Quepos. It’s a small maritime town with about 20 000 inhabitants. Quepos got its name after the tribe Quepoa, who used to live here before the Spanish colonization in 1563.
The city was once the main exporter of bananas for the American United Fruit Company. During the 1950s the bananas caught the Panamanian virus, so the production was transferred from Quepos to the Caribbean port Limón. The company later changed its name to today’s world-known Chiquita Brands International.
Nowadays, Quepos is mostly known for its proximity to the Manuel Antonio National Park with almost half a million visitors a year. Because of the city’s many hotels, bars, shops, and restaurants, it’s the ideal starting point for tourists who come to see the national park. You can also visit the beautiful modern Marina Paz Vela in Quepos and buy a boat tour around the Pacific coast. The bus from Quepos to the Manuel Antonio National Park departs every 15min (the ride lasts 30min) and the one-way ticket costs less than 1$.
Accommodation around Manuel Antonio
We didn't stay in Quepos though, our hostel was located on the 7km long road between Quepos and the national park. This was one of the areas that experienced a tourist boom in the 1990s, when a great number of hotels and restaurants were built along the road. We booked the Selina hostel, a chain of hostels that you can find all over Costa Rica and even in a few cities of South America.
We loved the hostel complex at the edge of the jungle with three large swimming pools, a restaurant and a bar, chill-out areas, and, above all, stunning nature. You could spend hours walking through the hostel area, meeting not only tourists but also small rodents called agouti and giant macaws in the treetops. They also offer many activities for their guests (yoga, movie nights, various tours, etc.). Selina is also super affordable, we paid 18$ for a bed per night.
Beaches around Manuel Antonio
As soon as we checked in, we changed into our bathing suits and rushed towards the beach. We had to; more than 4 months have passed since our summer vacation on the Croatian coast! We walked about 15-20min downhill until we reached the first beach, La Espadilla. La Espadilla is a public beach with greyish sand, rows of palm trees and other tropical vegetation, with a few deck chairs, vendors selling coconut drinks and stands that offer surfing lessons.
We walked along the sandy beach, passed a couple lying on their towels entertained by a Mariachi band. We tried coconut water and swam through waves. The ocean was a bit restless with lots of waves, not like the Adriatic Sea to which we’re used to. You could not swim that much, but jumping on the waves can also be fun and it burns calories. 🙂 We finished our walk on the beach with one of the most beautiful sunsets in Costa Rica.
La Espadilla beach extends to the entrance of the national park, where La Espadilla Sur begins. It’s a more tranquil beach surrounded by the jungle and high vegetation all the way to the Punta Catedral, a former island connected to the mainland by sand deposits. If you follow the 1km long trail Sendero La Tramba, you’ll reach the end of Punta Catedral, where you can enjoy the unforgettable panoramic view of the small islands dotting the Pacific Ocean.
Nonetheless, we decided to see the Pacific Ocean from another perspective – from a boat on a 5h Sunset sail tour (we bought the tour at the hostel reception for 80$).
Located on the other side of Punta Catedral is the most popular beach, Playa Manuel Antonio. The pristine white sand beach is accessible only from the national park. Because of its position in the bay, you can swim in the calm waters with only a few waves.
While relaxing on the beach, you’ll probably notice some curious looks coming from the edge of the forest. They belong to raccoons and capuchin monkeys. Instead of being afraid of people, they’ll gladly browse among your backpacks in search of food. While my mom was swimming and I was taking photos, one of the monkeys came closer and stole a bag with mom’s underpants. xD When it saw that there’s no food inside the bag, the monkey left it in a tree. We had a bit of trouble getting it down from there with a stick.
A 1.5km long trail leads you from the Manuel Antonio National Park to the beach called Puerto Escondido. But beware! This beach can only be reached during the low tide. This also means you can get stranded on the beach for a few hours.
Where to eat around Manuel Antonio
After the sunset on a beach, we came back to the hostel and changed for dinner. Just across the street of our hostel was a large restaurant Avión with an average price for a meal 11-15$.
Avión is a unique restaurant placed in an old American plane that belonged to Reagan’s government and served for arms trafficking to Iran in the 1980s. The arms trafficking also helped to finance counter-revolutionaries from Nicaragua called “contras”. The whole affair was discovered and stopped in 1986 and one of the planes was left forgotten on the airport in San José. It’s the exact same plane, which today is turned into a restaurant.
However, our hostel receptionist told us that Avión is an expensive restaurant primarily for tourists. He recommended us a different restaurant from the same owner, El Wagon, placed in an old railway car (it seems that the owner really loves means of transport) a few meters down the road from Avión. El Wagon offers mostly pizzas (about 11$), burgers (10$), wraps and salads. We are not fond of fast food, but the wraps that we had were delicious.
There are also many other restaurants to choose from down the road (Restaurante La Cantina, Raphael’s Terrazzas, etc.) or in Quepos, but we found Avión and El Wagon particularly interesting.
Manuel Antonio National Park
The next day we finally went to the Manuel Antonio National Park. We bought a guided tour (about 20$ + the entrance fee) around the park since this was our first encounter with the jungle and its inhabitants. Our guide in Manuel Antonio was probably the best guide on our whole trip. With the telescope, he was showing us animals hiding in the distant treetops, camouflaged frogs and lizards in the swamps, etc. He also had the patience to take a photo of every animal with our mobile phones. By his long comments about the animals and a smile on his face, you could see that he is really enjoying his job.
Manuel Antonio National Park is open Tue-Sun from 7-16h and the entrance fee is 16$. The park is home to 109 mammal species and 184 bird species. The park’s gorgeous landscape is composed of humid rainforests, stunning beaches, and coral reefs.
In Manuel Antonio, we saw our first sloth, relaxing on the distant branches of trumpet trees, their favorite habitat. We saw different species of lizards, among them the “Jesus Christ lizard”, who walks on water. We learned what mangrove means (a small tree or shrub that grows in tropical, coastal swamps and has roots above ground that form dense thickets) and saw the red-legged mangrove crab. When we were relaxing on the Manuel Antonio beach, we had a close encounter with capuchin monkeys and raccoons. Overall, it was a great walk through the park and a break on the beach, but we had to get going – sunset sail tour was waiting for us!
Sunset sail tour
Sunset sail tour includes a 5-hour boat ride from Marina Paz Vela in Quepos around the coast and the small islands adorning the Pacific Ocean. One of the islands is home to birds with a funny name, brown boobies. Brown boobies usually catch their prey alongside dolphins, so with their help, we found the dolphins cheerfully jumping around the boat.
During our sail, we drank cocktails from mango or pineapple and guaro, the Costa Rican sugar cane liqueur. We had one stop for snorkeling, toboggan slides, and dinner. I snorkeled alongside our guide, saw many colorful fishes and held a sea star, which the guide caught. I enjoyed toboggan slides, jumping from our boat and just swimming around in the bright blue ocean. The sunset sail tour finished with dinner (we had casado) and another magical sunset over the Pacific.
The next day, we woke up, ate our breakfast (we had gallo pinto or fried rice with black beans, caramelized plantains, scrambled eggs, salad and some fruits for 5$ in our hostel) and went to the most adventurous journey on our trip – to the mountains of Monteverde. More about it in the next post.