Picture it: Palm trees silhouetted against a pristine powder blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. Shades of shifting green everywhere, the fragrant smells of coconut, hibiscus and thriving greenery rising to meet you as you navigate bumpy dirty roads cut into swaths of jungle itself.
This is Costa Rica, where “Pura Vida” reigns supreme.
And where they refer to those bumpy dirty roads as a “Costa Rican massage”! From the aromatic flora and ever-mischievous fauna of the region to the friendly locals, who proudly call themselves “Ticos,” visiting Manuel Antonio is every bit the bucket list experience you’d imagine.
But when my sister Kiana and I decided on the spur of the moment that we’d like to head off to Central America in a week’s time, right after New Years, I couldn’t have known just how incredible a trip it would be. (Although hey, I did have a pretty good feeling.) First, though, we had to rush to get our passports expedited within less than a week, which was pretty nerve-wracking. Shoutout to the San Francisco Passport Agency for getting it done for my brother Ariaz and I overnight. Worth it!
Next, Kiana, Ariaz and I started our affectionately named “sibling trip” to the tiny yet bustling beachside town known as Manuel Antonio. Located along the central Pacific coast, about a three-hour-drive from the international airport in San José, this sweet and scenic little town boasts not only lush rainforest and rugged mountainous landscapes, but white sand beaches straight out of something you once saw on Lost.
Keep reading for your ultimate guide to the paradise known as Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.
Gaia Hotel and Reserve
The premiere boutique luxury hotel in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, Gaia Hotel and Reserve is nestled on a private nature reserve with soaring rainforest views. With gorgeous studios, suites and 2-bedroom villas overlooking the ocean or rainforest, the property is warm, luxurious, and ecologically friendly. Several of Gaia’s lavish villas include semi-private plunge pools and dreamy rooftop terraces.
We got the chance to enjoy a complimentary buffet breakfast at Gaia’s Luna Restaurant every morning during our stay. My personal favorite? Nibbling on the fresh fruit and just-baked nut-and-spice breads. The rest of the time, we enjoyed much of the signature Costa Rican cuisine of the region, while being spoiled by glorious panoramic views (the first of many during this trip!) Fried plantains, fragrant bean and rice dishes serve as hearty and satisfying staples.
At the Gaia, natural wood-and-stone floors and outdoor pools create more of a casual vibe even while sitting in the lap of luxury. The larger, second-level pool features a sizable waterfall, while both boast incredible views of both the rainforest and ocean.
While lounging poolside, you can spot many of the animals that call this incredible hotel home, such as sunbathing iguanas, tiny squirrel monkeys leaping from tree to tree, and of course, the famous red macaws the hotel is known for protecting in its private nature reserve. This reserve is home to a variety of wildlife. Most popular are its macaw cages, which draw travelers from all over the world to see the vibrant, colorful birds in their natural habitat. (Read more about the Gaia Hotel’s scarlet macaw program here.)
Looking for a more budget-friendly option?
If you’re looking for more affordable options, there are some great hostels in the Manuel Antonio area as well. Selina Manuel Antonio offers gorgeous views, yoga classes, a co-working space with free Wi-Fi, and a fun little bar downstairs where an eclectic mix of travelers and backpackers gather to knock a few back and hang out by the pool. Plus, it’s only a short distance from Playa Espadilla, one of the most beautiful beaches in the area — and that’s saying something.
EAT + DRINK
Just across the street from Selina Manuel Antonio is the quirky and charming airplane-turned-bar-and-restaurant, El Avion. Yes, you read that right — I said airplane! As you might imagine, the spot has a truly unique origin story. This C-123 Fairchild cargo plane was originally built in San José, and purchased by the CIA for use during one of the biggest political scandals of the Reagan administration, the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s.
The story goes that it had a sister plane, which was shot down by Sandinista guerillas over Nicaragua in 1986. After the mission failed, the plane was abandoned at the International Airport in San José for years — until the now-owners of El Avion came along in 2000, purchased the dusty old plane in its hangar for a measly $3,000, and converted it into the bar and restaurant it is today.
If you’re in the Quepos area, don’t slack on grabbing drinks at the bar, which is located inside of the still-intact cockpit. If nothing else, you’ll have a great story to tell your friends post-trip.
Barba Roja Restaurante
May I suggest happy hour and a sunset dinner at Barba Roja Restaurante? This seafood, steak, and sushi restaurant/bar has been a Manuel Antonio mainstay since 1975. Today, it offers a bevy of daily and weekly specials. I’m talking two-for-one drinks every day from 4pm to 6pm. That’s two super-refreshing and STRONG margaritas for the price of one, people!
With oceanside views from the terrace, you can enjoy a delicious dinner and those uber-affordable cocktails as you watch the glowing sun dip below the horizon, and marvel once again at just how special Costa Rican sunsets are. Truly, they’re something else.
Tulecafe restaurant at the tulemar resort
One of the only times we veered away from traditional Costa Rican dishes during the trip was to nosh on the mouthwatering continental fare at Tulemar Resort’s poolside cafe — specifically the pizza! (Yes, I know it may seem like a random choice to eat Italian food in Costa Rica, but Kiana, Ariaz and I ended up ordering several pizzas here and scarfing them down for dinner, and I would 10/10 recommend, TBH.)
Nestled amongst the bungalows and villas at this luxurious resort, TuleCafe Restaurant offers an unbeatable list of appropriately tropical cocktails, the above-mentioned continental cuisine, and, you guessed it, incredible views. I’m starting to sense a theme here…
Does a less-than- spectacular costa rican view even exist? frankly, I think not.
My suggestion? Come hungry after an adventurous day spent zip-lining or trekking your way through the rainforest on a waterfall hike. (More on these activities in a moment.) Patrons who aren’t staying at the resort will need to stop by hotel reception at the entrance, like we did, after which the friendly staff will give you a ride down to the restaurant in the hotel shuttle.
Take a sunset dip at La Mariposa Hotel
“Mariposa” is Spanish for butterfly, so if you’re a fan of the fluttery, transformative creatures, you’ll be sold on this gorgeous luxury hotel from the get-go, like I was. (You’ll also want to be sure to check out the Butterfly and Reptile Garden, but more on that below.)
Towering 1000 feet above the Pacific coastline, the acclaimed Le Papillon Restaurant at La Mariposa Hotel is the perfect open-air spot for a refreshing dinner and drinks, followed by a sunset dip in the pool (which also happens to boast killer ocean vistas — natch!) You just can’t go wrong with these magical golden hour vibes by the pool.
Visit the Butterfly and Reptile Garden
Again, if you love butterflies, you won’t want to miss the splendor that is a guided tour through the magical butterfly garden at the Greentique Wildlife Refuge & Butterfly Atrium. Located across the street from the Hotel Si Como in Manuel Antonio, a two-hour-tour here includes hiking trails through the vibrant rainforest refuge, and observing all kinds of wildlife on the way — including, of course, plenty of butterflies. The atrium itself is a 12-sided structure where I honestly could have hung out all day, taking photos of the pretty little winged insects.
You should also know that this haven is home to a variety of reptiles as well — particularly in the crocodile lagoon. And the biggest croc of them all? A sleepy-eyed old dinosaur named Salazar. Yeah, like in Harry Potter. Trust me when I say this: He’ll keep a careful watch on you the whole time you traverse the suspended bridges above his watery home. Observing from afar, you know Salazar’s thinking that you look like a damn good snack he won’t miss the opportunity to take up, should it arise.
Yeah, I prefer the butterflies.
sail away for the day on a Coral Yacht Adventure
If you have the opportunity, don’t miss out on taking a sunset cruise from the marina at Quepos with Coral Yacht Adventures. This was one of my favorite experiences I had in Costa Rica by far. Not only were we able to take a dip in what felt like our own private lagoon off the coast — complete with warm, deep blue waters and balmy temperatures — but our chef treated us to what I’ll swear up and down were the best shrimp quesadillas I’ve ever had in my life.
All-day drinking and swimming extravaganza, anyone? Add unlimited refills of white wine, and we had ourselves the perfect day out on the water. #MermaidsForLife
Go zip-lining through the Jungle
If you’re at all into adventure tours and/or zip-lining, I would thoroughly recommend opting to zip-line through the jungle with the El Santuario Canopy Adventure Tour. In keeping with our theme of #NoBadViews, this tour features mountain, rainforest, canopy, and ocean vistas. And, if you really wanted to experience zipping along the longest dual zip-line cables in all of Costa Rica (hey, same!), you’re all set here.
The El Santuario tour features over 3.6 kilometers (2.2 miles) total cable length, 10 different zip-lines, 14 tree platforms, nature walks, hanging bridges, and even a rappel down from the last tree platform (which was more than a little terrifying, but by this point, you’ll feel like you can do anything!) The longest cable on this tour will take around a minute to complete. Yes, a full minute!
If you’re feeling extra ballsy, you can even opt to do flips and spin in tight, fast circles as you zoom down the line — all while legitimately feeling like you are zooming through Jurassic Park. Or, well, above it, that is!
Explore the Rainmaker Forest and Reserve
Note: Okay, so this isn’t technically in Manuel Antonio, but I’m including it in this list because it’s 100% worth the drive! This is an activity you’ll need a guide for, as the Rainmaker Forest and Reserve is about 22 kilometers (14 miles) from Quepos/Manuel Antonio.
Walk the hanging bridges and jump into the freshwater pools at the Rainmaker Forest and Reserve, where lush scenery, wildlife, and scenic waterfalls abound.
Located in the Pacific Lowlands, the Rainmaker is a hiker’s paradise. After hiking winding trails through the tropical rainforest, and trekking across the Rainmaker’s many suspended bridges miles above dense and vibrant foliage, we we were able to survey several breathtaking waterfalls — as well as jump into ice-cold mountain springs and naturally forming pools.
More Jurassic Park vibes in the footage ahead! If you know me, you know just how obsessed I am with these epic dinosaur movies. The little (or not so little) girl in me who loved learning about velociraptors was SO excited the entire time we were here.
Trek through Manuel Antonio National Park
Okay, now let’s talk about Manuel Antonio National Park. Trust me when I say it’s worth it to get to this super-popular national park bright and early, as it’s possibly the most visited in all of Costa Rica! Though we were in Costa Rica during January, which is “off season”, we heard horror stories of just how long the line to get in to this park could stretch. (Plus, you won’t see as many animals if you go later.)
You can opt to take a guided tour of the park, or opt to wander through its trails on your own, as we did. You will see plenty of animals either way, from high-climbing sloths and quick-darting iganuas to colorful toucans, scarlet macaws, and the infamous white-faced capuchin monkeys — well, all kinds of monkeys, really! — leaping from tree to tree overhead.
Hang out in paradise at Playa Espadilla Sur
Last but certainly not least… Paradise? Found ✔️
From dense and vibrant rainforest to wondrous paradise beach, the scene at Playa Espadilla Sur is like something out of a dream. It’s one of three beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park (the other two are Manuel Antonio and Puerto Escondido Costa Rica). Whichever one you choose, you can easily spend an idyllic afternoon or longer climbing the rocks along the edge of the beach where it meets the forest, and dipping your toes in the warm waters at the shore.
Be sure to keep an eye on your belongings while picnicking here, though, because the mischievous white-faced monkeys are known to steal food from tourists! We saw one particularly brave little guy — like the one pictured below — steal a piece of food straight out of a woman’s hand. Yup, casual (and pretty hilarious), but you probably don’t want to be that person.