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8 Things You Need to Know about Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Listen, I personally am not a huge fan of articles written as lists. Don’t get me wrong, I click and read them often, it’s just that I am usually left with a feeling of “that was kind of stupid…” But they are popular – and must be for good reason. And after 50+ posts of recapping what we have been up to in sort of the same fashion for the last 6 months I wanted to change things up.

When Lindsay and I were talking about our 9 day food and adventure-packed vacation (this was not budget style or backpacking – thanks to my parents!) we kept saying things like “I didn’t know this…” and “I wasn’t expecting that…” After a few of these conversations we decided to take a stab at a list of things that you should know if you plan to visit Manuel Antonio all the while peppering the post with some of the pictures and details of what we did while we were here.

For those that prefer pictures over reading – make sure you check out the Costa Rica pictures page because there are a bunch of great albums organized by activity.

Manuel Antonio is Expensive

Costa Rica is expensive. Manuel Antonio is, if not thee most, certainly one of the most expensive parts of Costa Rica. Expect to pay big-city America prices. We went in the low season and for 4 people to eat (and drink) we didn’t escape one single dinner for less than $200 USD.  And we were definitely not seeking the most expensive places.

Here is the crew enjoying a dinner with a spectacular sunset in the background. I bought that that Bulls tank in Colombia and have worn it on average 5 days a week. Bulls.

Our tours ranged from as cheap as $51 USD per person (for a guided tour of Manuel Antonio National Park – entrance fee included and a snack and smoothie after) to $105 USD for an ATV tour that included lunch. This is of course was not including tip for your guide, but does include a pick up and drop off from where you are staying. The recommendation for tipping was $5-$15 USD per person.

Canopy tours, aka zip lining, all started in Costa Rica. My parents were pumped to give it a shot and we all had a blast. $85 USD per person for a pick up & drop off as well as either breakfast or lunch depending on which time your tour starts. They also have a photographer follow you around to take professional pictures. At the end you watch a slide show and the camera man charges you an arm and a leg for the pictures. We paid $100 USD for the entire package of pictures and videos. Thanks Mom and Dad! Bulls.

Gas is about $5 USD/gallon and taxi’s generally will charge somewhere around $5 USD per person to take the group into Quepos (the town next to Manuel Antonio that is anywhere from 5-10km from your place in MA) which can add up quickly for a group of 4. The ride into town can’t take more than 10 minutes no matter where your are from. Just to get picked up from our place (Shana Residences) to go up the hill to a restaurant about a mile away cost no less than $10 USD.
Perhaps the most important of all prices: the booze.  It’s expensive in the stores (about $1.50 USD for a can of their equivalent of Miller Lite) and at least double that at any bar. Mixed drinks are anywhere from $5 USD on the very cheap end to $15 USD for top-shelf booze. Now, there are plenty of happy hours in the usual times of 3-7pm to help off set your costs, but it still adds up and is about 3x as expensive as most of the countries we had visited prior.

The price of volunteering was adding up quickly. At the hotel we were staying at a bloody Mary was $15 USD. To help with the budget we bought all the fixins from the store and made our own pina coladas and Bacardi & Coke’s. Bulls.

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t prices that should keep you away, but after traveling South America for 6 months there was a bit of a sticker shock when we saw these prices.

Get a Guide for Manuel Antonio National Park

This assumes that you are going the national park. The town is named after this national park and it’s considered by many to be one of the worlds prettiest parks.

You can go to Manuel Antonio National Park for $16 USD per person. That will give you all-day access (cannot go in-and-out though) to the entire grounds, including the beautiful beaches. If beaches is all you are interested in then you can skip the guided park, but if not – don’t go alone!

The beaches are worth the price of admission. This is Manuel Antonio beach behind us. You can’t see it in the picture, but many people pack a cooler with drinks and snacks to hang out all day. Right after this picture was taken a huge wave soaked us up to our knees. My dad was wearing gym shoes and socks. Not good. Bulls.

For an extra $35 USD per person plus a tip you will get a professional guide to walk you through the park. This might seem unnecessary but trust me – it’s completely necessary. The guides come with great stories, a keen eye for the variety of wildlife in the park and perhaps most importantly some really nice telescopic equipment so you can enjoy the wildlife up close.
Our guide would spot some small litter critter or insect, set up the telescope and focus on the creature before the group realized what was going on. It was so incredibly impressive. All those pictures you have seen online, on TV or in a text book of a animal up-close was right there before our eyes.  My one piece of advice is to make sure that the group you are going with is 6 people or less. Anything over 6 people – unless you really like them – will become bit obnoxious. You have to wait your turn at the telescope, the group can take a while going to the bathroom and you end up standing around for a while in large groups.

Here’s our guide – binoculars out, telescope ready to be deployed. Me and this other guy in our group are wondering “what are we supposed to be looking at?” Before you can blink an eye the telescope will be setup on some small insect for a close-up. It was amazing. Bulls.

This little guy was captured on our camera phone through the telescope lens setup by our guide. He was sitting on a leaf 12 feet from us. I have no clue how she saw it. But whatever, I love this picture and there are more like it in our album. How cool is this?

Manuel Antonio is NOT a walking town

When we were looking at how to get to Manuel Antonio from San Jose (where all international flights originate) we decided that we would rent a car simply because we didn’t want to take a bus from San Jose and the cabs & private drivers were almost as expensive as renting a car. One-way by car (or taxi or hired car) is about 2.5 hours depending on traffic. Buses take 3.5 hours or more because they have to take a different route. We sort of said to ourselves “it will be nice having a car too” – but we definitely didn’t understand why.
Turns out Manuel Antonio is NOT walker friendly. Not even close. Can you walk around town? Sure, but it’s at your own risk. The hills are steep and the car traffic is heavy. There aren’t many sidewalks and they end abruptly – onto the road.  The few times we did walk we were dripping with sweat too – especially on the up hills. The down hills aren’t exactly a cake walk either. And with cabs so expensive it’s not a bad idea to think about renting a car.
All in for a 4×4 SUV (small one) came to ~$50 USD per day which included gas and the required insurance the rental car agency makes you buy.

Here she is. Not too sexy, but got the job done. Pretty good on gas, fit 4 people comfortably and handled the hills not problem. Lindsay and I even took a few minutes to learn how to drive stick – finally! Lindsay was a pro while Simple Jeff took a bit longer to get the hang of it.

The best part of having a car was the ability to check out some spots on the fly around town, which leads me to my next thing to know about Manuel Antonio.

Manuel Antonio has Beautiful Waterfalls

There are some great waterfalls a short drive from Manuel Antonio. The best-known, and most spectacular, is Nayacua Waterfall. Roughly a 50 minute drive from Manuel Antonio just outside the town of Dominical is the entrance to Nayacua Waterfall.
Nayacua Waterfall is on private property and as such you must get permission to enter – aka pay an entrance fee. There are two options. The first is to do a half day horseback tour to the waterfall and then lunch after. This cost is $70 USD per person.
The second option, which is what we went for, is the do-it-yourself hike to Nayacua Waterfall.  It’s $8 USD to get a ticket to enter. After that, if you have a 4×4, you can drive to the main parking lot which will leave you with almost 2.5 miles to hike to the falls. If you don’t have a car with 4-wheel drive you will have to park by the main road and have a 4 mile one-way trip to the waterfall.

The path is well-beaten and pretty easy to walk. There are a bunch of walking sticks available at the parking lot. I highly recommend grabbing them. They’re super light so if you are so cool you don’t actually need to use them they aren’t going to be a pain in the ass to carry with you.

The trek is well marked and the terrain is beaten up – thanks to all of those horses going back and forth. Be warned though, when it rains – and it does often (remember, this is the rainforest here) the ground gets real muddy and slick. A bit treacherous. I made the mistake of wearing some crappy sandals and it took me forever to make the walk back.

Here is sign you need to look for off the main road. We passed this on the way there and assumed that there would be large signs – but no – this is the only one. We took a 30 minute detour – so don’t make our mistake. Pull over when you see this sign and pay the entrance fee.

All that being said the Nayacua Waterfall is gorgeous. There are two viewpoints. The bottom viewpoint you get a great shot down stream as well as the full direct waterfall shot. You can also swim at the bottom of the waterfall on the lower viewpoint. Once you have had your fill head up to the second viewpoint for some more awesome pictures.

Here is Nayacua Waterfall from the “ground” level. This picture was taken while in the water. The view from the second level puts you next to the waterfall looking down.

There are more waterfalls, such as Rainmaker, nearby Manuel Antonio as well. It rightfully so has a reputation for great beaches and water sports, but don’t forget to check out the waterfalls as well!

Surf Lessons on the Beach in Manuel Antonio are a complete joke…

I read great reviews on a few surf schools in Manuel Antonio. Like a complete travel rookie I thought – well, they’re all pretty good I am sure. And after our tour of the national park I asked our guide if she had any recommendations. She said she wasn’t supposed to make any but she did anyway. In a couple of minutes a guy named Marco came over and introduced himself and his operation. It sounded nice. $50 USD per person (which was the going rate I read online). That included a 30 minute lesson out of the water, a one hour lesson in the water and 1.5 hours of surf board rental to do your own thing.
We told him we’d see him the next day. Turns out Marco doesn’t give the lessons (or at least didn’t for us), he is just the “boss” and collects money. The lesson on the beach, I shit you not, was no more than 3 minutes per person. There were 3 of us. The instructor very, very quickly showed us how to paddle and jump up on the board. We each did 2-3 “walkthroughs”, boards were handed to us and within 10 minutes of meeting the instructor on the beach we were in the water where the guides would give our surfboards  a push with the wave and then yell “up” when it was time to stand up. We did this for maybe 30 minutes and our lesson was over.

We didn’t get any pics from our surfing adventure (only video, which will be up soon) but this is a shot of us on the beach where the lessons took place. Buyer beware!! Make sure you book with an established business. If you don’t want to deal with all that – I suggest finding someone out on the water that looks like they know what they’re doing an offer them $20-$30 to show you how to surf for an hour or so.

 I really think you’d be better off watching a Youtube video on how to surf and then just renting the boards. I literally did not learn anything that you couldn’t online. No insights into how to catch a wave, no tips of best practices to stand up or fall down – literally nothing in the water but the guides pushing you and yelling “up!” When Marco came around to collect the money I told him I was disappointed with the lesson and the lack information and recommended in the future he try to incorporate some education while in the water. He then sat with me for a few minutes on shore explaining how to catch a wave. Clearly he didn’t get it. I wish I remembered his surf school name, but I don’t. My recommendation would be to stick with a reputable company that gets good reviews on Trip Advisor.

There is a great Farmers Market in Manuel Antonio

Lindsay and I had been planning and looking forward to cooking a dinner for a while. We had eaten out for the past 180 days for almost every meal. We pitched this concept to my parents – they just sit back and relax – Lindsay and I will make dinner and drinks – and we’ll have sweet family dinner. They were on board. We planned it for Friday night just because that seemed to work with all our tours and other things we had scheduled.

We mentioned to one of the owners of a local restaurant we were going to cook a dinner in and asked where we could pick up some fresh fish. He said we had to check out the farmers market in town – actually, right on the shores of Quepos, the neighboring town. And it turns out the market was on Friday afternoons – opening at 4pm. First come, first serve. Farmers and vendors from all over Costa Rica setup and sell their goods.

The market was great. We were able to pick up all the ingredients we needed to make shrimp tacos, a few feature cocktails (strawberry daiquiris and passion fruit martinis), kicked-up black beans, an Asian-style slaw, roasted veggies, guacamole, salsa and a couple of different sauces.  We even picked up some locally made cheese but my dumbass left that at the market. Whoops.

The prices were good, the atmosphere was great – a farmers market right on the water. And the shrimp. So. Fricken. Good. Easily the best shrimp I have ever bought and arguably the best shrimp that I have had in my life. Gigantic shrimps too. But not cheap. $40 for just over 2lbs.

Lindsay working on the cucumber and tomato salad. The kitchen was perfect for two people to work in. The ingredients were super fresh and delicious.

Our homemade strawberry daiquiri. One part ice, 3 parts part strawberry, a bit of coconut cream and enough Bacardi to light that sucker on fire.

Manuel Antonio has the best store bought ice cream

I miss this dessert so much already. Lindsay’s brother and his wife told us about a cookie and ice cream dessert they had in Costa Rica a few years back. I assumed it was some type of restaurant dish because those two aren’t exactly processed-sugary-store-bought-dessert-types.

Well, I was wrong. It’s the equivalent of a frozen dessert treat in the U.S. They are called Trits. I have no idea why these aren’t sold in the states (and maybe they are???). Seriously though. Really good. It’s an ice cream sandwich in a little plastic container. Some sort of graham cracker sugar cookie sits on the bottom and on the top of vanilla ice cream. It sounds so simple and it is – but holy moly these suckers are delicious. If you know where to buy them please tell me where. And if you see in a store make sure you try them.

Here it is – Trits. Sitting amongst other gross frozen treats in the freezer aisle. You would never guess these are as good as they are by the looks. I loved them. Lindsay loved them. My dad loved them. My mom didn’t. And that still confuses me.

Costa Rica has the longest Whale season

I have always wanted to see whales in the ocean. And still do. We didn’t do any whaling, but I was surprised to learn that Costa Rica has a ton of different species at different times of year patrolling their costal waters. I won’t go into all the details because they all come from a post on mytanfeet.com that you can find Costa Rica Whales

But basically almost anytime of year you can take a whale tour to see the beasts in their natural habitat. There are a lot of different kinds. I’m not too picky so just about any whale will do. Because we didn’t do a whale tour this time around it will give us a great reason to go back to Costa Rica, we just got to start saving our money now!

Don’t forget to check out the Costa Rica photos.

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