We all know that Costa Rica offers something for everyone. That’s an obvious statement and even somewhat of a moo point (Friends reference, anyone?). Every traveller can find something they like here. Want to be thrilled? Try rafting the Pacuare River or rappelling the Lost Canyon. Want to spot wildlife in its natural habitat? Take a safari float tour or visit an animal sanctuary. Want to jump off a bridge, taste-test vanilla, or try your hand at cooking Costa Rican cuisine? The country has organized tours for those experiences too. If you’re travelling with others (regardless of whether the group is comprised of you + one significant other or a handful of friends, family members, co-workers, or student peers), chances are your interests don’t line up perfectly with those of your travel partners. But wouldn’t it be ideal if there were activity options to chose from that suited a number of interests so everyone could spend their vacation time doing what is likely the most common shared interest among the group… spending time together? Like that trail mix snack so many of us enjoy at parties that appeals to each of us for different reasons (I love the random chocolate chips – or if its a really fun party, the smarties – hidden among the cheerios, nuts, and pretzels), the treat that appeases a range of appetites is a treat bound to be enjoyed by most. Balancing what Costa Rica has to offer – to you and those in your travel group – is no different. Seek tours and activities that not only offer something for someone but offer a lot of things to a lot of people and no one in your group will be disappointed.
Our best recommendation for a trail-mix tour is one through the Manuel Antonio National Park. The experience offers a lot that members of a diverse travel group can each enjoy – a pleasant walking tour (classified as a light hike) that is not too challenging for unexperienced hikers, senior travellers, and/or the mobility impaired, components of history and education, enough wildlife-spotting to keep nature enthusiasts, photographers, and avid birdwatchers enthralled, cool facts and creepy crawlies to entertain young minds with short attention spans, and a visit to one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches sure to impress those who seek the destination more than the journey. Located in the Manuel Antonio/Quepos region along the Central Pacific Coast (read our related post Which Costa Rica Beach Is Best For You? What To Know About The Central Pacific Beaches for more information about the region, its popularity, and why it is worth a visit) and a relatively inexpensive tour experience that only loosely tugs on the strings of most vacation budgets, a visit to the Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the easiest attractions to recommend and a fitting tour for even the most diverse travel group.
Given its popularity, the Manuel Antonio National Park is a tourist haven. Travellers flock to the site to take in its beauty and spot its wildlife for a reason, and although its popularity may turn away those who aim to avoid “tourist traps” throughout their travels, those who choose not to plan a visit to the site miss out on one of Costa Rica’s most precious jems. To these indie-travellers (who we love, by the way, and have become ourselves from time to time throughout our own travels) we say: skip the organized tours you roll your eyes at, the crowds you cringe at, and the idea of contributing to the commercialism that is developing in Costa Rica, but for the sake of your net travel experience (ie. that which you will take away as profit from your trip), do not skip a visit to this national park. Your camera and memory will thank you.
Like you will find at most other popular attractions throughout the country, naturalist guides await your arrival. Yes, they are waiting for you – the traveller who shows up at the entrance gate without a reservation but with plenty of excitement to see the place that so many guide books rave about. Here, some really great guides prepare to share what they know and re-earn their positive reputation with a new batch of travellers just like you. Others have far less to offer, apart from their ability to swoop in and convince you that their tour experience is better than the next guy’s. So how do you know who to trust? The one with the priciest camera? The one with the cleanest shirt? The one with the flashiest smile? The truth is, it can be hard to tell. Some of our favourite travel experiences involved getting to know new and not-yet-licensed guides who were eager to please and practice their knowledge with others. On the other hand, some of our worst travel experiences involved guides who worked for large, well-known tourism corporations and cared less about what their travel group took away from the tour experience than the paycheck they were going home with. Unfortunately, choosing a tour guide (for touring the Manuel Antonio National Park or any other popular tourist destination), is more about trusting your instincts than it is following a foolproof algorithm, which can be both fun and nerve-wracking at the same time.
Our personal recommendation? Aguila Tours / Manuel Antonio Expeditions (you can read about another experience we had with with Aguila Tours / Manuel Antonio Expeditions in our related blog post The Ideal Mangrove Boat Tour (Or Kayak Tour) Experience In Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica). These guys (Juan, Pablo, and Edgar) know the park inside and out (not just figuratively speaking) and they offer a great balance between the reliability that their business name offers (they regularly receive positive reviews online) and their fun and friendly rapport with travellers. We have toured the Manuel Antonio National Park a number of times (via guided and self-guided tours), and without a doubt the best experience we have had thus far was the time we viewed the park through Juan’s lens. Not only did he introduce us to a park we never knew (despite having toured the site previously), but we left having spotted (and capturing on camera) species we had not yet been fortunate enough to see elsewhere throughout our travels. Although we discuss the subject in our related blog post Guided Tours In Costa Rica: Are They Necessary, Valuable, And/Or Worthwhile?, the truth is, our national park tour guide was an incremental part of our overall park experience. If we were any less humble than we like to think we are, perhaps we could believe that it would have been possible to have the same tour experience without him (especially given that Ricky is a naturalist guide himself), but the fact is, Juan’s knowledge of the park (including his knowledge of its history and inhabitants, as well as his ability to pinpoint exact areas where particular species can be spotted) made the tour the highlight it was for us and likely is for so many other travellers.
From a logistics standpoint, the Manuel Antonio National Park is open weekly from Tuesday to Sunday (closed every Monday) from 7:00am to 4:00pm (organized tours typically run twice daily – at/around 8:30am and 1:00pm). Tours take roughly 3 hours to complete including an approximate 1/2 hour spent relaxing at the stunning Manuel Antonio beach located inside the park (encountered approximately 65% of the way through the tour). This being said, the tour does not require visitors to walk for 2.5 hours non-stop as the total tour duration includes time along the way to stop, view, and learn about a variety of wildlife and plant species. As a nature trail, visitors should wear running shoes or secure/strap-on sandals (flip flops are not recommended) in order to walk the park’s unpaved, yet traffic-flattened, forest path. Bathing suits can be worn under travellers’ clothes (changerooms/bathrooms are located on-site at the beach inside the park if/when needed) if swimming at the beach is desired and packing a bottle of water (given the area’s high temperature and humidity level at certain times of the year) is a must.
If you’re more of a visual learner, take a moment to view our gallery photos below from our most recent visit to the Manuel Antonio National Park.
*Discounts for Manuel Antonio National Park tours are available through Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated at: http://www.puravidaeh.ca/
Click here to access discounts for National Park Tours
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you toured the Manuel Antonio National Park? What did you think (and/or learn)?