The park has four lovely beaches, each with its own personality:
Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio, Escondido, and Playita. The
prettiest is Playa Manuel Antonio, a small scimitar of coral-white
sand with a small coral reef. It's separated from Playa
Espadilla Sur by a tombolo--a natural land bridge formed
over eons through the accumulation of sand--tipped by Punta
Catedral, an erstwhile island now linked to the mainland.
The hike to the top of Punta Catedral (100 meters) along
a steep and sometimes muddy trail takes about an hour from
Playa Espadilla Sur (also known as the Second Beach). Espadilla
Sur and Manuel Antonio offer tidal pools brimming with minnows
and crayfish, plus good snorkeling, especially during dry
season, when the water is generally clear.
At the far right on Playa Manuel Antonio, you can see ancient
turtle traps dug out of the rocks by pre-Columbian Quepoas.
Female sea turtles would swim over the rocks to the beach
on the high tide. The tidal variation at this point is as
much as three meters; the turtles would be caught in the
carved-out traps on the return journey as the tide level
dropped. The people also used female-turtle decoys made
of balsa to attract male turtles over the rocks. Olive ridley
and green turtles still occasionally come ashore at Playa
Between bouts of beaching, you can explore the park's network
of wide trails, which lead into a swatch of humid tropical
forest. Manuel Antonio's treetop carnival is marvelous,
and best experienced by following the Perezoso Trail, named
after the lovable sloths, which favor the secondary growth
along the trail (perezoso means "lazy"). You might
see marmosets, ocelots, river otters, pacas, and spectacled
caimans in more remote riverine areas.
Howler monkeys languorously move from branch to branch,
iguanas shimmy up trunks, toucans and scarlet macaws flap
by. About 350 squirrel monkeys live in the park, another
500 on its outer boundaries. And capuchin (white-faced)
monkeys are also abundant and welcome you at treetop height
on the beaches, where they play to the crowd and will steal
your sandwich packs given half a chance. Some of them have
become aggressive in recent years and attacks on humans
have been reported.
Even though it is illegal to feed the monkeys, insensitive
people still do it. Note that if you're caught, you may--quite
rightly--be ejected from the park. Recent studies have found
a worrisome increase in heart disease and heart failure
among the local monkey population. Unfortunately, the animals
are much more prone to rises in cholesterol than humans.
Do not leave food lying around.
Hire a guide. A guide can show you other interesting tree
species--among them, the gaupinol negro, an endemic species
that is in danger of extinction; cedro maria, which produces
a yellow resin used as a traditional medicine; vaco lechoso,
which exudes a thick white latex that also has medicinal
properties, and the manchineel tree (manzanillo), or "beach
apple"-- common along the beaches. The manchineel is
highly toxic and possesses a sap that irritates the skin.
Its tempting applelike fruits are also poisonous. Avoid
touching any part of the tree. Also, don't use its wood
for fires--the smoke will irritate your lungs.
The park entrance is at the eastern end of Playa Espadilla,
where you wade across the shallow Río Camaronera
and pay your entrance fee ($6); little rowboats are on hand
at high tide (30 cents), when you may otherwise be waist-deep.