Two young boys stand in below a large sign saying Manuel Antonio National Park. Behind them are some trees and a beach

Costa Rica Budget Family Travel – Manuel Antonio National Park (2024)

This was our first stop on our Costa Rica adventure, and should be on the itinerary for any family trip to Costa Rica. We had a tight budget for our travel in Costa Rica but I can happily say that Manuel Antonio IS easy to visit on any budget. Here I’ve put together all the details of our visit and tips on how to plan a trip to Manuel Antonio with kids.

Why visit Manuel Antonio National Park with kids?

I’d gone for Manuel Antonio as I’d read that it was packed full of wildlife and glorious beaches. It’s also very accessible and easy to hike around for kids (and Grannies in their 70s in our case!).

It’s the most visited National Park in Costa Rica, and for good reason. It’s packed full of wildlife (that can be spotted right from the wooden walkways). Plus it has two absolutely stunning white sand beaches (the stuff of beach dreams!).

It’s also easily accessible from San Jose and other tourist destinations in Costa Rica. Plus, like all the national parks in Costa Rica, it’s affordable to visit (even on a reasonably tight family travel budget).

How to get to Manuel Antonio from San Jose

Most travellers to Costa Rica arrive in to San Jose from Europe. If you’re flying from North America or elsewhere in Central America you can also fly in to Liberia in the North West of the country.

As we’d landed at San Jose we had a couple of options in terms of getting to San Jose. We opted to take a bus which took around 3hours. This was after I’d finally managed to figure out which bus company/bus station in San Jose ran buses to Manuel Antonio. There’s no ‘central’ bus service in Costa Rica, just a series of smaller companies that all operate different routes. I used the guide on the Visit Costa Rica website here to figure out which route/company we needed. The bus tickets cost £42.97 in total (this was for 5 of us as we had a Granny in tow for this leg!).

The bus was on-time and comfortable. There were some fab views as we drove along the Pacific coast down towards Manuel Antonio. If you’re travelling in Costa Rica as a family on a budget, this is the cheapest option.

A faster but more expensive option are one of the shared or private shuttle services that run across Costa Rica, such as Interbus who operate along most of the major routes throughout Costa Rica. These offer a door to door service so are very handy, but obviously this comes at a price. The cost for us as 3 adults and 2 children was just over £200 (we did use these at later points in the trip in harder to reach areas of Costa Rica when there were very few other options). If you’re visiting Costa Rica as a family and trying to save on the budget, I would save this option for a time when you REALLY need to use it.

Alternatively you can opt to hire a car and drive. I was initially reluctant to drive in Costa Rica but we did later hire a car – I’ve written a whole separate blog post on this here. The road to Quepos/Manuel Antonio from San Jose is generally an easy drive, although the traffic in San Jose is insane (a word of warning!).

Image of white sand beach with bright blue sea, with overhanging tree branches and a rocky outcrop covered in green vegetation a few metres out to sea

Where to stay in and around Manuel Antonio

We stayed on the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio village, at Pura Natura Lodge. There’s loads of accommodation options along this stretch as there is a regular bus service along the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio so it’s a good spot. 

The view from the lodge was spectacular – it was the Costa Rican panorama from my dreams, lush greenery and then the sparkling Pacific Ocean beyond. The lodge had a huge decked area with hammocks where you could hang out and watch the sunset (if you were quick – the sun goes down pretty sharpish in these parts!). 

We had an apartment with two rooms (each with a double and a set of bunk beds, so the boys did a bit of bed hopping during our stay) and a kitchen/lounge area, with a terrace outside looking out across THAT view. There was also aircon in all the rooms which was a must in these parts after a day of hiking through the jungle

In total we paid £185/US$235 for the 2-bed apartment (sleeps 8) for three nights.

Sunset view of jungle covered hills with Pacific Ocean in the distance. To the left is a wooden decked area

Buying tickets for Manuel Antonio National Park

You need to book tickets in advance if you want to visit the National Park here as visitor numbers are limited to protect the ecosystem.

You can book tickets online via the SINAC website here. At the time of writing (January 2024) tickets are priced at £14.20/US$18.08 for adults and £4.40/US$5.65 for children.

The park is closed on Tuesdays so make sure you factor this in to your planning. The park opens from 7am-4pm. The earlier you can get there, the quieter the park will be (and you’ll escape some of the heat too). The beaches close at 3pm to make sure that you have enough time to walk back to the park entrance by the closing time of 4pm.

Large iguana sits in the sun on top of a cliff

How to get to the National Park

By car: If you have your own wheels, it’s an easy drive down to the park from any of the hotels strung along the Manuel Antonio-Quepos road, or further up the coast. There is no official car park for the national park but there are many unofficial ones that have been set-up – the cost of these can vary wildly so you may have to negotiate!

By bus: the bus service from Quepos to Manuel Antonio is regular and reliable, with stops all the way along the road from Quepos. It runs approximately every 30mins from 5.30am onwards. We used the bus to get to the national park and down to the beach in Manuel Antonio village and it was easy and cheap. This is the best option if you’re on a budget and trying to keep costs down during your family travels in Costa Rica.

By taxi: you can of course opt for a private taxi to/from the park – this will be the more expensive option but will drop you right by the park entrance.

The entrance to the park is up the track behind the beach in Manuel Antonio village. It’s not difficult to find as any of the locals will point you in the right direction.

You can take a day trip to Manuel Antonio National Park from other towns in Costa Rica but it’s a lovely area to stay in so worth at least a couple of days on any Costa Rica itinerary.

Manuel Antonio National Park with kids – what to expect

The first full day we had, we were straight down to the national park for some wildlife spotting/beach hanging out. The bus went from a stop about a 5-min walk from the lodge and took about 20mins to get down to Manuel Antonio village. This is where the entrance to the national park is. We’d decided not to go for a guide for our first national park visit – we wanted to go at our own pace and just see what we could see. The tickets were a total of £60.95 for the five of us.

Within about 30seconds of entering the park we were surrounded by Capuchin monkeys darting around in the trees and running along the railings. Including a couple of babies. Which was a pretty good start! The walk through Manuel Antonio is pretty easy – most of it is along raised wooden boardwalks. It’s also flat all the way to the beaches, with just a short climb on the loop back out of the park at the end (if you choose that route). 

Stretch of white sand beach with jungle behind, Two young boys play in the blue sea

On our way to the beaches we spotted land crabs, huge iguanas, armies of leaf-cutting ants and loads of birds (most of which I wouldn’t be able to name!). 

The first beach was beautiful but if you cut through the jungle to the second stretch of beach (Playa Manuel Antonio) the swimming is much safer, so we opted to do this. Playa Manuel Antonio is about a 1.5km walk through the national park.

Unfortunately between us we’d managed to forget the bag that had our swimming gear in! At first the boys were so disappointed but then we all decided to go for a swim anyway as the water was just too enticing! 

Once the boys were in, that was it – they were in their happy place and we ended up staying there for hours. 

We swam in the sea and watched the hundreds of hermit crabs scuttling around on the beach. We saw iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks. And the boys found a dead puffer fish on the beach which they watched for AGES as it was gradually consumed by hundreds of tiny hermit crabs. 

Two young boys crouch under the trees on a beach looking at hermit crabs on the sand

Then a couple of other visitors on the beach told us that they’d spotted a sloth – a sloth! – in one of the trees. This was our first sloth spotting in Costa Rica and I couldn’t believe our luck that it was on our first outing. It was quite far up the tree so you couldn’t make out it’s face but we were thrilled!

After soaking up the sun and playing in the surf for hours, we started to make our way back. Steve was walking slightly ahead of us and suddenly came to stop and turned back to us, eyes wide and beckoning us forwards. To our complete amazement (and joy!) there was a sloth sitting at the base of a tree right in front of us. Griffin promptly announced that it was doing a poo, as that was the only reason that sloths came down from the trees, and they only did this every 8 days. He’s definitely been paying attention during all those David Attenborough documentaries with Granny!

Picture of sloth sitting at the base of a tree looking to the right
Small hermit crab half out of it's shell sits on a child's sand covered hand

We were later told by a sloth guide that it was a 1 in a 1000 chance to see a sloth so close up on the ground – we were amazed at the time but I’m not sure it registered just how lucky we’d been until much later.

After watching a few more huge armies of leaf cutter ants, spotting howler monkeys and squirrel monkeys, plus an agouti (a giant rodent) we made our way home, very sweaty and tired but over the moon. 

A day in Manuel Antonio village – and the beach

On our second day in the area we took the bus down to Manuel Antonio village and had an afternoon at the beach. The village itself is pretty small, with a couple of blocks of restaurants, shops and hotels. 

The beach is not as stunning as the beaches in the national park but the boys had loads of fun in the water and there was a nice chilled vibe – a few vendors selling food and drink but nothing too pushy. If you’re visiting Costa Rica on a budget this is a cheap way to spend a day as a family as part of your travels.

We ate at a little place tucked down the path that heads to the national park entrance, which was lovely.

There’s definitely a reason why Manuel Antonio is so high on the list for so many visitors to Costa Rica – it’s really accessible yet there is so much wildlife to see and the beaches are just beautiful.

Tips for visiting Manuel Antonio with kids

  • You can’t take any food at all in to the national park (so we had to ditch the packed lunch that Steve had so diligently prepared that morning)
  • You’re also not allowed to take any single use plastic in to the park, so all water bottles have to be reusable ones (which they do sell at the stalls outside the park).
  • Get to the national park as early as you can in the morning to avoid both the heat and the crowds
  • Save your swimming for Playa Manuel Antonio – the beach on the opposite side of the trail (Playa Espadilla Sur) is less busy but the sea is not as calm and it has strong riptides.

Planning a family travel adventure to Costa Rica on a budget?

If you’re planning to visit Costa Rica with kids, then check out all of our blog posts here. Costa Rica is an amazing destination for family travel (even on a budget!) – below are just a few of our recommendations:

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