When I first visited Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica as a young, single man, I was sitting on the sand at the stunning Manuel Antonio Beach after an exhilarating jungle tour and I had the strangest thought… “When I have kids, I want to bring them here”. Fast forward to today and I’m happy to report that we just finished an amazing family vacation to Costa Rica with a memorable visit to Manuel Antonio National Park with kids.
There are so many incredible and fun things to do in Manuel Antonio National Park with kids. The most popular national park in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is simply teeming with amazing wildlife. A Manuel Antonio jungle tour is a must for all families to the area, but there are many more family-friendly activities as well.
Manuel Antonio National Park with Kids
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Manuel Antonio National Park Tickets
Costa Rica has recently changed the way you buy tickets for their national parks. Unless you join an organized tour which includes admission tickets, you must buy your Manuel Antonio National Park tickets online.
This is not a sales tactic – we do not earn any commission from the sale of national park tickets. We witnessed a number of Costa Rica tourists show up at the park gates without tickets and were turned away because the park had already sold the daily quota of tickets.
If you wish to visit Manuel Antonio National Park with your family outside of an organized tour, you must buy your tickets ahead of time. The link below takes you to a SINAC website – SINAC stands for Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación (or National System of Conservation Areas). This is a government of Costa Rica website.
Top 9 Things to do in Manuel Antonio National Park with Kids
1. Manuel Antonio National Park Jungle Tour
When we planned to go on a family vacation to Costa Rica with kids in December, we knew we wanted to be somewhere special for Christmas Day. Based on my previous amazing experiences in Manuel Antonio National Park, we arranged to take a family jungle tour on Christmas Day. Given December (and especially Christmas to New Year’s) is high season in Costa Rica, we prebooked a private Manuel Antonio National Park jungle tour for Christmas morning.
Our all-inclusive private tour of Manuel Antonio included park tickets and transportation from our accommodation, so after breakfast our taxi came and picked us up. The wildlife viewings began even before we entered the national park as we saw a beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly floating next to our cab as we approached the gates.
We met our jungle tour guide at the Manuel Antonio park gates, and after a quick bag check by park rangers, we were on our way.
The majority of our private jungle tour in Manuel Antonio with kids was on the Sloth Trail, which is the main sightseeing trail within the national park. It’s a wide gravel path, which can seem congested and busy at times, but that didn’t seem to impact the amount of Costa Rica wildlife that we saw on our family jungle tour.
Almost immediately, we were startled to attention by the sound of nearby howler monkeys growling loudly through the jungle. It’s a terrifying growl, especially when heard in person in a jungle settling. Howler monkeys are the second loudest mammal on the planet – my wife is the loudest!! (Haha – I stole that joke from our tour guide 🙂
During the first two weeks of our vacation to Costa Rica with kids, we’ve spent a lot of time in the jungle and have seen a lot of amazing wildlife. But the one animal which has eluded us is the sloth, so the whole family was itching to see a sloth in Manuel Antonio National Park. Our guide delivered immediately as we saw a 2-toed sloth high in a tree just off the trail. Ok… it was a sloth’s butt, but it still counts!
Throughout our 2-hour family-friendly jungle tour in Manuel Antonio, we ended up seeing tons of sloths in the trees. They are shy creatures and with the thick, lush jungle they are often hard to see, but our talented guide was very good at spotting them. We were even lucky enough to see two mother sloths holding their babies! There are not many creatures on Earth that are cuter than a baby sloth!
Other highlights of our Manuel Antonio jungle tour with kids include:
- Seeing a green and a black iguana
- A Jesus Christ Lizard (so named as it can run across the water at speeds nearing 35 km/h!)
- A Helmet-headed Basilisk lizard (which can change color like a chameleon)
- A giant witch moth hiding under a trail sign
- A cute little agouti rodent hiding near a tree
- Finding a tent-making bat sleeping under, well, a tent that he made with a giant leaf
- Discovering a very colorful red-winged grasshopper
- A very colorful neotropical lamb crab (also known as a Halloween Crab for its brightly colored reddish orange legs)
- Our kids loved seeing a cluster of hairy caterpillars on a tree trunk (don’t touch – they are toxic!)
- Having a large blue morpho butterfly fly by us on the trail
- Spotting a Broad-winged hawk perched on a vine
- A huge group of white-faced capuchin monkeys near the end of the main trail.
- And a beautiful, bright colored Amazonian motmot bird
It’s not just all about the Costa Rican wildlife in Manuel Antonio National Park. Our tour guide was able to spot an Aristolochia grandiflora, which is an amazing carnivorous plant. I’ve loved carnivorous plants ever since learning many interesting facts about Venus flytraps while visiting Wilmington with kids, so to see a new species in Costa Rica was a real treat. Aside from eating bugs, another interesting fact about the Aristolochia grandiflora is that it is one of the largest flowers in the world.
Our jungle tour guide was so good with our kids, putting his spotting scope at a level where they could see without help whenever he could. In addition, he had so many interesting facts about the plants and animals within Manuel Antonio National Park. He kept the kids interested throughout the whole guided tour.
After our very successful family jungle tour, we ended our Christmas Day at Playa Manuel Antonio – one of the nicest beaches in Costa Rica.
If you don’t need a private tour of Manuel Antonio National Park, small group tours are also available at a lower cost (park tickets may not be included).
2. Visiting Manuel Antonio Without a Guide
After a highly successful guided tour of Manuel Antonio National Park on our first day, we had low expectations for our second day at the national park without a guide. I mean, our guide found 95% of the animals, birds, etc. we saw on our first day, so how could we expect to have similar success on our own? I’m very happy to report that we had a hugely successful day with our kids at Manuel Antonio without a guide.
We received a good omen in our first few steps inside Manuel Antonio when a Blue Morpho butterfly flew by, then it flew past several more times. It’s such an incredibly beautiful butterfly, it really lifted our spirits and gave us hope for the day.
To be honest, a big part of our plan to visit Manuel Antonio without a guide was to walk along the main trail and stop to see what all the guides were showing to their groups. But it turns out that wasn’t necessary.
After learning so much from our guide the previous day, we surprised ourselves with our ability to spot wildlife on our own. Shortly after the Blue Morpho butterfly sighting, our daughter found a Halloween Crab in the jungle.
After a short while on the Sloth Trail (the main trail in Manuel Antonio), we left to walk along one of the less crowded hiking trails. The Catarata Trail is a short trail (0.7 km / 0.4 miles one way) through lush jungle alongside a stream through the jungle to a waterfall. The best part about this trail is that it is much less crowded than the Sloth Trail.
We were able to spot the carnivorous flower again, except this time we saw many more. Then our daughter spotted a large millipede, which none of us had spotted yet on our family trip to Costa Rica. We didn’t see any big-ticket wildlife on our own on this trail, but we did see some tiny lizards and hermit crabs. The waterfall was nice, but it won’t be featured on any Costa Rica postcards.
We walked to the end of the Sloth Trail and decided to continue walking a bit before grabbing lunch at the cafeteria. We’re so glad we did as we were treated to one of the best wildlife encounters of our whole lives!!
Sendero Playa Gemelas to Sendero Mirador Trail
Beyond the cafeteria, there is a hiking trail which runs the opposite direction from the trail to the Manuel Antonio beach. After a few minutes the trail forks into two hiking trails, with the Sendero Playa Gemelas trail to the right and the Sendero Mirador Trail to the left. There’s a third trail which connects these two to create a short triangle. We decided the triangle was a great short hike in Manuel Antonio before lunch.
In short order, we spotted a trail of leaf cutter ants (amazing!!) and a white faced capuchin monkey. The Sendero Playa Gemelas trail is so close to the ocean, you can see the water through the trees and hear the waves crashing ashore.
The excitement began when we turned on to the triangle connector trail. Our daughter spotted two white tailed deer in the forest, which was quickly followed by a truly incredible sloth encounter.
A kind group of hikers coming the opposite direction took the time to show us the location of a nearby sloth. It was so close to us that we were in no hurry to leave. It didn’t take long before we spotted a second sloth. Then we heard the whistle….
Our day 1 Manuel Antonio guide taught us that female sloths whistle to attract a mate. The fun really began after the female sloth whistled, as several male sloths suddenly appeared. At one point, there were at least 4 male sloths climbing the trees all around us – they are faster than you’d think!
As with the Catarata Trail, this connector trail was not very crowded, so there was only a handful of us to witness this incredible sloth encounter. The male sloths didn’t seem bothered by our presence, and in fact, several of the sloths came incredibly close to us. At one point, we could have reached out and touched one who was changing trees in pursuit of love. (We didn’t touch them of course).
At the beginning of our day at Manuel Antonio without a guide, we’d never have dreamed about having a wildlife encounter as incredible as this. Our up-close sloth experience at Manuel Antonio is something we will never forget.
Speaking of Costa Rica wildlife encounters which don’t get old, as we walked back to the cafeteria via the Mirador Trail, we heard several loud growls from a nearby group of howler monkeys.
The white faced capuchin monkeys were at the cafeteria again – they obviously know when lunchtime is. Take the time to enjoy the close proximity to these beautiful creatures, but watch your food closely. And whatever you do, do not make the problem worse by feeding them human food. This never ends well for the animal…
The Beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park
In addition to the world-class wildlife encounters, Manuel Antonio is home to two of the most beautiful beaches in all of Costa Rica. What’s unique about these beaches is that they are back-to-back on a narrow part of a peninsula. The walk between the two beaches is less than a minute, so your family can easily enjoy a visit to both beaches during your visit to Manuel Antonio National Park!
3. Playa Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio Beach)
After lunch at the cafeteria, we made our way down to Playa Manuel Antonio, which is the main beach at Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s one of the most scenic beaches I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Manuel Antonio Beach is surrounded by a round U-shaped bay, with giant rocks and dense jungle all around. The shape of the bay protects the beach from the open ocean, resulting in very small waves hitting shore making it a great beach in Manuel Antonio National Park for kids.
Despite its incredible beauty, the daily limit on visitors at Manuel Antonio National Park means that Playa Manuel Antonio is never overcrowded. The most popular spots are towards the back of the beach under the shade of nearby trees. If you get one of these coveted spots for your travel beach blanket, be aware that there are many jungle critters nearby including monkeys, iguanas, hermit crabs and more.
4. Playa Espadilla Sur (Playa Espadilla Sur Beach)
Playa Espadilla Sur is the second beach at Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s a much longer beach than Playa Manuel Antonio and is less crowded. Also a very scenic beach, Playa Espadilla Sur is not quite as popular as Playa Manuel Antonio, so if you are looking for a little seclusion, this beautiful Costa Rica beach is the one for you.
5. The Beach Lookout Tower
There’s a really fun lookout tower in-between the two beautiful beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s a multi-story wooden structure which is really fun for kids to climb. Although you can see both beaches from the top, the view isn’t great as the surrounding trees are too tall.
6. Biesanz Beach (Playa Biesanz)
Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Tuesdays, so for our final day in the area (a Tuesday) we decided to visit Biesanz Beach, one of the nicest beaches near the national park. Tucked away in a tranquil bay on a peninsula just north of the national park, Biesanz Beach is a great beach for families.
The walk to Playa Biesanz from the parking area is a fun 5 minute walk through the jungle. Keep your eyes peeled as we saw a ton of monkeys in this area – both spider monkeys and the ultra-cute squirrel monkeys. This jungle walk has lots of rocks and roots, making sports sandals a much better choice than flip-flops.
Biesanz Beach is a small beach with salt & pepper sand and a cute little stream running through it to the ocean. The beach is located in a very well protected U-shaped cove, resulting in reasonably small waves reaching shore. There are no mega resorts here to clean the sand, so you will need to contend with some small rocks, etc. but it’s actually in good shape for a public beach.
Popular with both locals and visitors to Manuel Antonio, Biesanz Beach is a hive of activity. Locals let their dogs run and play in the surf, while kids of all ages play in the waves. There are kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to rent too.
The jungle walk to the beach is not the only place where you have a chance to see wildlife at Biesanz Beach. On our second visit to this beach near Manuel Antonio, we not only saw white faced capuchin monkeys in the trees behind our travel beach towel, but we also saw a mama sloth and her tiny baby in a tree right next to the beach!
If you didn’t bring your own travel beach towel, you can rent a beach chair from the vendors. There are also beach touts who make their rounds offering cold drinks. There are (paid) toilets and showers up a path behind the beach.
We walked to Biesanz Beach from our Manuel Antonio vacation rental. It’s a long downhill walk from highway 618 (the main road), meaning it was a long uphill climb back.
7. Mangrove Kayak Tour
Our jungle guide in the national park recommended the kayaking mangrove tour as another kid-friendly thing to do near Manuel Antonio. We’ve done a lot of kid-friendly activities during our family vacation to Costa Rica, but we hadn’t yet gone kayaking so we decided to give it a try.
Our tour operators picked us up at our vacation rental right on time and soon we were on our way to the mangroves near Damas. After a quick snack of pineapple slices and cookies, we were outfitted in lifejackets (with smaller ones for the kids).
The mangrove kayak tour offered us two-person kayaks, so each parent could share a kayak with a child. We didn’t give the kids a paddle (except for fun), so they could simply sit up front and enjoy the experience and help the guides look for more Costa Rica wildlife.
Our kayak tour near Manuel Antonio National Park took us through a maze of mangrove canals, both wide and narrow. We really enjoyed the fun challenge of navigating our kayaks through the narrow canals, while the kids looked for cute and colorful crabs along the roots of the mangrove trees.
It’s more challenging to spot wildlife from kayaks, as you are actively doing something else, and you are moving downstream, resulting in less time to look for animals in any given spot. Despite the inherent challenges of spotting Costa Rica wildlife on a kayaking tour, we did pretty good.
On our kayaking tour, we saw lots of Mangrove Crabs and Tiger-faced Crabs crawling up the mangrove roots. In addition, we saw a racoon cross a fallen tree trunk over the mangroves, Blue Herons on the shore, bats and many colorful birds. We had an excellent up-close encounter with a group of white faced capuchin monkeys, and we just missed seeing a pygmy anteater.
If you are most interested in spotting Costa Rica wildlife, we’d recommend a land-based jungle tour in Manuel Antonio National Park, but if you are looking for a fun, active adventure activity for the family, along with some wildlife, kayaking mangroves with kids is a lot of fun.
If kayaking isn’t your thing, a more relaxed mangrove boat tour is also an option for your family.
Other Things to do in Manuel Antonio National Park with Kids:
Although we spent three action-packed days around Manuel Antonio National Park, we didn’t get to see it all. Unlike the activities above, we didn’t actually get to enjoy the kid-friendly Manuel Antonio experiences below, but we recommend them based on our real life experiences described within each.
8. Night Jungle Tour
A few days before arriving at Manuel Antonio, we did a night tour during our visit to Corcovado National Park with kids, so we didn’t go on a Manuel Antonio night tour. But if you haven’t gone on a night tour of the jungle yet, we highly recommend it!!
The jungles of Costa Rica are amazing during the day, but they are a completely different experience at night. First of all, it’s a fun and kinda spooky adventure which kids are guaranteed to remember for a very long time. Secondly, all kinds of critters (cute and otherwise) come out in the jungle at night. You’ll have a chance to see the many famous frogs of Costa Rica along with many creepy-crawly creatures (spiders, scorpions, etc),
Guided tours of the jungle at night is an experience your family won’t soon forget!
9. Chocolate Tour
There are so many great things to do in Manuel Antonio with kids, that it’s impossible to do it all. One excursion which sounded awesome, but we didn’t have time for was a Manuel Antonio chocolate tour. The main reason we passed on this guided tour was that we did a cocoa plantation tour recently while visiting Colombia with kids. It was an amazing guided tour for kids and we expect your family will love it too.
Tips for Parents Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park With Kids
- There is no outside food allowed inside Manuel Antonio
- Single use plastic bottles are officially forbidden within the national park (although you will see many people bring them anyway). Please do what’s right for the animals and bring enough reusable water bottles for the family. There are water fountains throughout the park with safe drinking water for gringos.
- Don’t worry about not being able to bring food into Manuel Antonio National Park. If you want to spend a full day there with your kids, there is a cafeteria in the park with many kid-friendly menu items, such as pizza, sandwiches, and yes, there is ice cream too. Please don’t feed the monkeys – no matter how cute they look.
- There are very few sidewalks on the main road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park. If you need to walk anywhere along this road with your kids, either hold their hands or watch them very closely as they will be in close proximity to fast moving cars and tourist transportation vans. There are tons of pedestrians along this street, so cars are used to people walking on the edges of the road, but be extra careful with your kids just in case!
- There are several souvenir stands along the main street just outside the national park. Be prepared for sticker shock – these are some of the most expensive souvenirs I’ve seen anywhere in the world! Wow!
- There are signs posted at both Manuel Antonio beaches warning of strong currents and rip tides, so although the water is usually calm, watch your kids closely in the water.
- There is a boardwalk within Manuel Antonio National Park which is a good stroller-friendly trail for parents with young kids. The stroller-friendly boardwalk trail largely parallels the main Sloth Trail through the park.
Kid-Friendly Restaurants in Manuel Antonio
We stayed at a vacation rental halfway between Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park. There were a wide variety of kid-friendly restaurants to choose from in this area, including:
Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar
When we travel with kids, it’s often hard to find a way to eat healthy foods. At home, our kids eat a lot of hummus, so when we discovered the Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar, we were excited to give it a try!
We ordered a wide variety of dishes at the Falafel Bar, with the intention of sharing them amongst everyone. We got a falafel platter, a shawarma platter, a hummus platter and Shakshuka.
There’s a salad bar which you can load up your pitas to customize your falafel pita sandwiches. This was perfect for our picky 7-year old, as we just loaded up his plate with some of his favorites such as cucumbers, tomatoes and beets. The fruit smoothies at the Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar were amazing too!
Love Indian Cuisine
We walked past Love Indian Cuisine on our way to the Falafel Bar and it smelled so good, we decided to make it our destination for our Christmas dinner in Manuel Antonio. When you can’t have a proper Christmas dinner, you may as well eat something else you love, right?
Featuring a large outdoor terrace with an excellent ocean view, Love Indian Cuisine is a great place for Indian food in Manuel Antonio. They have a full Indian menu with all of your favorite dishes. There’s even a kids menu too.
A great little locals spot, Angel Soda is a small, open air restaurant on the main street to the national park. We decided to visit Angel Soda due to the wide variety of Costa Rican dishes to choose from, such as casados, yet a decent selection of kid-friendly dishes as well.
I had the chicken Casado, while the girls each had an order of nachos. Our son had a hamburger which was about as big as his face! The food was quick and very tasty, and reasonably priced too, making it a great option if you are visiting Manuel Antonio on a budget.
Where to Stay in Manuel Antonio National Park with Kids
With scenic beaches and lush jungles packed into one of the most beautiful national parks in the world, it’s no wonder why so many families visit Manuel Antonio National Park with kids. With so many families visiting the national park, there are tons of great places to stay around Manuel Antonio with kids.
The closest town to Manuel Antonio National Park is Quepos, which is 7 km / 4 miles away from the park gates. Quepos is a small town with many small hotels and restaurants, but you should also know that the road in-between Quepos and Manuel Antonio is also non-stop hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants.
The location of your accommodations for your visit to Manuel Antonio comes down to personal preference. Are you ok taking public transit or driving your rental car to the park every day, or would you like to stay close enough to walk?
Although there are many good family-friendly hotels in-between Quepos and Manuel Antonio, we chose to rent a 3-bedroom vacation rental house with a pool. When we travel with kids, we prefer vacation rentals over hotels as we value the kid-friendly amenities such as kitchens and laundry facilities.
Cooking our own meals and having clean clothes is nice, but having separate bedrooms is the primary reason we rent vacation homes. Having their own bedrooms helps everyone get a good night’s sleep, which goes a long way to ensuring happy, fun-filled days in Costa Rica!
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Dan Brewer is an intrepid family travel blogger with a passion for exploring the world's most captivating destinations. With 58 countries under his belt and a sense of wanderlust that knows no bounds, he has made it his life's mission to share his travel experiences and insights with fellow families who love to travel.
When Dan isn't traveling with his wife and kids, he's either out enjoying the Canadian Rockies he calls home or working on one of his three travel sites (Family Can Travel, Travel Banff Canada and Ultimate Sports Road Trip).