From everything we had read about Manuel Antonio it was going to be our favorite place in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, we set our expectations a little too high and Manuel Antonio, although very beautiful, ended up falling a little flat. The beaches are truly as amazing as everyone says but unfortunately our time on the beaches was a little limited due to the rain.
Overall throughout our time in Costa Rica we were very fortunate that the 'wet season' didn't live up to it's name. However for the week we spent in Manual Antonio around half the time was wet and when it rains in this part of the world it pours!
Where to sleep
We stayed at Hostel Plinio which was a little closer to the town of Quepos (the main town in the area) than it was to the town of Manuel Antonio on the beach. The private rooms were small (I think this was more a hostel for those happy to be in a dorm rather than people looking for a budget double room like we were), the staff were lovely and they had a taco bar on site, although it wasn't great for vegans. The bus running between Manuel Antonio was very frequent and most of the time was happy to drop us right at the hostel which was handy but we hadn't realised beforehand that we would be so dependent on the buses as the walk to Quepos or Manuel Antonio was a few kilometers and very steep.
We met some great people at Plinio and it was a very sociable place to stay with an outdoor shared kitchen and the bar area for people to meet and chat in every night but our main issue was the noise. Cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes drive up and down the hill from very early in the morning to late in the evening and any noise from the road or around the hostel travels straight into the rooms.
There were lots of other places dotted down the hill on the way to Manuel Antonio and it would definitely be better to be staying closer to the beach and the bars and restaurants that are on or around the beach. Prices do increase the closer you are to the beach but in this case it is worth spending a little more.
Where to eat
The Falafel Bar, Manuel Antonio - The Falafel bar was a great spot for lunch and we ended up eating here twice. They serve a variety of middle eastern food including pita's and plates. We went for the falafel pita and were not disappointed. The pita is filled with tahini, chips and falafel and you pick your own salads at the salad bar to stuff it full! The chips/fries were so amazing that we had to get a side order of them!
Sunrice, Quespos Marina - Sunrice was amazing Asian fusion spot. It is in a lovely location in Quespos Marina, a perfect spot for sunset if you are there in the evening, and had a very relaxed feel. We started with the rice cakes, which were basically fried rice squares topped with avocado (and tuna for Tom). I've honestly never tried anything like it! Tom went for the chicken skewers for his main and I had the soba noodles with tofu which were both full of flavour. The lady working here was super lovely and even checked for me if they had any firm tofu as I'm not such a big fan of the soft stuff (and sometimes they just serve it raw in Costa Rica). I also picked up a lovely print from a local artist in the gift shop they have attached!
There's lots of other places that you can eat at in both Quepos and Manuel Antonio, but most of them were closed as we visited in the low season. We heard that the Brooklyn Bakery was really good but we never got to try it as it wasn't open when we were there. If you're looking for cheaper food in Quepos, there's a few sodas where you can pick up a traditional meal (rice, beans, salad or meat or veggies) for about $5.
There are also a number of supermarkets in Quepos ranging in price and goods so there are a lot of options if you want to cook your own dinner :)
What to see
Manuel Antonio National Park - We decided not to visit the national park in Manuel Antonio as we had already seen a number in different areas of the country. The main attraction here are the Capuchin monkeys which are very (sometimes too!) friendly with people. We heard that they team up with raccoons to distract people and then steal their belongings or food while their backs are turned which is like something out of a comedy/horror movie. We were lucky enough to not be victims of this, but we did see this happen to others on the beach and we here it is a real problem in the national park. Entrance is around $15 USD and if you aren't visiting any or many of the other parks in Costa Rica it would definitely be worth a visit.
Beaches - Manuel Antonio boasts some beautiful beaches, and we were lucky enough to check out a few of them. One or two are only accessible if you have paid for entry to the National Park and while they also look beautiful and are sure to be quiet we found it very easy to find large areas of the free beaches with little to no people on as well.
The main beach in Manuel Antonio is Playa Espadilla. This is a vast beach that can take half an hour or more to walk from one end to the other giving you plenty of chance to find a spot a long way away from other beach bums. If the tide is out then it can also seem like an age to walk across the sand before you eventually reach the sea. Although we aren't surfers there were plenty of them around and we were assured this was also a great surfing spot.
We also visited Playa Biesanz which the guidebooks suggested would be an unexplored tropical paradise. It is a good 45 minute walk from the main road where the bus drops you off and while it wasn't quiet what we were expecting it was still a lovely beach. It seems like many of the hotels in the area now recommend this beach as a quieter alternative to Playa Espadilla but it is a lot smaller than the main beach so even with a few people there it can feel more crowded. The water was a lovely temperature but the morning we were there was the morning a large storm was brewing so the sea was quite rough for swimming.
El Santuario Zip Lining - We had a recommendation to head here before coming to Costa Rica so we booked up online and hopped onto the shuttle bus bright and early full of excitement (and some nerves as falling out of a tree is not exactly my idea of a great time!). When we arrived we received the excellent news that it wasn't just one tree that we would jumping out of but 9! We got harnessed up and climbed into the canopy and in a whirlwind 4 hours or so t was all over. It was a fantastic experience including possibly Costa Rica's longest zipline (although many companies in many parts of Costa Rica claim this) and also repelling out of a tree to end. The highlight of everyone else's day was when I didn't make it to the end of the longest line and much to everyone's amusement had to be dragged in by one of the instructors. They also give you a great lunch at the end of the ziplining which was a big portion and tasted great. The day wasn't cheap, around $80 USD per person but we were glad we spent more for this one as there are very mixed reviews for some of the other ziplining tours around town.
Manuel Antonio was more expensive than other parts of Costa Rica but it is more of a tourist hub so it is to be expected. We had a double room in a hostel for about $35 a night which is about average for Costa Rica. Our meals ranged from about $6 or $7 for a home cooked meal to about $20 for a nice meal out. All in all, you can make Manuel Antonio work on a budget without missing out but we felt like 5 nights was a bit too long to spend here.