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Manuel Antonio and Utiva with Kids

Updated: Jan 28

In a country where 25 percent of the land is protected, its hard to know where to start with national parks, but why not start with a place National Geographic famously described as 'the most biologically intense place on earth'? If it’s 500 tree species, jaguars, tropical birds, pumas, three-toed sloths, anteaters and all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species weren’t enough to put this one on your list then consider that the vast tract of primary rainforest laced with hiking trails is also fringed by beautiful alcoves of Pacific beaches. I knew this would be a top contender for the best thing on the central American adventure, and it did not disappoint.

We elected to spend 3 full days and 2 half days here. We built in a chill/buffer day and remained flexible for good weather with a short list of potential day trips - and very grateful we did as we were greeted halfway by torrential rain! We were relieved to have a few days to play with to choose the opportune time to visit the national park.

Getting to the Manuel Antonio Region:

Our whole Central American itinerary was planned around the journeys being generally sun/kid friendly preferring to do 2-hour driving chunks over lunchtime nap, but we knew this wouldn’t really be possible if we wanted to spend time on both the pacific and Caribbean coasts of this beautiful country in our limited time. We arrived via a gruelling 4-hour drive from Monteverde, opting to take the way there in one go, saving the few stop-off points for our circle back north to La Fortuna later in the week. The national park itself was just 10 mins drive from our accommodation.

Eating and Sleeping:

We booked Hotel Tres Banderas, about halfway on the road from Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park, which was significantly cheaper than anything else closer to the coast and the national park. We usually book a hotel with a pool every 2-3 places on the agenda, and this is almost always the cheapest we can find online. Not sure I would recommend this one; the included breakfast was ok and the pool was good but the wifi was infuriatingly terrible and the food on site was expensive and not a huge range. There is a strip of businesses further along the road towards the national park with much more choice; we had the most AMAZING ginger milkshakes at Vista Verde restaurant, and another night some amazing homemade tahini at Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar. As the road winds through the cliff side there are various scenic gaps between buildings providing an amazing sunset view.

Espadilla Beach:

After the poor weather in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua and our inland jaunt to Monteverde we missed the beach and were yet to do a first proper swim in the Pacific. There are so many beaches in the area, each with a tropical-rainforest-spilling-monkeys-onto-the-beach type vibe. Many are inside the National Park, with Playa Manuel Antonio as number one on the list. We were keen to visit a local place as well as the Park and chose Espadilla. We paid around $3 for all day parking right off the coast, spotting monkey footprints through the path on the way down to the beach. We spent 2 hours or so enjoying soft sand, leaping over waves and building sandcastles – a quiet, empty, peaceful and beautiful place to bathe in the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

Manuel Antonio National Park:

A tropical paradise nestled along Costa Rica's Pacific coast, this biodiverse wonderland is a haven for families with young children, offering an unforgettable mix of wildlife encounters, thrilling adventures, and inspiring conservation efforts. Visiting this stunning place with little adventurers in tow made it all the more exciting!

To get into the park, tickets must be booked online at $18 an adult, but children 2-11 are only $5.65. Considering the heavy tropical downpour when we first arrived in the region, I was very worried this highlight of the trip might be spoilt by bad weather. We were anxiously checking all the forecasts we could around the awful wifi at the hotel, and with the park closed on Tuesdays we struggled through the poor signal to book tickets the day after we arrived. With incredible luck, we woke to clear blue skies, 34-degree temperatures and sunshine bursting through the curtains. We parked at an authorised third-party off-road place a short walk to the entrance.

There is wildlife bursting at the seams in this place; a short 20-minute trek through the park and the rainforest gives way to stunning beach with animals crawling out of the forest every few second thanks to Costa Rica’s world beating environmental legislation (they literally removed all deforestation and cancelled their standing army and ploughed the cash into renewables, national parks and environmental protection). The beach was one of the most gorgeous we’ve ever been too, busier than any other on this trip but still nowhere near the level of crazy busy that some in the UK suffer from. We spent the baby’s lunchtime nap with her snoozing in the shade of her beach tent and taking turns to dig holes, build castles and ride the waves of the crystal clear, warm waters.

The trails through the jungle pathways also wrap around the coastline and lead to various beaches – most walkways are very pushchair/disabled friendly, flat and sturdy, another tick in the accessibility box for the young family. Along our way we saw;

  • White faced capuchin monkeys (around 20 in total including a baby!)

  • 2-toed sloth

  • Hermit crabs

  • Bright orange crabs

  • Howler monkeys

  • Agouti

  • 3-toed sloth

  • Basilisk lizard

  • Coati

  • Monitor lizards

  • Spider monkeys

  • Snakes

  • Raccoons

  • Iguanas

  • Flamingo

  • Toucans

  • And a tonne of other random lizards, insects and birds.

We were particularly impressed by the park's commitment to responsible tourism. Visitors are encouraged to follow guidelines to minimise their impact on the environment including a ban on certain plastic products at the entrance (bring a reusable bottle!). Our kids eagerly participated in a beach clean-up activity, collecting small pieces of litter washed ashore - the local community enthusiasm and understanding of the importance of keeping nature pristine is just awesome.

Manuel Antonio National Park is an incredible place, deservedly voted one of the best national parks (and one of the most glorious beaches) in the world. We could have stayed here forever but it would appear it torrentially rains all afternoon and all night everyday, so we headed back at 3pm to chill for the afternoon, happy to have experienced such a brilliant day.

Marino Ballena National Park/Utiva:

This place is certainly one of mother natures' astounding oddities. Marino Ballena National Park/Utiva Beach is shaped like a whale’s tail when viewed from the air/Google earth, due to the currents of the Pacific converging and depositing sand on top of the rock formations to create the unique, tail-shaped pattern. If the miles of wide, soft, sandy beaches featuring hatching/nesting turtles, algae-feeding iguanas, mangroves and snorkelling aren’t enough then consider that this giant rock and sand formation not only has the distinct shape of a whale’s tail, but is located in the exact spot where hundreds of humpback whales congregate to breed each year! This is what we were here for. The whales come for about nine months a year, so make sure to time it right.

Once we had figured out what day was best for Manuel Antonio National Park, we booked tickets on a whale watching trip via WhatsApp with “Dolphin Tours” for our third and final day in this amazing area. None of us have ever specifically been whale watching before, so this was a new one and we had everything crossed for some good sightings over the 3 hour trip. We went with Dolphin Tours as we found it quite difficult to find a tour operator that were ok with bringing babies on board so if you want to cut the research time, just go straight for them!

Utiva is just under hours drive from the Quepos/Manuel Antonio area and was perfect for a morning nap time drive. Once we arrived, we paid our park fees, grabbed life jackets and played with the super cute onsite puppies while munching on our included breakfast pastries. We walked the short distance to the marina over the beach where we were amazed to randomly see freshly hatched turtles headed down to the shore! Cue some dumb tourists trying to “help them” - the boat captain intervened reminding them that the baby turtles must do the journey on their own or they will not have the strength or blood flow to make it in the waves. Love a responsible tour operator.

You can walk all the way out onto the whales tail to explore the rocky tide-pools (take good beach shoes), but only at lower tides so check out these charts to see what kind of time to go if you want to do this.

This trip was nothing but a success. We spent the first half of our time on the water sheening around on instruction from other boats seeking out the amazing humpbacks. We quickly witnessed a pod of around 5 visible whales including a nursing infant!!! It really was just breathtaking – the size and majesty of them – we saw them countless times coming up to the surface and blowing out the classic spouts from their blowholes and lucky enough to see a second mother and baby pair a bit later on too. Sadly, dolphins eluded us but we did see a fair few giant turtles come up to the surface. We then visited a rocky outcrop home to thousands of birds and a more sheltered cove where we were able to jump out into the water.

A word of warning – the waves were pretty horrific. I brought travel sickness tablets along with us – none of us were sick, but we all needed them. We’re all pretty resilient to sickness issues but even daddy was feeling a bit off! Many other people on the boat were constantly throwing up so be prepared for that. Totally worth it of course.

In Summary:

The Quepos and Utiva regions of the Southern/Central Pacific Costa Rica coast are out of this world. Not only a highlight of this truly special nation but of our trip and our lives as a whole! I don’t believe the glories of the rainforest are quite as accessible and abundant as they are here anywhere else on earth (that we’ve been so far!) and we were truly fortunate to be able to see these wonders for ourselves. So, if you're looking for a family-friendly destination that seamlessly weaves adventure, wildlife, and environmental protection, Manuel Antonio National Park is your ideal escape. Allow your young ones to be inspired by nature's wonders and celebrate the magic of travel and the beauty of our natural world.

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