Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio: Between Surf and Jungle

Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio
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Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio is a question that many a first-time traveler to Costa Rica will ask. Should you visit the famous surf town of the Nicoya Peninsula, known all over Central America for its glassy breaks and wild après surf nightlife? Or should you hit what’s unquestionably one of the most iconic nature reserves in the region; a region already famed for its booming biodiversity?

The good news is that there are some clear-cut differences between both of these destinations. Yes, they’re both regular mentions on lists of must-dos for this lush land of Pura Vida. However, one’s really all about tropical safaris and hiking, while the other is mainly about waxing down the board and partying until sunup.

Cue this guide. Its aim is to lay out some of the major facets of the Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio debate. We’ll run through everything from the general vibe of the place to the main things there are to do in both, to help you decide which deserves a place on your itinerary for Costa Rica this year. Lets’ go…

Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio: The general vibe

Chilling on Tamarindo beach
Photo by Nathan Farrish/Unsplash

Neither Tamarindo nor Manuel Antonio are going to give you a hit of untouched, untrodden Costa Rica. The truth is that they are both major tourist destinations. One is the gateway to the most-visited national park in the whole country, while the other is a booming surfer hotspot with a rowdy nightlife. Just don’t expect deserted beaches and empty rainforests.

Tamarindo’s rep was almost singlehandedly built on the release of the 1994 surfing epic Endless Summer II. Visions of glassy waves peeling beautifully into a white-sand bay helped to catapult the spot into the limelight and the crowds started coming in earnest in the noughties. Somewhere along the line, Tamarindo also got a penchant for partying. The result is a place where folk come to surf the days away and drink until the early hours post sunset. And it’s not just a few folks either – this is one of the most-visited parts of the entire Costa Rican Pacific, nowhere near as quiet as other surf towns like Santa Teresa or Mal Pais or Nosara.

The crowded theme continues down in Manuel Antonio, too. As the steppingstone into one of the most iconic national parks in the country, the village there is almost always buzzing with life. The good news is that the crowds will drop away in the evenings when the day trips have departed, and Mondays are always quiet because the national park is officially closed. The bad news is that there’s not all that much to do then. You can’t go searching for howler monkeys in the woods or hike the famous Manuel Antonio NP trails, see. What you will get is a charming coast village with some pretty nice white-sand beaches and excellent tourist infrastructure, but it would be amiss to say the town is anything more than a ticket to the surrounding natural reserve. It’s not really.

Winner: Tamarindo. Manuel Antonio is really a gateway to the nearby Manuel Antonio National Park, though it does have its charms.

Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio: Things to do

Tamarindo surf
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Tamarindo is famed for one thing above all else: It’s surf. That might have changed in recent years a little as the town’s wild nightlife has also risen to become a major backpacking draw. However, the waves still reign supreme. They come in on the dominant NW swells throughout the whole summer season, but hardly stop for the winter either. You get oodles of different breaks, from the mellow sandbars on Playa Tamarindo to the often-hollow rights that come off the river mouth to the north of the town (beware of the crocs there!). On top of that, you will find all sorts of surf infrastructure in Tamarindo, from surf camps to board rentals to private coaches and surf photographers. It’s a cracking place for all levels, but the breaks are never empty. Tamarindo also boasts lovely beaches and oodles of great gastronomy, so you could also just come here for those chilled vacations of sun, sand, sea, and cocktails if you like.

On the flip side, a trip to Manuel Antonio is really about one thing and one thing only: Seeing the national park. Yep, the Manuel Antonio National Park might be the country’s smallest reserve by area, but it’s also the most visited. Within, there are spectacular coastal jungles woven through by hiking paths and dotted with lookout points. They are a mecca for those keen to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to Costa Rica’s fabled biodiversity. mantled howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, three-toed sloths, parakeets – they’re all visible here. On top of that, you’ll see incredible orchid species and witness two of the most glorious beaches in Central America, Escondido Beach and Espadilla South (at least in our humble opinion). When the park is closed – as it is every Monday and after 4pm – there’s really not all that much to do around here apart from chill and surf on the out-of-reserve beaches to the north, around Quepos and Manuel Antonio village. 

Winner: Draw. This really depends on what you want from your vacation. Tamarindo is the place to go to surf and party. Manuel Antonio can hardly be beaten when it comes to seeing the famous CR wildlife.

Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio: Getting there

Maneul Antonio park
Photo by Atanas Malamov/Unsplash

Tamarindo is located in the far northwestern corner of Costa Rica. The main gateway from the skies there is Liberia Airport (LIR), or, to give it its full name, the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport. That’s now served by flights coming in from Toronto, LA, Denver, and London Gatwick, although there are still more links into San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. The fastest way to get from the arrival terminal to the surf hotels of Tamarindo is by car – that takes about 1.5 hours if you go straight there from Liberia. There are also buses, which can take anything in the region of 2.5 hours from Liberia Airport and up to 5.5 hours if you come in from San Jose. Loads of private transfer companies also offer connections to Tamarindo at set prices, as it’s one of the mainstay tourist hotspots on the Pacific coast.

Loads of people will visit Manuel Antonio as part of an organized tour from a nearby town. It’s possible to do that as a day trip from San Jose (transfers take about three hours), or from one of the coast towns further north, like Jaco or Playa Hermosa. Alternatively, you can drive to Manuel Antonio using the main 34 coast highway, which is pretty well maintained and accessible to most normal rental vehicles. There’s also a small airport in Quepos, which is linked to the Costa Rican capital by direct internal flights costing nearly $100 each way. Tracopa buses also run direct lines from the city center of San Jose to the village.

Winner: Tamarindo. As a popular resort, you’ll probably find it a touch easier to reach, but Manuel Antonio is also very well linked to San Jose.

Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio: Hotels

Beach near Quepos
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As we’ve already mentioned, these two towns are up there with the most visited in the whole land of Pura Vida. To put it another way: They aren’t short on hotels.

Let’s begin with Tamarindo. There’s a clue to the sort of accommodations that await in this wave-bashed bay on the Pacific in the history of the place. It’s a classic Central American surf town. That means budget hostels and surf camps are center stage. Only, they’ve also been joined in recent years by a whole range of posh-tels and cool boutique B&Bs, yoga retreats and chic wellness hotels. To be honest, there’s something to suit every sort of traveler. The only thing we’d suggest is to make sure you’re close to the beaches, because the surge in development means that loads of Tamarindo’s newer hotels are now quite far back from the waves. Some of the top choices to stay here include:

  •  Les Voiles Blanches ($$$) – Sheer luxury awaits in this gorgeous eco resort. It’s got the full five stars and elegant modern cabanas with private pools.
  • Tamarindo Sunshine ($$) – A charming little hotel with clean, modern, condo-style rooms near to the beach.
  • La Oveja Tamarindo Hostel & Surf Camp ($-$$) – Choose between privates and shared dorms at this buzzy surf hostel, which comes complete with its very own onsite surf school.

There are also plenty of hotel options down in Manuel Antonio. They’ve mainly popped up to serve the almost constant influx of people looking to hike the trails and spot the sloths in the nearby national park. However, there are a few great surf breaks in these parts, too, particularly on the northwest facing coastline between the entrance to the reserve and Quepos town, so expect a smattering of hostels and surfer camps. There also happen to be some fantastic budget and midrange guesthouse options that organize tours into the national park in the Manuel Antonio village center. Some of our favorites are:

  • Millenium Manuel Antonio ($$$) – A hacienda-style hotel with a glorious pool and folksy CR design, set literally 20 yards from the boundaries of the national park.
  • Teva Hotel & Jungle Reserve ($$) – A midrange choice that’s got colorful rooms and a big pool set in the middle of the jungles.
  • Hostel Plinio ($) – There’s a low-key surfer vibe to this budget hostel in the hills above Quepos.

Winner: Tamarindo.

Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio: Nightlife

Manuel Antonio monkey
Photo by Joy Ernst/Unsplash

Tamarindo isn’t considered one of Costa Rica’s main backpacker party towns for nothing. It joins Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Arenal as a real hotspot for hitting the cantinas after dark. There’s one thing that Tam does better than anywhere too: Surf shacks. Yep, there are reggae-grooving beer bars and little bamboo-built beach bars all over the town. It’s a good idea to start with a sunset drink courtesy of the west-facing bay of Playa Langosta. Then, head back to the center of the village to hit bars like the Volcano Brewing Company (for local craft creations) and El Garito (a DJ-led dance venue). Later, the main hotspot is probably Pacifico, which goes all night, but there are oodles of other choices to boot.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the nightlife in Manuel Antonio is just a shadow of what it is up in the no-holes-barred surf and party mecca that is Tamarindo. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do once the sun has dropped behind the sloth-filled jungles. There is. Take the regular jam sessions at Bambu Jam and Barba Roja Restaurante, where you can dine on Costa Rican plates while listening to the samba. Some falafel bars, craft beer joints, and pool lounges sit closer to the village center, but Quepos has most of the main club-style options – check out Cuban Republik and Arco Iris.

Winner: Tamarindo.

The verdict

Well…there you have it: Tamarindo vs Manuel Antonio. Judging by how many wins there have been for the surf town of the northern Nicoya Peninsula (that’s Tamarindo), you might think that there’s only one possible winner here. And it’s true, we’d say 100% visit the surf spot to chase those perfect Pacific waves and enjoy one of the buzziest nightlife hubs in the region. However, let’s not forget that Manuel Antonio offers a glimpse of the amazing biodiversity of Costa Rica, and some of the most incredible hiking paths in the country. The best thing would be to add both to your itinerary, which thankfully isn’t all that hard. Buses between the two take six or seven hours, but there are lots of connections going via the lively capital in San Jose.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.