If you drive south on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastal road until it ends you will reach Playa Manzanillo, a small fishing town inside the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. There is something magical about reaching the end of the road, and this particular trip will not disappoint. Once there, you will have a stunning beach to sunbathe and swim, great snorkeling and beautiful hikes, and to make it just perfect…add a great Afro-Caribbean ambiance.
The Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is a private-public protected area that covers more than half of the south Caribbean of Costa Rica. It encompasses 15km (5.8mi) of beach, which consists of (mostly) beautiful white sand beaches and emerged reef. Around 5 square kilometers (2 square miles) of its protected waters house amazing coral reefs that go from shore to up to 200m (656ft) offshore. It has primary rainforest on its hills and one of the best kept swampy mangrove of the Atlantic, special habitat for threatened species like manatees, naturally grown mangrove oyster, and sea turtles like leatherback, green, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles, which come to lay their eggs at the refuge beaches.
Manzanillos coastline is covered in coconut palms and almond trees, which makes the landscape look paradisiacal next to the white sand. What’s interesting is that Manzanillo is not the most popular beach in the south Caribbean of Costa Rica, but bear in mind that during Costa Rican holidays it is very common to see the beach covered in locals sunbathing, barbecuing, playing soccer and wading in its calm waters. So, if you are looking for a peaceful beach time, avoid visiting during major holidays like Easter and new years.
The other Manzanillo, Costa Rica – the Pacific Coast
If you reach this article and find yourself a bit confused, do not despair, there are two Manzanillos in Costa Rica, one on the Pacific coast and one on the Caribbean coast. The information we are providing you in this article is about the Caribbean Manzanillo, but let us also give you a little hint of what the Pacific Manzanillo is all about.
Located in the Nicoya Península, right between Santa Teresa beach and Coyote beach, the Pacific Manzanillo is also known for its beautiful white sand beach and its snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities. This beach isn’t very popular with tourists, but it is loved by locals. The best time to swim here is from the high-to-mid tide. At low tide, the rocks and coral reef populate the swimmable waters, making it dangerous to be in the water.
The Pacific Manzanillo is also the end of the road, but the coastal road that goes north from Santa Teresa. What is very different between the namesakes is that the coastline in Pacific Manzanillo has dense vegetation, which also includes coconut palms and almond trees, and to find restaurants or lodging you’ll have to drive away from the beach, since there is very little development. Lodging is scattered and restaurants serve mostly Costa Rican style meals.
This beach is known among locals because every March there is a sandcastle competition, followed by a great party.
Manzanillo, Costa Rica – Where to stay and eat
The Caribbean Manzanillo is a really small town, with just a few lodging options, so if you are wondering where to stay in Manzanillo, also consider lodging in one of the many options you can find in the towns north of Manzanillo, like Puerto Viejo, Cahuita or the other beaches in between, there are hotels and other lodging options for all kinds of tastes and budgets.
If you are spending the day at this beach and wonder where to enjoy your meals, consider having lunch at Maxi’s restaurant, very near the end of the road. This is the most famous place in Manzanillo, where delicious Caribbean food has been served for a very long time. Like anything in the Caribbean, it has slow service, so plan to be there before you are starving. As you wait, take the opportunity to enjoy the incredible view from the balcony.
There are several other small restaurants where you can enjoy good Caribbean food, all of them located right in front of the beach on the Caribbean coastal road. These restaurants are newer than Maxi’s, but they are eager to make sure visitors have a great experience.
Things to do in Manzanillo, Costa Rica
The calm waters and small gradient beach make Manzanillo the perfect place for swimming and playing in the ocean. What makes it even more perfect is that the beach is close to 4km long, so you can easily find your own secluded spot to enjoy the sun and water.
Snorkeling and scuba diving in Manzanillo
More than 5 square kilometers (2 square miles) of protected coral reef await snorkeling and scuba diving enthusiasts. Remember to hire a local guide and/or ask for local advice in order to make sure that you and the fragile coral reefs are safe from each other.
Turtle nesting tours in Manzanillo
The nesting season of the leatherback turtle is from February to May. You must be accompanied by a local guide to attend this natural wonder.
There are several hiking trails between Punta Uva, the north end of the Wildlife Refuge, and Gandoca, the south end. Between Punta Uva and Manzanillo, you can hike the 4km (1.5mi) long beach.
The most popular hike starts in town and goes south passing by Punta Manzanillo all the way down to Punta Mona, where you will reach a privately owned Permaculture Center that offers lodging, volunteering and day tours (reservations must be made). This hike is 9km (3.5mi) long, but a lot of people only hike the first kilometer to Punta Manzanillo.
Biking in Manzanillo
Probably the most popular activity in the south Caribbean of Costa Rica is to hop from beach to beach starting in Cahuita all the way to Manzanillo. The best way to do it is to bike the 13+km (5mi) long distance between the Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. In Manzanillo, it is hard to find places that will rent you a bike, but in Puerto Viejo, you will find several bike-rental places in addition to motorcycles for rent.
Weather Manzanillo, Costa Rica
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