Forbes magazine, the respected business biweekly, recently selected Costa Rica‘s Manuel Antonio National Park as one of the world’s most beautiful protected areas. With 7000 of the planet’s prettiest spots to choose from, it must have been tough to whittle the list down to only a dozen.
Thus, Forbes hired consultants from both sides of the market, adventure travel expert Matt Villano, and corporate luxury travel specialist Jack Ezon, owner of Ovation Vacations. Together, they’ve compiled a lavish list of natural wonders.
If these parks were selected, in part, to cater to the upscale tastes of Forbes’ readership, Manuel Antonio is certainly Central America’s best choice. While budget travelers can make the best of it at a selection of small hostels, the impossibly scenic 7km (4mi) road connecting the service town of Quepos to the park is lined with some of Costa Rica’s—and Central America’s—finest upscale properties, almost all completely committed to ecotourism and environmental preservation.
These five-star hotels are unsurprisingly accompanied by excellent restaurants, gorgeous art galleries, and top-tier tour operators offering every adventure you’d expect in the Costa Rican rainforest. Best of all, Manuel Antonio less than three hours from San José and the international airport, with regular bus and private shuttle service from destinations all over the country.
Of course, spectacular Manuel Antonio, both the smallest (683 hectares/1688 acres) and youngest park on the list, could easily win this contest on looks alone. Four pristine beaches of unparalleled beauty are separated by a stunning headland called “The Cathedral,” and protected by a chain of islands once held sacred by the Quepos people. The lush rainforest is stunning, and park management almost perfection; these delightful trails and white-sand shores are Costa Rica’s most visited for a reason.
Teeming with wildlife, Manuel Antonio boasts biodiversity—two kinds of sloths, four sorts of monkeys, 270 species of birds—on par with much larger Osa Peninsula to the south. This is primarily because area landowners, many of them among Central America’s finest hotel properties, are committed to creating a mixed-use wildlife corridor where the toucans, parrots, anteaters, butterflies, and travelers can run free.
Costa Rica’s favorite park finds itself in impressive company. Conservation areas including Torres del Paine, in Chile’s Patagonia; the mighty Serengeti in Tanzania, and beautiful Banff National Park in Canada are all destinations found on many a bucket list.
If all this has a downside, it is the park’s popularity. Admission is limited, so during high season (December through April), make hotel reservations well in advance and be sure to arrive at the park early, or be prepared to spend part of the day on one of the other (almost as pretty) beaches outside. Better yet, come during rainy season, when room rates drop and you can bargain with the nature guides (highly recommended) waiting around at the entrance. Budget travelers, even if they’ve secured a room somewhere inexpensive, should be prepared to splurge on food and drink, or self-cater at the grocery store in Quepos.