Last updated on September 24th, 2023
Costa Rica, renowned for its lush landscapes, is home to numerous national parks that showcase the country’s dedication to conservation.
Among these treasures is the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. It’s a must-visit for every type of traveler, whether they are solo adventurers, families, wildlife aficionados, or hiking enthusiasts.
Situated in Manzanillo, Limón, on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, this refuge is a perennial family favorite, drawing us back year after year.
When discussing the Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge, it is important to mention that this refuge was established in 1985.
It spans 3,833 hectares (9,471 acres) of land and 4,436 hectares (10,961 acres) of marine territory on the Caribbean coast, near the Panamanian border.
However, most visitors only explore the Manzanillo sector, renowned for its picturesque Manzanillo Point, white-sand beaches, and excellent hiking opportunities.
Additionally, the Gandoca sector can be accessed from Puerto Viejo de Limón but is not as frequently visited as the Manzanillo sector.
Geography and Climate
The Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge plays a crucial role in preserving the lowlands of Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean region and protecting birds like the Green Macaw.
The refuge extends between the Rio Cocles and the Rio Sixaola, with the latter marking the border with Panama.
A prominent feature here is the stunning coral reef that stretches from Punta Uva to Manzanillo, attracting divers from around the world.
This refuge stands out as one of the most visually appealing areas in Costa Rica.
Weather in the region can vary, but the best months to visit the Limón area are from August through October. While the Pacific side experiences rain during these months, the Caribbean side enjoys its best weather.
However, during other months, the weather can be unpredictable. Days might start warm and humid but could end with afternoon rains or even continue raining throughout the night.
Wildlife and Biodiversity
The South Caribbean offers the opportunity to observe various mammals, birds, and reptiles.
Additionally, the coral reefs in this region provide a chance to encounter vibrant fish species, including the queen angelfish and blue parrotfish.
The region, characterized by lowlands and hills that do not exceed 115 meters (377 feet) in elevation, is covered by tropical rainforests, which make up approximately 60% of the area, with the remainder consisting of pasture and farmland.
To the south, Manzanillo Point and Mona Point host a vast 400-hectare (988-acre) swamp teeming with aquatic birds.
In the refuge’s southeastern area, you can find the mouth of the Gandoca River, which is home to an extensive mangrove swamp dominated by red mangroves.
Schedule, Parking & Entrace fee
The Manzanillo Sector is accessible daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
While there’s no official entry fee, visitors have the option to make a voluntary donation at Manzanillo. This contribution supports the park’s administration.
Upon arriving at the Manzanillo sector, you may not find formal parking. However, local attendants often assist with parking and ensure the safety of vehicles. They typically request a fee of around 2,000 colones (approximately $4 US).
Things to do in Gandoca Manzanillo
The park offers an array of trails suitable for both casual strolls and longer treks.
For a richer experience, consider hiring a local guide. This allows visitors to gain insights into the refuge’s heritage, observe local wildlife, and immerse themselves in its diverse ecosystem.
For those dreaming of a tranquil beach day, especially with children, this park is a top choice, as is the nearby Playa Chiquita. A standout feature of these beaches is the tide pools.
These natural pockets of water are perfect for all ages, from toddlers to adults.
During a recent family visit, we enjoyed exploring these tide pools and taking a short hike to the Manzanillo viewpoint.
Bringing along snorkeling gear or even simple swimming goggles can enhance the experience, allowing you to observe the tiny fish within the coral reef.
The path doesn’t end at the viewpoint; it continues to reveal untouched beaches and even extends into a challenging 12 km (8 mi) route to the Punta Mona/Gandoca sector.
For adventure enthusiasts, here’s a curated list of other thrilling activities to explore:
Bird watching and wildlife photography are two fun activities that can be enjoyed both inside and outside the wildlife refuge.
Wherever you go in the area, you might have the chance to spot toucans, macaws, woodpeckers, tanagers, or other types of birds.
Even while you are looking for birds, you may also encounter other animals like monkeys, sloths, or reptiles.
For wildlife photographers, we definitely recommend visiting the Ara Manzanillo project, which is a great spot for observing and photographing the Green Macaw.
Alternatively, you can experience a diverse abundance of animals at Cahuita National Park.
Snorkeling and Surf
There are various tour operators in the area that offer different tours for snorkeling, surfing, and various other activities. However, be sure to use a trusted tour operator.
Tours like these can be enjoyed in the Manzanillo area, Puerto Viejo, or even in Cahuita.
Hiking is definitely one of our favorite activities.
We have visited Manzanillo several times and have thoroughly enjoyed the trails around the Manzanillo sector.
However, as far as we know, there is a trail that can take you from the Manzanillo sector to the Gandoca Sector.
This trail is apparently well-marked and covers a distance of 12 km (8 miles) one way, starting from the Manzanillo sector, crossing through Punta Mona, and ending at Gandoca.
Although we personally haven’t done it, you can check the app called Wikiloc, which is perfect for finding trails in Costa Rica and around the world. You will notice that several people have registered this hike on the app, making it easier for you to track and follow.
In addition to this hike, we highly recommend other options such as hiking to the Punta Uva viewpoint or hiking from Cahuita to Puerto Vargas.
There are certainly several options for hiking enthusiasts.
We took a kayaking tour with a local guide at Quebrada Ernesto.
However, we’ve noticed that other locals offer kayaking tours at the entrance of the Manzanillo sector, or people even kayak at the larger Gandoca lagoon.
No matter where you go kayaking, it’s definitely a great way to spot animals.
Tip: If you don’t want to do a guided kayak tour, you can rent a kayak at Sloth Point in Punta Uva.
Getting There and Around
By Car Rental: Getting to Manzanillo by car from Puerto Viejo could take around 20 minutes, covering approximately 13 km (8.2 miles).
A 4WD vehicle is not necessary since the main route is completely paved. However, it’s important to drive carefully because there are lots of pedestrians and cyclists, so please take your time.
If you are considering renting a car and driving in Puerto Viejo, you can check for discounts with Adobe Rent a Car, which is one of our trusted providers and actually has an office in the center of Puerto Viejo.
Note: There are no gas stations in Puerto Viejo or Manzanillo. However, about 5 km before Puerto Viejo, you can find a gas station in Hone Creek.
By Bus: Transportes MEPE is the local bus company, so you can visit their website for more information.
By Bike: Many locals and foreigners prefer to rent bikes for transportation around Puerto Viejo, Manzanillo, and the surrounding beaches. Hotels rent their own bicycles, or you can find other options in the area. Note that almost all the bikes have no gears and pedal brakes. Make sure you always lock your bike. Prices are very reasonable, generally ranging from $5 to $10 per day for basic bikes.
By Taxi and Tuk Tuks: Taxis (red-colored cars) are the official cabs around the country; however, you can find alternative options such as Uber and unmarked taxis. Puerto Viejo and the surrounding areas are no exception. It’s quite common to see tuk-tuks as another transportation option.
By Scooter or Motorcycle: There are places where you can rent small motorcycles like the Honda Navi or scooters, so these are definitely another option.
Staying in Gandoca Manzanillo
As Manzanillo village is located at the end of the road, this little town remains a vibrant outpost of Afro-Caribbean culture and has also remained pristine, thanks to the establishment of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge in 1985.
This refuge includes the village and imposes strict regulations on regional development.However, lodging options vary and include hotels, vacation rentals like Airbnb, and more. Some of the options are:
- Almonds and Corals
- Cabinas Yamann
- Colores Seafront
- El Colibri Lodge
- Faith Glamping Dome
Practical Tips and Recommendations
Definitely, the Caribbean is not for everyone, as there are no international chain restaurants, luxury resorts with poolside drinks, and golf courses.
So, make sure you have the right vibe. This is the most important tip for visiting the South Caribbean area. Instead, you can hear reggae music playing around the town and even while you are sitting at the beach.
Now, here are some important recommendations:
- Don’t be a victim of crime: Some years ago, locals talked about the Caribbean being dangerous and having a lot of crime. However, things have changed over the last few years, and even though crime can happen anywhere in Costa Rica, the reality is that taking safety precautions is important anywhere in the country. This includes taking care of your belongings, staying in groups if possible, or having the sense that locals could be friendly but not necessarily trustworthy if you don’t know them well.
- Water Safety: Beaches can be tricky, so ask locals or the hotel about the conditions of the ocean. Not all beaches are patrolled by lifeguards.
- Travel Insurance: In case of any accident, make sure to have travel medical coverage.
- Take care of tropical diseases, like Dengue fever (Use mosquito repellent).
- Drinkable Water: Ask the hotel receptionist or vacation rental owner if the water is drinkable. Otherwise, we recommend buying a 5L bottle of water at the supermarket
Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is a must-add to your Costa Rican bucket list! With kid-friendly tide pools and serene, uncrowded beaches, it’s the perfect spot to create those unforgettable family memories.
And the fun doesn’t stop there! Nearby locales like Puerto Viejo and Cahuita are buzzing with adventures that the whole family will adore.
Need some guidance? Dive into our detailed guides. And hey, if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed about kickstarting your Costa Rican journey, give us a shout! We’re here to help craft the perfect itinerary – and guess what? It’s on the house. Let’s make those family vacation dreams come true! 🌊🌳🦜🏖️👣