Manuel Antonio is probably the most popular tourist destination in Costa Rica, but it is about a three and a half hour drive to the city from San Jose, where the international airport is located. There are several options of how to get to Manuel Antonio from San Jose, and each way is a totally different tourist experience.
The first way to get to Manuel Antonio is to take a short flight from the San Jose airport. High end tourists who want to frequent the spas and four star hotels of Manuel Antonio will probably prefer this mode of travel. The flight from San Jose is only about 20 minutes long, and flights several times each day. However, the planes are very small, which causes anxiety for certain types of travelers, and the amount of luggage you can take is sometimes limited. Once you get to the airport in the city Quepos, it is only a short cab ride to Manuel Antonio. There are two airlines that make the trip from San Jose to Quepos and back, and those airlines are Sansa Airlines and Grupo Taca. The cost is between $50.00 and $75.00 one way.
People such as backpackers who really want to experience Costa Rican culture will probably want to take the bus. It is incredibly cheap (less than ten dollars per person, round trip), and the express buses do not take any longer than if you drove. There is a Coca Cola bus terminal in San Jose that goes straight to Manuel Antonio in three and a half hours. The drive is very scenic and enjoyable. There is no need to make a reservation, and the express bus leaves three times a day. The buses are large and comfortable Mercedes buses. Most of the time anyways.
It is a good idea to rent a car if you like to explore on you own a lot. When you get recommendations from a local that the surfing is good in Jaco, for instance, you can just hop in your car and go. Driving is generally not difficult in Costa Rica, although you will immediately notice that roads are not marked as well as they are in other countries such as the United States.
It is a good idea to get a car with 4 wheel drive. You can rent economy hatchback cars, but the road to Quepos gets very bumpy, and can make you carsick on such a long ride. There are often deep ruts in the road, and you have to watch out for rainforest wildlife crossing the roads, especially at night. But the drive is incredibly scenic, and there are fun small restaraunts and rainforest lookouts that you might want to stop at.
The drive to Manuel Antonio is actually quite easy, and you only have to make a few turns. The hardest part is getting out of the airport and onto Highway 1. When you leave the airport, you will be on Highway 1 headed west. Exit when you see the sign that says “to Alajuela.” This road will actually loop around back towards the airport. Then the road will split; one sign will say “San Ramon” and the other will say “Alajuela”. This time, you must take the San Ramon exit, which is to the left hand side of the freeway. Then, after you you get on Highway 1, the rest of the trip is very easy. Exit at the sign for Atenas, then keep going until you get to Orotina. Finally, exit when you see the signs for Jaco, and you will not have to make any more turns until you get to Manuel Antonio.