Puntarenas, Costa Rica, a small Pacific-coast city about 50 mi/80 km west of San Jose, is making a comeback as a port and resort town. The toll highway between San Jose and Puntarenas cuts the journey to less than one hour, but for foreign tourists it remains mainly a place to pass through en route to or from the Nicoya Peninsula.
Built at the tip of a long, narrow peninsula, Puntarenas (Spanish for "sandy point") is a good base from which to visit nearby national parks or the towns of Quepos or Jaco because of its central location on the west coast. Puntarenas is also the best place to catch ferries to the Nicoya Peninsula or to take day cruises to nearby islands. The beach can get crowded on holiday weekends, when Ticos from San Jose flock to it. ("Ticos" is a term Costa Ricans apply to themselves and anything Costa Rican.)
Other than some spectacular sunsets, the city itself previously didn't have much to offer. That is changing: The once-polluted Puntarenas beach has been cleaned up and refurbished with sand. Some beaches in the area have been awarded "Blue Flag" status, ranking them among the most ecological beaches in the country. An aquarium and the pier area, where large cruise ships dock, are pleasant places to stroll.
Restaurants and shops line the Malecon, a pedestrian walkway that runs along the waterfront north of town. Ticos on weekend vacations mingle with tourists there. Take an hour or so to explore the city—it's a good place to shop for supplies and souvenirs, have coffee and take photos. Note, however, that the climate is usually hot and muggy.
Puntarenas is built at the end of a needle-thin, 5-mi-/8-km-long peninsula that juts west into the Gulf of Nicoya. The Gulf of Nicoya to the south and calm estuarine water to the north separate the spit from vast mangrove forests. At its narrowest, to the east, the peninsula is no more than 300 ft/93 m wide. It gradually widens westward before tapering to a rounded tip.
The town occupies the peninsula's widest point and stretches for 3 mi/5 km, but nowhere is more than five blocks wide. The breeze-swept Malecon, the broad main boulevard, runs along the southern shorefront and is lined with many of the city's best restaurants and hotels—most of which are located toward the west end. The bus terminal is at the eastern end of the Malecon. Old fishing wharves (many quite derelict) line much of the northern shore, where the ferries to the Nicoya Peninsula are located toward the western end.
Although many believe that the southern Nicoya Peninsula is part of Puntarenas Province, it is actually part of Guanacaste Province. The three southern cantons (counties) of the peninsula have been assigned to Puntarenas Province for administrative purposes. This may lead to confusion about what is actually the city of Puntarenas and the Puntarenas Province.
The slender peninsula with a sheltered harbor on its north side provided an advantageous anchorage for Spanish ships exploring the New World, and the first settlement at Puntarenas was built in 1522. The port remained tiny for centuries but was given a major boost in the late 18th century with the growth of coffee's popularity in Europe.
At the time, Costa Rica lacked a viable path eastward to the Caribbean coast, and Puntarenas was quickly able to assert its role as the prime port for exportation of coffee, which was brought from the highlands by convoys of mules. Electric streetcars were installed, and the city enjoyed a brief period of prosperity.
However, ships sailed from Puntarenas to Europe via Cape Horn—a dangerous journey—and the completion of the Atlantic Railroad in 1890 put an end to the city's short-lived importance. Life revived in the 1920s when a Pacific railroad connected San Jose to Puntarenas, which soon became a popular beach resort for the middle classes. The town also developed a large fishing and shrimping fleet, and the industry remains important.
Puntarenas is mostly a down-at-heels port town, although city officials make a valiant effort to spruce things up. Caution should be used when wandering around obviously dilapidated and rough areas, where drunks abound.
Sightseeing is extremely limited in town. The Puntarenas City Historical Museum, housed in the former city jail, has an interesting display related to city history and pre-Columbian cultures, and the old stone church to the rear is intriguing. More rewarding is to walk the Paseo de los Turistas, the seafront promenade lined with souvenir stalls and other vendors. The Parque Marino del Pacifico is also there. However, the city can be explored in three hours.
Puntarenas has relatively little nightlife. Several bars line Paseo de los Turistas. Most feature karaoke and large-screen TVs and draw local youth. Avoid the sleazy bars in the center of town, where drunks abound.
The real action is in Jaco, with all the splendor of the surfer culture. A lot of bars, many right on the beach, provide a full range of meals, drinks, music, dancing and fun.
The road from Quepos to Manuel Antonio offers more refined nightlife with a lot of excellent restaurants, some with spectacular ocean views. There are both individual establishments and restaurants that are part of the many good hotels in the area.
Puntarenas has only a handful of restaurants that can be recommended. Basic budget meals can be had at sodas
(open-air snack counters) near the Central Market (Avenida 3, Calle 2) and along Paseo de los Turistas. Good seafood dishes are to be had at many restaurants—try corvina al ajillo
(sea bass with garlic).
Outside of the city itself are great dining experiences to be enjoyed throughout Puntarenas Province, especially at resorts and hotels around Jaco and Quepos.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = more than US$20.
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