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Mention the name “Costa Rica” to seasoned travelers, and they will likely conjure images of sun-soaked Guanacaste or perhaps Manuel Antonio National Park. But there’s a vibrant stretch of Pacific coastline that deserves just as much admiration: Puntarenas, the nation’s largest province, which hugs much of the West Coast and borders Guanacaste province on the north and the nation of Panama on the south.
During a May visit following Expotur, Costa Rica’s annual tourism conference, I explored a variety of noteworthy activities and attractions in the northernmost part of the province, which includes a wide swath of the Nicoya peninsula and the area around the provincial capital (also called Puntarenas).
Most travelers probably don’t realize that legendary Manuel Antonio National Park is located in Puntarenas province. But the region I visited is even farther north, where I found a land filled with adventure and beauty — including uncrowded wildlife reserves, lovely hotels that offer easy access to nature-based activities and miles of unspoiled beaches far from giant all-inclusive resorts.
The town of Puntarenas — an easy drive of less than two hours from San Jose — is a logical hub for the region. Known by travelers mostly for its role as a cruise port, this picturesque provincial capital is worth exploring. In fact, last year, an organization called Puerto Puede began distributing self-guided walking tour maps to arriving cruise passengers. The efforts were to encourage them to spend more time there, instead of joining guided tours to farther-flung sites in Costa Rica.
The waterfront promenade is a pleasure to stroll, and visitors to Puntarenas can also stop at the tiny Sacred Heart Cathedral, which dates to 1902; Casa de la Cultura, a former jail that now hosts art exhibits and live theater; and Parque Marino del Pacifico, which is billed as Costa Rica’s only aquarium, where rescued and injured marine life are among the draws.
Also focused on rescuing and preserving local wildlife is Natuwa Wildlife Sanctuary, a shelter where colorful birds as well as tapirs, spider monkeys, marmosets and jaguars are some of the residents. And at Curu Wildlife Refuge, visitors can spot everything from orange-fronted parakeets and howler monkeys to crocodiles.
Beach lovers might want to sign up with a local tour operator such as Pura Vida Expeditions, which offers daytrips to Isla Tortuga, an island that’s home to a pristine beach, with plenty of time for snorkeling, jet skiing and other water-based activities.
Accommodations around northern Puntarenas are varied, with several unique options. Vacationers looking for modern comforts in the capital town should consider Puerto Azul Boutique Resort & Marina, a well-maintained property with two swimming pools and wonderful tower suites with multiple bedrooms and balconies that offer spectacular views. Puerto Azul’s on-site marina, meanwhile, is a perfect place to join scenic boat rides into the nearby mangroves.
Located on the southern part of the Nicoya peninsula is Tambor Tropical, a nature-focused, adults-only oasis with wood villas set on verdant grounds. The property, which has a swimming pool and an excellent on-site restaurant — offers packages that focus on a variety of specific interests, including birding, yoga, honeymooning and stand-up paddleboarding.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Tambor Tropical Beach Resort (@tambortropical) on Sep 1, 2017 at 7:58am PDT
A post shared by Tambor Tropical Beach Resort (@tambortropical) on Sep 1, 2017 at 7:58am PDT
Another unique hotel experience is offered at Isla Chiquita, which is advertised as the first and only island “glamping” experience in Costa Rica. Set on a small scenic beach, the property has no air conditioning or televisions, but guests won’t want for much else. The on-site restaurant serves tasty fresh seafood and the 15 handsomely appointed tents are lined with teak wood, furnished with large beds and have minibars. A more indulgent accommodation option debuted this year, when Isla Chiquita introduced the Sunset Master Suite, a thatch-roofed accommodation that sits at the top of a hill with commanding views of the water. The expansive suite has a large deck with open-air seating area as well as a hot tub.
With so many enticing ways to experience the northern part of Puntarenas province, it would certainly take several visits to get to know this region better — and that would be an enjoyable challenge.
The DetailsCosta Rica Tourism Boardwww.visitcostarica.com/en
Curu Wildlife Refugewww.curuwildliferefuge.com
Puerto Azul Boutique Resort & Marinawww.puertoazulboutiqueresort.com
Pura Vida Expeditionswww.puravidaexpeditionscr.com