Five kilometers (3 miles) long but only five blocks wide at its widest, this sultry port town, 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of San José, is built on a long narrow spit—Puntarenas means “Sandy Point”—running west from the suburb of Cocal and backed to the north by a mangrove estuary; to the south are the Golfo de Nicoya and a beach cluttered with driftwood. Puntarenas has long been favored by Josefinos seeking R&R. The old wharves on the estuary side feature decrepit fishing boats leaning against ramshackle piers popular with pelicans.

Oxcarts laden with coffee made the lumbering descent to Puntarenas in convoys; the beans were shipped from here via Cape Horn to Europe.The peninsula was colonized by the Spaniards as early as 1522. The early port grew to prominence and was declared a free port in 1847, a year after completion of an oxcart road from the Meseta Central. Oxcarts laden with coffee made the lumbering descent to Puntarenas in convoys; the beans were shipped from here via Cape Horn to Europe. It remained the country’s main port until the Atlantic Railroad to Limón, on the Caribbean coast, was completed in 1890 (the railroad between San José and Puntarenas would not be completed for another 20 years). Earlier this century, Puntarenas also developed a large conch-pearl fleet. Some 80 percent of Porteños, as the inhabitants of Puntarenas are called, still make their living from the sea.

Cruise ship in Puntarenas. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Cruise ship in Puntarenas. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

The town’s main usefulness is as the departure point for day cruises to islands in the Golfo de Nicoya and for the ferries to Playa Naranjo and Paquera, on the Nicoya Peninsula. Cruise ships berth at the terminal opposite Calle Central.

Sights in Puntarenas

The tiny Catedral de Puntarenas (Ave. Central, Calles 5/7), built in 1902, abuts the renovated Antigua Comandancia de la Plaza, a fortress-style building complete with tiny battlements and bars on its windows. It once served as a barracks and a city jail. Today it houses the refurbished Museo Histórico Marino (tel. 506/2661-0387, 9:45am-noon and 1pm-5:15pm Tues.-Sun., free), a history museum that has exhibits on city life from the pre-Columbian and coffee eras. Adjacent is the Casa de la Cultura (tel. 506/2661-1394, 10am-4pm Mon.-Fri., free), with an art gallery that doubles as a venue for literary, musical, and artistic events.

Catedral de Puntarenas. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Catedral de Puntarenas. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Everything of importance seems to happen along the Paseo de los Turistas, a boulevard paralleling the Golfo de Nicoya and abuzz with vendors, beachcombers, and locals flirting and trying to keep cool in the water. The boulevard’s beachfront park is studded with contemporary statues.

On the north side of the peninsula, the sheltered gulf shore—the estuary—is lined with fishing vessels in various states of decrepitude. Roseate spoonbills, storks, and other birds pick among the shallows.

Entertainment and Events

Every mid-July the city honors Carmen, Virgin of the Sea, in the annual Festival Perla del Pacífico (Sea Festival), a boating regatta with boats decorated in colorful flags and banners. The local Chinese community contributes dragon boats. In summer, concerts and plays are put on at the Casa de la Cultura.

A half-dozen bars along Paseo de los Turistas offers something for everyone, from karaoke to salsa. Otherwise, the local bars are overwhelmingly rough (guard against pickpockets). There’s a casino in the Doubletree Resort by Hilton Puntarenas, and Casino Calypso Platinum is at the Hotel Yadran (Paseo de las Turistas, Calle 35).

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.