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Five kilometers long but only five blocks wide at its widest, this sultry port town, 120 kilometers 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 Gulf of Nicoya and a beach cluttered with driftwood.
Puntarenas has long been favored by Josefinos seeking R and R. The old wharves on the estuary side feature decrepit fishing boats leaning against ramshackle piers popular with pelicans.
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 ships berth at the terminal opposite Calle Central.
The tiny Catedral de Puntarenas (Avenida 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 city jail. Today it houses the refurbished Museo Histórico Marino (tel. 506/2661-0387, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free), a marine history museum that also has exhibits on city life from the pre-Columbian and coffee eras.
Adjacent is the Casa de la Cultura (tel. 506/2661-1394, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free), with an art gallery that doubles as a venue for literary, musical, and artistic events.
Everything of import seems to happen along the Paseo de los Turistas, a boulevard paralleling the Gulf of Nicoya and abuzz with vendors, beachcombers, and locals flirting and trying to keep cool in the waters. The boulevard’s beachfront park is studded with contemporary statues.
The Parque Marino del Pacífico (tel. 506/2661-5272, www.parquemarino.org, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sun., $10 adults, $4 children) occupies the old railway station, 300 meters east of the cruise terminal. Its three hectares of aquariums display a spectrum of marinelife, including motley outdoor tanks with a few sharks, marine turtles, and crocodiles. The indoor aquarium is worth the money, however, if you’re killing time. Call in at The Costa Rica Cashew Co. (Paseo, Calle Central), a delightful nuts, licorice, and crafts shop by the cruise dock.
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 series of bars along Paseo de los Turistas caters to the locals. Caribbean Breeze (Calle 23) has karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights, and “nostalgia” music on Wednesdays at its colorful bar with TV. Kimbo’s (Calles 7/9) has karaoke on Thursdays, plus a large-screen TV. Otherwise, the local bars are overwhelmingly raffish (guard against pickpockets). There’s a casino in the Doubletree Resort by Hilton Puntarenas.
Getting to Puntarenas
Empresarios Unidos (in San José tel. 506/2222-8231, in Puntarenas tel. 506/2661-3138) buses depart San José from Calle 16, Avenidas 10/12, every hour 6 a.m.–7 p.m. daily ($3). Buses also depart for Puntarenas from Monteverde (tel. 506/2645-5159) at 4:30 a.m., 6 a.m., and 3 p.m. and Liberia (tel. 506/2663-1752, 5 a.m.–3:30 p.m.) eight times daily.
Return buses depart the Puntarenas bus station (Calle 2, Paseo de los Turistas) for San José 4 a.m.–7 p.m.; for Monteverde 7:50 a.m., 1:50 p.m., and 2:15 p.m.; and Liberia 4:50 a.m.–8:30 p.m. daily.
Interbus (tel. 506/2283-5573, www.interbusonline.com) operates minibus shuttles from San José ($30) and popular tourist destinations in Nicoya and Guanacaste.
Car-and-passenger ferries for the Nicoya Peninsula leave the Coonatramar ferry terminal (Avenida 3, Calles 33/35, tel. 506/2661-9011, www.coonatramar.com, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily). Buses marked Ferry operate along Avenida Central to the terminal ($2).
The Costa Rica Yacht Club and Marina (tel. 506/2661-0784, www.costaricayachtclub.com) has facilities for yachters.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition