Last Updated: Apr 15, 2012
Summary: Lively port town popular among locals on weekends; gateway to Nicoya Peninsula beaches of Montezuma and Mal Pais.
Landscape: Beaches, City
Attractions: Tortuga Island
Activities: Adventure Tours, Aerial Tram, Sport Fishing
Caters to: Budget Travelers, Independent Travelers
Brilliant sunsets, fresh seafood, charming architecture, and an oceanfront boardwalk typify Puntarenas, a small city on the Pacific coast. A recent makeover has turned this lackluster port town into a favorite weekend getaway, especially among Central Valley residents seeking fun in the sun.
Location: 69 miles west of San Jose
Average Temperature: 71-96°F
Altitude: Sea level
Puntarenas is the capital of Puntarenas Province and was once the primary commercial port for Costa Rica. The nearby town of Caldera now serves as the Pacific’s primary port and Puntarenas’ docks have exchanged cargo ships for commercial cruise liners and small fishing vessels. The flourishing seaside town is also a gateway to Nicoya Peninsula beaches of Montezuma and Mal Pais. Visitors can enjoy a walk down the breezy boardwalk while waiting for the next ferry to the Nicoya Peninsula.
The Puntarenas boardwalk, named the Paseo de los Turistas, is a mile-long beachfront stretch ideal for walking, jogging, or just relaxing on a bench. Here, vendors sell some of the country’s best seafood, including ceviche, a popular dish made with fish, cilantro and lime juice. After a delicious meal, all visitors must try a Churchill, the town’s famous snow cone dessert made with crushed ice, syrup and sweetened condensed milk, often topped with ice cream. Sunsets on the boardwalk are lovely with terrific views across the Gulf of Nicoya.
Whimsical buildings abound in Puntarenas, including the Gothic revival cathedral and the Casa de la Cultura, an old jail that now serves as the center for local cultural exhibitions. The downtown area has many 19th century gingerbread-style houses, and abandoned gardens overflowing with tropical plants and inlaid with colorful tiles.
Lively traditions take center stage in Puntarenas: the city hosts several annual festivals, the biggest of which is Carnival, held every February. The ten-day party features live music, a beauty pageant, plenty of dancing, and the country’s best street food. In July, residents flock to the Virgin of the Sea festival, a colorful fishing-boat regatta where fishermen honor the Virgin Mary and pray for another safe year at sea.
Downtown Puntarenas is brimming with services, amenities and places to stay. There are several Internet cafes and banks close to central park. A hospital is located one block from the beach; WiFi access is available in some hotels and restaurants.
A popular shore excursion, the Adventure Park offers adrenaline-fueled activities including an 11-waterfall canopy tour, high ropes course, and an ATV tour. For a more laid-back adventure, try the park’s horseback rides or cloud forest tour. Trained guides lead all tours, and will point out camouflaged wildlife and give insight into Costa Rica’s intense biodiversity. Kid-friendly activities include a low-ropes course and a “bungee” trampoline.
Hours: 9 a.m. until all tours finish; night tours available (Reservations Recommended)
La Casa de la Cultura
Once the Puntarenas jail, this fortress-like building has been refurbished into the local cultural center. It hosts regular art and photography exhibits, seasonal cultural events, and live performances. Housed in the same building, the Historical Marine Museum features exhibits on Puntarenas’ seafaring history.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Monday-Friday
Pacific Marine Park
Located on the eastern end of town, this large park features 22 aquariums that provide insight into local marine life. A large shark tank is a fan favorite.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday-Sunday
Arrange a day trip to Isla Tortuga, or Turtle Island, famous for its white-sand beaches and crystalline waters. A full-day tour from Puntarenas includes roundtrip boat or catamaran transportation, bilingual guide, snorkeling or scuba diving, beverages and a BBQ lunch on the beach. Dolphins, turtles and whales are sometimes spotted along the way.
Take in the panoramic vistas on an open-air gondola while gently ascending through the rainforest canopy. At the Rainforest Aerial Tram Pacific, situated south of Puntarenas on the outskirts of Jaco, visitors can choose from several combo-tours that include a tram ride plus a canopy tour, or a stroll through the park’s serpentarium and heliconia flower garden.
Bird and Wildlife Watching
Day trips to Carara National Park, one of only two areas in Costa Rica where scarlet macaws are endemic, are highly recommended. Look out for sloths, agoutis, ocelots, toucans and white-faced monkeys as well. Marking the northern border of the park, the Tarcoles River boasts one of the planet’s largest populations of American crocodiles.
There are five adrenaline-pumping canopy tours in the Puntarenas area, each offering dramatic views and thrilling rides. Excursions can include combinations of an aerial tram ride, zip-lines, suspension bridges, rappel lines and Tarzan swings. Soar through the rainforest at breakneck speeds; the longest zip-line in the area spans 2,400 feet and towers 130 feet above the ground.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Snorkeling and scuba diving trips leave Puntarenas daily, headed for Turtle Island and Herradura Bay, home to the renowned dive site known as The Garden. Divers are likely to encounter graceful marine creatures like sea turtles, spotted eagle rays and white tip reef sharks. Snorkelers will enjoy the clear waters and better visibility off Turtle Island. Full or half-day packages for either sport can be arranged.
The warm waters off the Central Pacific coast offer phenomenal sport fishing year-round. Charters from Caldera and Jaco offer pick-up in Puntarenas. Offshore fishing is typically done 15-30 miles out, and anglers regularly pull in sailfish, marlin, mahi mahi, wahoo and tuna. Inshore fishing is done near reefs, river mouths and estuaries where roosterfish, snapper, mackerel and snook are common. Single and multi-day packages are available to suit just about any budget.
There are several surf shops in and around Puntarenas, where you can gear up and rent a surfboard. The best breaks are had at Boca Barranca, a beach seven miles south of Puntarenas and home to the third-longest left break in the world.
Bus: Public buses depart from San Jose for Puntarenas at the crossroads of Avenida 12 and Calle 16. The two and a half hour journey costs $4.50 and buses leave hourly from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (Empresarios Unidos: 2222-8231, 2222-9840, 2661-3138). From Puntarenas, buses depart hourly for San Jose at Avenida 4 and Calle 2 from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Car: Drivers can take the Caldera Highway from San Jose to the central Pacific coast. The new highway allows travel between La Sabana (the west side of San Jose) to Puntarenas in less than an hour. It is a tolled road, so plan to spend around $3 each way at tollbooths stationed along the way.
Ferry: A daily ferry leaves Paquera, a small town on the Nicoya Peninsula, for Puntarenas at 6, 9, and 11 a.m. and 2, 5, and 8 p.m. The ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera runs at 5, 9 and 11 a.m. and 2, 5, and 8 p.m. (Ferry: Naviera Tambor tel. 2661-2084)
Puntarenas Travel Guide
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