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The Central Pacific's largest city, Puntarenas sits on a long, narrow peninsula in the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. For years, it was the country's principal port, and though Puntarenas handles big cruise ships, a large fishing fleet still anchors in the estuary behind town. Being the country's most important fishing port, Puntarenas is the perfect place to enjoy fresh seafood. Though the water is murky, and the beach may seem a bit urban, it's a lively town on weekends, when people from San José fill its waterfront restaurants and bars. A series of open-air cafes that line the beach are the perfect place to head for dessert, or refreshments, since they specialize in ice cream and fresh fruit drinks.

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Categories: Central America > Costa Rica > Puntarenas


Puntarenas is a small city on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, located about 50 miles west of San Jose. It’s on a long and narrow peninsula in the Gulf of Nicoya. It's a very important tourism region in Costa Rica, as it’s home to Caldera, one of Costa Rica’s main ports. Because it has a busy port, travelers often use Puntarenas as a stopping point for another destination like Monteverde to the north or the Nicoya Peninsula just west across the Gulf of Nicoya. But Puntarenas has features of its own that make it worthy of a visit.

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The peninsula has 264 miles of coastline full of islands, inlets and beaches that attract tourists and surfers. Playa Puntarenas, a large, long beach on the southern coast, used to be quite polluted and not easy on the eyes, but the city has put in large efforts to clean it up and refurbish it with new sand. Playa Hermosa is considered one of Costa Rica’s best surfing havens for professional surfers both national and international. Hundreds of surfers travel to Playa Hermosa in Puntarenas every year for the Quicksilver Surf Championships.

The Paseo de los Turistas is a long walking path that follows the southern coast and has shops, street vendors and bars to visit. On the weekends, vacationing Costa Ricans from San Jose will mingle with travelers while visiting the shops as well.

The Parque Marino del Pacifico is an aquarium where visitors can see 50 species of marine and coastal animals like sea turtles, tortoises, pelicans and sharks. It also has a marine animal rehabilitation center that helps rescue and rehabilitate injured marine animals. The beach around the park boasts a Blue Flag award, which recognizes the organization’s efforts to reduce environmental impacts.

Quick Facts

  • U.S. travelers: 

    Valid passport needed for entry

  • Official language:

    Spanish (English is widely spoken)

  • Official currency:

    Costa Rican colón (American dollars are widely accepted)

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Categories: Central America > Costa Rica > Puntarenas



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.

Must See or Do

Sights—A catamaran cruise to Isla Tortuga; a guided tour of Manuel Antonio National Park.

Museums—A broad look at the history of Puntarenas in the Puntarenas City Historical Museum.

Memorable Meals—The buffet with a view at Club del Mar Las Sandalias Restaurant on Jaco Beach; all-you-can eat seafood buffet at El Hicaco Restaurant in Jaco; fresh seafood at Cevichito Bar and Restaurant; all-organic dishes at Organico in Montezuma.

Walks—The seafront boardwalk known as Paseo de los Turistas; the Malecon, a pedestrian walkway that runs along the waterfront north of town; wandering the hiking trails at Cabo Blanco Absolute Wildlife Reserve.

Especially for Kids—Parque Marino del Pacifico aquarium; zipline adventure and horseback riding at Hotel Vista Golfo Adventure Park; a crocodile safari on the Tarcoles River.

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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.


The Pan-American Highway network runs from Alaska to southern South America. The stretch between the U.S. and Panama, which runs through Costa Rica, is called the Inter-American Highway.

Although Ponce de Leon did not find in Costa Rica the Fountain of Youth that he sought in Florida, in 1519 he did discover Quepos and the area that is now the Manuel Antonio National Park.

The guanacaste tree is the national tree of Costa Rica. This towering shade tree, predominantly found in Guanacaste Province, takes its name from the indigenous words for tree (guana) and ear (caste), as the curled seed pods resemble a human ear. It was selected as the national tree in honor of Guanacaste Province's act of voting to leave Nicaragua and join Costa Rica in 1826.

Chinese migrants started to arrive in Puntarenas at the middle of the 19th century. Today there is a sizeable Chinese community in the area.


Cruise ships stopping on the Pacific coast usually call at Puntarenas. Most tie up at the dock in the city. Some also dock at Puerto Caldera, the country's busiest commercial dock, which is about 10 mi/16 km south of Puntarenas, although cruise ships tend to dock there only when a transfer is involved.

The Puntarenas terminal has a tourist information center and an air-conditioned waiting room offering international call service, a bank and a snack shop. Cruise visitors are greeted by tour companies promoting trips to popular destinations, and a wall of vendors selling arts and crafts along the boardwalk. The town is small enough to explore on foot. You can pick up a walking map at the tourist-information center or take a guided tour. Outdoor restaurants and cafes are just steps from the dock, many of which line the boardwalk known as the Paseo de los Turistas.

Shore Excursions

Adventure and nature tours are a growth industry in Costa Rica, resulting in many new and very competitive companies that offer almost any tour one's heart could desire. Cruise ships are usually in port for only a 12-hour period, which doesn't leave much time, but each cruise line will offer tours that fit this tight schedule. Be sure to schedule early, as the more popular tours sell out fast and even individual arrangements must be scheduled well in advance.

Cruise ship passengers can choose from among two dozen or so exciting shore excursions. The most popular offerings include a crocodile safari on the Tarcoles River, an excursion to Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a trip to see Arenal Volcano and to soak in the hot springs, a ride on the Pacific Rain Forest Aerial Tram and canopy tours.

Guided tours—and their prices—vary from cruise line to cruise line. Some tours include lunch and drinks, and the number of stops varies, so final prices may vary significantly. (Fees for children range from half-price to full price.) Book early, because some fill up fast. Check with your ship's shore-excursion staff or your travel agent for additional information.

Most cruise passengers take ship-sponsored shore excursions from Puntarenas and Puerto Caldera. But it's also possible to fashion your own itinerary to nearby parks and preserves. The best way (especially if you are a serious birder or hiker) is to make arrangements in advance with one of Costa Rica's nature-tour companies. They'll pick you up at the port. You may also be able to negotiate transportation with tour companies offering fishing, sailing and diving trips.

If you want to sightsee on your own, you can usually find a taxi driver at the port who speaks some English. The taxi drivers in Puntarenas list set rates, although they are negotiable depending on the length of the trip and number of side trips. For short trips around town, insist that the driver use the meter. Drivers generally are not tipped.

Be prepared for rugged, winding and rutted roads. Be aware that although compliance is generally high, an independent tour guide may not have the insurance that is required for licensed tour companies.

Another option is the beach town of Jaco, a popular and very touristy beach destination about 40 mi/64 km south of Puntarenas (about an hour by taxi; locals pay about 54,000 CRC round-trip for up to four people; 55,600 CRC for visitors—ask the driver to wait). Surfing is popular, and there's horseback riding along the beach, plus the Pacific Rain Forest Aerial Tram, which provides an elevated journey through the treetops. Combined zipline and horseback riding, surfing or ATV tours are also available.

Nearby at Playa Herradura is the Marriott Los Suenos Resort, with an 18-hole golf course, a marina, deep-sea fishing tours, a casino and other resort amenities. Ask about white-water rafting, Jet-skiing and mountain biking.

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