115km (71 miles) W of San José; 191km (118 miles) S of Liberia; 75km (47 miles) N of Playa de Jacó

Puntarenas is best-known to tourists for its gigantic ferry—the easiest way to get from central Costa Rica to the southern Nicoya Peninsula if you have a rental car. If you want to drive to Montezuma and Santa Teresa, this is the way to go; if you’re headed to Sámara, Nosara, or Tamarindo, consider the Costa Rican–Taiwan Friendship Bridge at the northern end of the Nicoya Gulf. If headed north of Tamarindo to places like Papagayo, the quickest way is probably to take the Inter-American Highway to Liberia.

Puntarenas has never taken off as a major tourism destination, though some Ticos in the Central Valley swear by it as a great weekend getaway. Despite serious investment and the steady influx of cruise ship passengers, Puntarenas retains its image as a rough-and-tumble, perennially run-down port town. Although the seafront Paseo de los Turistas (Tourist Walk) has a string of restaurants and souvenir stands, this town has little to interest visitors, and the beach here pales in comparison to most others.

A 16km (10-mile) spit of land jutting into the Gulf of Nicoya, Puntarenas was once Costa Rica’s busiest port, but that changed drastically when the government inaugurated nearby Puerto Caldera, a modern container port facility. After losing its shipping business, the city has survived primarily on commercial fishing.

You can reach Puntarenas (on a good day, with little traffic) in less than two hours by car from San José, making it one of the closest beaches to the capital. A long, straight stretch of sand with gentle surf, the beach is backed for most of its length by the Paseo de los Turistas. Across a wide boulevard from the Paseo de los Turistas are hotels, restaurants, bars, discos, and shops. The sunsets and the views across the Gulf of Nicoya are beautiful, and a cooling breeze usually blows in off the water. All around town, you’ll find unusual old buildings, reminders of the important role that Puntarenas once played in Costa Rican history. It was from here that much of the Central Valley’s coffee crop was once shipped, and while the coffee barons in the highlands were getting rich, so were the merchants of Puntarenas.

Today, Puntarenas is primarily popular as a weekend holiday spot for Ticos from San José (not to mention all the tourists lining up for the ferry) and is liveliest on weekends.