Don’t be spooked by Puntarenas’ image as a rough and dangerous port town. The average tourist might find that the stifling midday heat is the city’s biggest challenge. If you’ve gotten over that, take a walk along the ocean-facing Paseo de los Turistas, which feels a bit like a Florida beach town from the 1950s. The hotels here range in style from converted old wooden homes with bright gingerbread trim to modern concrete monstrosities to tasteful Art Deco relics that need a new coat of paint.
If you venture into the center of the city, check out the central plaza around the Catholic Church. The large, stone church is interesting because it has portholes for windows, reflecting the city’s maritime tradition. In addition, it’s one of the few churches in the country with a front entry facing east (most face west). Here you’ll also find the city’s cultural center, La Casa de la Cultura ((tel) 2661-1394). In addition to rotating exhibits and the occasional theater performance, this place houses the Museo Histórico ((tel) 2661-1394), a small museum on the city’s history, especially its maritime history, with exhibits in both English and Spanish. Admission is free, and it’s open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 4pm. If you’re looking for a shady spot to relax, there are some inviting benches in a little park just north of the church.
If you want to go swimming, the gulf waters in front of Puntarenas are perfectly safe, although the beach is not very attractive. Some folks choose to head a few kilometers south of town, to Playa Doña Aña, a popular local beach with picnic tables, roadside vendors, and a couple of sodas. A little farther south, you will come to Playa Tivives, which is virtually unvisited by tourists, but quite popular with Ticos, many of whom have beach houses up and down this long, brown-sand beach. Surfers should check out the beach break here or head to the mouth of the Barranca River, which boasts an amazingly long left break. But be careful, because crocodiles live in both the Barranca and Tivives river mouths, and a lot of pollution empties out of the rivers here.
If you don’t want to swim in the gulf and your hotel doesn’t have a pool, try the San Lucas Beach Club ((tel) 2661-3881; www.sanlucasbeachclub.com; Tue-Sun 9am–5pm; C3,000). This misleadingly named attraction is actually a landlocked recreation complex with a large free-form pool and small snack bar. It’s at the end of the peninsula, with a view of the gulf. It tends to fill up when a cruise ship is at port.
Puntarenas isn’t known as one of Costa Rica’s prime sportfishing ports, but a few charter boats are usually available. Head to the docks and ask around or go to www.getmyboat.com. Rates (for up to six) are between $450 and $650 for a half-day and between $800 and $1,800 for a full day.
You can also take a yacht cruise through the tiny, uninhabited islands of the Guayabo, Negritos, and Pájaros Islands Biological Reserve. These cruises include a lunch buffet and a relaxing stop on the beautiful Tortuga Island ★, where you can swim, snorkel, and sunbathe. The water is clear blue, and the sand is bright white. However, this trip has surged in popularity, and many cruises have a cattle-car feel.
Calypso Tours ★ ((tel) 855/855-1975 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2256-2727 in Costa Rica; www.calypsocruises.com) is the most reputable company that cruises out of Puntarenas. In addition to Tortuga Island trips, Calypso Tours takes guests to its own private nature reserve at Punta Coral or on a sunset dinner cruise. Either cruise can run $145 per person. The company provides daily pickups from San José, Manuel Antonio, Jacó, and Monteverde, and you can use the day trip on the boat as your transfer option between any of these towns and destinations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.