Puntarenas doesn´t look very promising as you first glance out from the dock into the lines of old buildings and the narrow stretch of grey sand lining the shore. But, as they say, you shouldn´t judge a book by its cover, and this is very true of this Costa Rican port.
As far as distractions in the vicinity of the port area go, there are a number of options. Shopping is extremely popular with tourists, since the exchange rate is very favorable. If you are looking for carved wood and local handicrafts, there is a beautiful, picturesque market on the waterfront, to the left from the dock. It stretches along the side of the rather unremarkable beach for about half a mile. The objects on display range from large, hand-made heavenly-sounding marimba-style instruments, like the one sitting in my living room, that go for about 20 dollars, to Cuban cigars for 25% of what you would pay at home; an item that, for some reason that eludes me, will drive most men crazy with glee. Colourful, tropical-style Costa Rican dishes are also available, among other finds and curiosities.
Across the street from the market area, on the waterfront, you can find some local restaurants and bars. While the aspect of most of them is, again, not very promising, I have heard people who came out of them very satisfied with the quality of the food, specially their seafood dishes. By the way, Puntarenas is reputed to offer some of the Pacific´s finest lobster and shrimp.
The beach by the market is, as I said, not specially inviting. Nevertheless, it will still do for a quick plunge on one of those hot, tropical days in Puntarenas, in case you don´t have enough time to go to one of the numerous sapphire water beaches in the area and the nearby islands, such as Playa Naranjo, Playa del Mal País, Jesuíta, and San Lucas.
There is just one more stop to recommend before leaving the port area. If you walk along the main street instead of turning left towards the market, you will find the main shopping district. A visit to the local mall will come in handy if you´re looking for inexpensive and colourful gifts. For instance, you can get a beautiful sarong for only a couple of dollars.
The main street might smell bad and look dirty, but it is fundamentally alive. Here, you will find every cliché about Latin America, and specially the Caribbean, ever found in the novels of García Márquez and the like, from roofless hair salons with bright green walls and rusty chairs, to local whore-houses with plump, deeply cleavaged mulatto women at the door, luring in clients from around the world.
Although Puntarenas used to be Costa Rica´s main seaport, it is now mainly a stopover for cruise ships on a Pacific route. Discovered in 1519 by Hernán Ponce de León, it didn´t become a commercial port untill 1840, when it started exporting coffee. Puntarenas is the biggest city in the Central Pacific, and it is located only 120 km West of the capital city of SAN JOSÉ.
One of the main attractions of the country is not absent in Puntarenas, namely, the rainforest experience. There are several National Parks and nature reserves worth a visit in the vicinity, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Santa Helena Reserve, and the Corcovado National Park. Zip line excursions are a local favorite. Catering for both children and adults, these very unique excursions are extremely safe. They provide an opportunity to observe the forest in all its wild, natural beauty from the safe height of the zip line. Here you will be able to observe anything from unreal trees to crocodiles and monkeys, at large in their natural habitat.
In the later years, Costa Rica has become popular with foreign land-buyers, because of its natural beauty and relative modernity, when compared to some of its neighbours. It has become a place where a share of paradise seems to be affordable. I have several friends from different parts of the world who own land in Costa Rica, and they are all just madly in love with the place, and can´t believe how much they paid for it…
As with most beautiful places, there must be something about Costa Rica that just can´t be put into words. It might be the relaxing beaches or the colourful crafts, the mysterious rainforest or the tropical weather, the friendly people or the exciting nightlife. Whatever it is, there is just something special about Costa Rica, and the same can be said of Puntarenas.