Puntarenas began life as Costa Rica’s premier Pacific deep-sea port and popular seaside destination for Costa Ricans. A short ferry ride across the gulf now brings much better beaches within reach, so most foreign tourists find themselves just passing through. But the Spanish Conquistadors who settled here in 1522 found the protected Gulf of Nicoya ideal as a port city. It was to here that, on Christmas Day, 1843, the English captain, William Le Lacheur, sailed looking for cargo. His success at transporting coffee beans to Europe fueled the country’s huge – and prosperous – coffee boom. Good times for Puntarenas and Costa Rica.
Named after the long six-kilometer/3.7-mile peninsular strip of sand that houses the city, Puntarenas (Sandy Point), grew rapidly after 1846, when an improved overland road to the Central Valley was constructed for coffee exports, hauled down in oxcarts. The harbor lost much of its importance in 1890 when work crews finished the Atlantic Railroad, opening the closer-to-Europe city of Puerto Limón for coffee exports. In 1910, a railroad was completed to Puntarenas, which relieved some of the economic sting. As the closest town to the central highlands, it soon became a popular beach resort, nicknamed the “Pacific Pearl.”
Over the years, wealthy businessmen, prostitutes, workmen, families, vacationers, fortune seekers, travelers, as well as seasoned sailors of the town’s fishing, freight, and mother-of-pearl fleets, gave Puntarenas a unique rough-and-tumble seaport ambiance – and some vestiges remain today. In the early 1990s Puntarenas took an economic hit after the opening of Puerto Caldera, a port better suited to larger vessels and cruise ships, about 20 km/12.4 miles south. It’s still trying to recover. The long beachfront was cleaned up in 1999, and Puntarenenses (what locals call themselves), as well as Josefinos are returning to the downtown again. Travelers used to dread getting “stuck” in Puntarenas overnight, but with the revitalization effort, reasonable prices and few tourists, it now makes a pleasant stop for savvy travelers, just a two-hour drive west of San José.
The long Paseo de Turistas malecón is the city’s pride and joy – and so it should be. Seaside, the sandy beach stretches for several kilometers. Lined with palms, helado (ice cream) vendors, playgrounds, picnic areas, soccer players, swimming dogs and frolicking families, the beach and the paseo feature a broad sidewalk that attracts joggers, strollers and lovers walking hand in hand. Along the way there are some seaside restaurants and crowded gift shops, a favorite of passengers from small cruise ships, which stop at the refurbished waterfront pier. Across the boulevard are notable restaurants and some surprisingly good hotels. At the very tip of the sandy strip there is a public park and private yacht club.
The Catholic cathedral on Av Central, between Calle 5 and 7, has porthole-style windows. Built in 1902, after a fire destroyed the original 1850 structure, its walls are fortress thick. Nearby, the Casa de Cultura houses an art gallery and museum, plus an interesting separate maritime museum, Museo de Historia Marina.
On the Saturday closest to July 16th the town comes alive for the Fiesta del Virgin del Mar, a celebration rooted in Costa Rican folklore. According to the legend, four fishermen were caught in a bad storm at sea in 1913. In their prayers for deliverance they promised to organize a feast and boat procession in honor of their patron saint, St. Carmen. Since then all the boats in the harbor string decorative lights and colorful banners on their masts during festival time. Sailing regattas and bike races give way to evening dances, fiestas and lots of drinking.
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