Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Tucked on a peninsula overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya, the city of Puntarenas has long served as the prime port of Costa Rica as well as the country’s most important fishing harbor. The Pacific coastal community is the largest city in the province also named Puntarenas; it is the country’s biggest province and extends all the way to the Panama border. With its important seaside location, the city of Puntarenas bustles with activity on weekdays as fishing boats ply their trade and also on weekends when residents of the capital city of San José come to Puntarenas to enjoy its beaches.
Discovered by Hernán Ponce de León in 1519, Puntarenas (which means “Sandy Point” in Spanish) was first called Villa Bruselas. In spite of its excellent location on the Gulf of Nicoya, development of the city was slow until 1840. At that time, coffee plantations in the interior highlands of Costa Rica began to produce enough beans to export, slowly transporting their product on oxcarts down steep mountain roads to the port. Later that decade, the port gained duty free status and just a few years later a railroad was constructed to ease the transfer of the beans to the coast. By early the next century, the railroad was extended all the way to the capital city of San José and Puntarenas’s role as a major port city was set.
As the shipping industry grew (and the ships themselves grew in size), the port of Puntarenas needed an alternative; in the 1980s the government constructed a new port 12 miles south of the city at Caldera, a place where ships have docked since Spanish colonial days.
Today the long history of fishing in Puntarenas is evident in its cuisine; visitors can find fresh seafood throughout the city. Corvina (sea bass), pargo (red snapper), dorado (mahimahi), and tuna fill most local menus. For dessert, many travelers opt for an ice cream or fruit drink along the Paseo de los Turistas, a pedestrian walkway along the beachfront lined with small shops and open-air stands that overlook the beach. Here, as throughout much of the Puntarenas Province, beaches are favored by surfers for their strong waves.
Closer into town, the central plaza is home to a Catholic church that, in true maritime tradition, sports portholes rather than traditional stained glass windows. Nearby, the city’s maritime culture is explored at the Museo Histórico Marino. For a look at the natural wonders of the maritime world, the newly-constructed Parque Marino del Pacífico near the cruise terminal offers a peek into the undersea world of Costa Rica with saltwater tanks filled with marine life. The aquarium recreates the ecosystem of Cocos Island, an uninhabited island some 300 miles offshore which was once a pirate lair (and some say served as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island).
Puntarenas’s top draw, however, is its proximity to nearby ecotourism opportunities. Uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Nicoya are part of the Tilaran and Talamanca Mountain Ranges. Nearby preserves such as the Reserve Biologica Carara are home to dense forest that provide a fern-lined canopy; below, animals such as lemurs, anteaters, and over 800 species of tropical birds call this land home.
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