Port cities the world over have a reputation for polluted waters, seedy streets and slow decay, which might be a traveler's first impression of little Puntarenas, Costa Rica’s gateway to the Pacific. But just under the surface are some down-to-earth charms – ones largely absent in Costa Rica's most heavily traveled regions. As the closest coastal town to San José, it has long been a popular escape for landlocked Ticos (Costa Ricans) on the weekend, but otherwise there's little action. During the week the streets that stretch out along the long peninsula have a feel that's as lackadaisical as the scissor-tailed frigate birds that constantly circle overhead. And though city elders have done a commendable job cleaning the beaches and renovating the boardwalk, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Puntarenas' glory days are long past.
Despite serving as the main cruise-ship port along Costa Rica’s Pacific stretch, Puntarenas is struggling to reap the benefits of international tourism, and has failed to capture the interest (or the dollars) of foreign investors. Adding insult to injury, the newly opened Pez Vela Marina in Quepos pulls the vast majority of cruise-ship traffic south.
Still, the city’s ferry terminal is a convenient way to connect to pristine beaches on the central Pacific coast or to southern Nicoya. While most travelers are only stopping through en route to the greener pastures and bluer seas elsewhere, those who get stuck here overnight could do a lot worse.
Situated at the end of a sandy peninsula (8km long but only 100m to 600m wide), Puntarenas is just 110km west of San José by paved highway. The city has 60 calles (streets) running north to south, but only five avenidas (avenues) running west to east at its widest point. As in all of Costa Rica, street names are largely irrelevant, and landmarks are used for orientation.