Puntarenas is a skinny, compact fishing town centrally located halfway between San Jose and Guanacaste, and just one hour by ferry from the lower Nicoya Peninsula. Once a national tourism mecca pre-1990 when the train ran from San José, it began to garner a less-than-welcoming image as a seedy port town where cruise ship passengers and travelers passed through en route elsewhere. Not anymore. These days, Puntarenas is making a big comeback. Jutting out into the Gulf of Nicoya like a crispy fish stick, with just 4 blocks separating shorelines, local restaurants like The Shrimp Shack offer some of the best fresh ceviche and seafood in the country. Attractions like Playa Ana beach at the entrance to town, and the Paseo de los Turistas boardwalk, are great for lazy days walking along the waterfront, shopping and catching some sun.
Paseo de los Turistas
Paseo de los Turistas is a boardwalk running from Puntarenas’ cruise dock to the tip of the peninsula. Here you’ll find all kinds of outdoor shops boasting souvenirs, clothes, hats and sarongs for sale (come when a cruise ship is docked to witness a whirl of activity). Enormous flocks of giant brown pelicans can be observed dive-bombing the water in search of fish, which is quite a sight at sunrise or at sunset. Just across the street, several bars and restaurants overlooking the water offer ice-cold cerveza or a bowl of mouthwatering ceviche to cool off on a hot day. Or buy a sweet pipa, electrolyte-rich water served directly in the green coconut shell, from a street vendor.
Playa Tambor via ferry
This quiet crescent-shaped beach is the perfect getaway for couples and families. The hour-long ferry from Puntarenas to get here is an attraction in and of itself, boasting gorgeous views of the gulf and frequent dance parties on the top deck. Once here, a trail runs along the coast for about four kilometers to the gorgeous Chorro Waterfall on Playa Cocalitos, one of few cascading waterfalls in the world that empties out directly into the ocean. The trek should be done at low tide, either by foot or horseback. Tambor is also home to some renowned catch-and-release sport fishing, thanks to large populations of offshore swordfish and marlin. Golf buffs will also be happy with the close proximity to two beautiful nine-hole golf courses on the property of resorts: Los Delfines and Tango Mar Beach Hotel & Golf Resort
Isla Tortuga is known for three things: its pristine white sands, phenomenal snorkeling and scuba diving and an adorable (and domesticated) peccary – also known as a chancha de monte, or mountain pig. Tours depart from either Puntarenas or the nearby Curu Wildlife Refuge, a private sanctuary for animals that abounds with wide-open spaces, hiking trails and secluded beaches. On the boat ride out, expect to cross paths with big marine creatures like whales, dolphins and – during certain times of the year – mating sea turtles. Once there, lounge about on the warm, inviting sands or go for a dip in the clear waters with fins and a mask. A typical lunch of meat, fish or vegetables served with rice and a side salad is typically served midday.