Heat-stunned PUNTARENAS, a thin, island-like finger of sand pointing out into the Gulf of Nicoya 115km west of San José, has the look of raffish abandonment that haunts so many tropical port cities. What isn’t rusting has long ago been bleached to a generic pastel. Old wooden buildings painted in faded tutti-frutti colours line the town’s cracked, potholed streets and mop-headed mango trees provide the only shade from the relentless sun. It’s hard to believe now, but in the seventeenth century this was a prosperous port – the export point for much of Costa Rica’s coffee to England – and a popular resort for holidaying Ticos.
Today, most vacationing Costa Ricans have abandoned its dodgy beaches and somewhat tawdry charms in favour of the ocean playgrounds of Manuel Antonio and Guanacaste, and foreign tourists, who never spent much time here anyway, come only to catch a ferry across to southern Nicoya. In recent years, the town’s tourist trade has been somewhat revived by daily visits from the giant cruise ships that call at the site of the old docks. More importantly, this working port remains a jumping-off point for boats to pristine Isla Tortuga and for trips to two of Costa Rica’s least-explored islands: Isla de Chira, a sleepy community a short boat ride away that is slowly opening up to tourism; and Isla del Coco, one of the world’s most exclusive diving destinations that lies 535km southwest of the mainland.