Puntarenas travel guide

Poised on a thin, island-like finger of sand pointing into the Gulf of Nicoya 115km west of San José, heat-stunned Puntarenas has the look of abandonment that haunts so many tropical port cities. It’s hard to believe now, but until the 1970s this was a booming harbour town. The export point for much of Costa Rica’s coffee to Europe, it was also a popular resort for holidaying Ticos. Plan your trip to Puntarenas with our guide to Puntarenas — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.

The best travel tips for visiting Puntarenas

Today, most vacationing Costa Ricans have abandoned its dodgy beaches. In addition, foreign tourists, who never spent much time here anyway, come only to catch a ferry across to southern Nicoya.

More importantly, this working port remains a jumping-off point for the pristine Islas Tortuga and two of Costa Rica’s least-explored islands — Isla de Chira and Isla del Coco.


Puntarenas offers easy access to Nicoya, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Top attractions and things to do in Puntarenas

Puntarenas is a special city and region with plenty of options to entertain you for a few days. You will find beautiful beaches, special activities, cultural activities and undiscovered places. Puntarenas should definitely be in your itinerary.

#1 Discover the docks

It has to be said that Puntarenas’ streets exude a certain melancholy charm, and the local economy is starting to improve.

The southerly promenade is optimistically called Paseo de los Turistas. From fits eastern end, the old dock crooks out into the gulf. This is where bananas and coffee were loaded, before all the big shipping traffic shifted 18km down the coast to Puerto Caldera.

These days it's used by giant cruise ships and lined with street vendors. The docks on the northern, estuary side, are a jungle of ketches and sturdy mini-trawlers testifying to a thriving fishing industry.

Despite the aura of hot lassitude, plenty of business is conducted in the few blocks surrounding the docks, especially in the hectic Mercado Municipal.

One block west (Av 3, at C 3), the Casa Fait is the city’s most attractive building, a delicate Art Nouveau home completed in 1925.

#2 Uncover history at Casa de la Cultura and Museo Histórico Marino

In the centre of town, the pale orange colonial-style Casa de la Cultura — the former police headquarters and jail — exhibits evocative fin-de-siècle photographs documenting Puntarenas’s former prosperity.

Sepia images of tough fishermen hang alongside photos of white-clad ladies whose husbands made their wealth from coffee exports.

The Casa’s Museo Histórico Marino has a rundown of the region’s archaeology, biology and history, focusing on the town’s relationship with the sea that virtually surrounds it.

#3 Meet marine-life at Parque Marino del Pacífico

Two blocks east of the bus station, Parque Marino del Pacífico is a small, well-maintained aquarium and rescue centre dedicated to Costa Rica’s marine life.

Among the species here are clown fish, nurse sharks, seahorses, eels and anemones.

There’s also a (marine life-free) swimming pool for children.

Best areas to stay

If you’re catching an early ferry to Paquera or Playa Naranjo, you may find the budget hotels around the north-shore docks quite handy. That said, be warned that at night this area can be seedy — at some of the more dismal hotels the clientele might not be there to sleep.

Even considering Costa Rica’s tropical climate, Puntarenas stands out as an exceptionally hot town. As a result, wherever you stay, make sure your room has a fan (or even better a/c) that works. Otherwise, you’ll be as baked as a ceramic pot by morning.

  • Hotel Alamar: the spacious rooms in this family-friendly hotel have a/c, free wi-fi, and private bathrooms, plus there are two pools, a hot tub and restaurant.
  • Hotel Las Brisas: a cheerful, clean waterfront hotel on the peninsula’s southwestern tip. Some rooms have balconies overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya.

Explore more places to stay in Puntarenas.

Best restaurants and bars

Puntarenas is known for its seafood, best experienced at the beachside sodas near the old dock.

Alternatively, pick up an inexpensive meal in the market, but avoid drinking anything made with the local water.

  • El Shrimp Shack: especially well known for its buffalo shrimp in blue cheese sauce, ceviche, curry coconut shrimp and hefty shrimp burgers.
  • Soda La Macarena: this small soda with ocean views serves up cheap, delicious dishes, from fruit plates to toasted sandwiches.

Find out more about eating and drinking in Costa Rica.


Ceviche is a local specialty © Shutterstock

How many days do you need in Puntarenas?

In all likelihood, you won’t need more than day or two in Puntarenas itself. You’ll be here to catch the slow-paced ferry over to the southern Nicoya Peninsula. 

Your first sight of it will be low brown hills rising in the distance, ringed by a rugged coastline and pockets of intense jungly green. These days much of the region has been cleared for farming or cattle grazing, or, in the case of the surf towns on its far southwestern tip, given over to tourism. 

If that’s why you’re here, read up on what to do in the Nicoya Peninsula. If you need help planning your trip, check-out our Costa Rica itineraries.

What is the best time to visit?

Chances are, if you're visiting Puntarenas, you’re planning to head to the Nicoya Peninsula.

With that in mind, to make the most of its beaches and surf, the best time to visit Puntarenas is during the dry season. This runs from December to April. 

For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.


Coffee plantation in Naranjo, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

How to get here

Since Puntarenas is only a 1.5 hour drive from San Jose, it is a place travelers love to visit. It's a perfect get-away from the busy and hot capital.

By bus

Services to and from San José use the bus station on the corner of C2 and Paseo de los Turistas, just southeast of the Casa de la Cultura, as do services from Liberia.

Buses from Santa Elena/Monteverde pull in at the bus stop on the opposite side of the paseo. If you’re heading south along the coast to Manuel Antonio, you’ll need to take the Quepos service from the bus station. Most buses run via Jacó.

By ferry

Ferries dock at the northwestern end of Puntarenas, a 15min walk from the city centre. Buses (labelled “FERRY”) run up and down Av Central.

It can be a slow process buying a car ticket, so in high season arrive at least an hour before departure and park in the queue before purchasing your ticket.

Paquera Navieras Tambor runs to Paquera, from where buses run on to Montezuma (2hr), via Tambor (50min) and Cóbano (1hr 30min). Note that the 5pm ferry is the last one that connects with this service. You’ll need to change buses in Cóbano for Mal País and Santa Teresa (daily 10.30am & 2.30pm; 30min).

Meanwhile, Playa Naranjo runs to Playa Naranjo (4–6 daily 6.30am–7pm; charge; US dollars accepted; 1hr). From here, buses travel on to Nicoya (4 daily; 2hr).

For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.

Looking for more inspiration? Read up on the best things to do in Costa Rica, and get yourself a copy of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica.

Our Costa Rica travel tips will also help you plan your trip. Alternatively, if you're not a fan of planning, you'll love our customisable Costa Rica itineraries.

We may earn commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Top image: Puntarenas city, Costa Rica © Ulises Gonzalez/Shutterstock

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Rough Guides Editors

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 20.02.2023

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