Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Puntarenos, Costa Rica

Puntarenos, Costa Rica
Some see Puntarenas as a fallen jewel with vast potential; others see nothing more than a run-down, rough-and-tumble port town best seen through a rearview mirror. I tend to hold the latter view.
A 16km (10-mile) spit of land jutting into the Gulf of Nicoya, Puntarenas was once Costa Rica's busiest port, but that changed drastically when the government inaugurated nearby Puerto Caldera, a modern container port facility. After losing its shipping business, the city survived primarily on commercial fishing. Watching the tourist boom bring big bucks to other cities, Puntarenas decided to try to grab its piece of the pie. After decades of decay and neglect, Puntarenas has definitely received some long-overdue attention; however, it still needs some work. In the 1990s Puntarenas initiated a large public-works and renovation project that has so far yielded a new cruise-ship docking facility, a convention-and-recreation center, a modest maritime museum, and an artisans' row where visitors can stock up on regional arts and crafts.

There's a good highway leading all the way from San José, so Puntarenas can be reached (on a good day, with no traffic) in a little more than 2 hours by car, which makes it one of the closest beaches to San José?at least in elapsed time, if not in actual mileage. Because Puntarenas is a city, a former port town, and a commercial fishing center, this beach has a very different character from any other in Costa Rica. A long, straight stretch of sand with gentle surf, the beach is backed for most of its length by the Paseo de los Turistas (Tourist Walk). Across a wide boulevard from the paseo are hotels, restaurants, bars, discos, and shops. The sunsets and the views across the Gulf of Nicoya are quite beautiful, and there's usually a cooling breeze blowing in off the water. All around town you'll find unusual old buildings, reminders of the important role that Puntarenas once played in Costa Rican history. It was from here that much of the Central Valley's coffee crop was once shipped, and while the coffee barons in the highlands were getting rich, so were the merchants of Puntarenas.

Still, Puntarenas is primarily a place to spend the night during transit. Here you must pick up the ferries to the southern Nicoya Peninsula, and many folks like to arrive the night before and get an early start. It's also a good place to break up the longer trip up to or back from Guanacaste. Puntarenas is also popular as a weekend holiday spot for Ticos from San José and is at its liveliest on weekends.

Yesterday, we spent the day at sea, between the Panama Canal and Costa Rica. I talked Mother into going to the show last night, which she enjoyed (mostly the singer, not the comic or the magician). She found a new bridge partner yesterday (he is hired to dance with all the single ladies... even talks like Walter Matthau in the movie "Out to Sea").

Today, we spent a whole day at the port of Puntarenas. After breakfast, Mother and I took the little shuttle train down the dock, where the vendors were lined up. We spotted the dress in this picture in one of the first stalls, and came back and bought it when we finished looking at all of the rest of the stalls. We also bought our refrigerator magnets souvenirs. She lasted less than an hour outside in the heat and humidity, so we went back on the ship for lunch.

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