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Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera) Overview
Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, but it's got massive appeal as one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Even though Costa Rica covers less than .03 percent of the earth's total surface, you can find nearly five percent of the planet's plant and animal species there. Its location -- between Nicaragua and Panama on the isthmus connecting North and South America, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east -- has enabled flora and fauna from both continents to thrive there.
Cruise passengers visiting Costa Rica's Pacific Coast will come ashore in one of two places -- Puerto Caldera, a commercial port serving the nearby seaside town of Puntarenas, and Puntarenas itself. Puntarenas is a lively town that hosts josefinos (residents of the capital city of San Jose) on holiday, as well as international tourists. The main drag, a wide walkway fronting the beach that's jam-packed with places to shop and eat, is even called Paseo de los Turistas -- loosely, "stroll of the tourists."
However, Costa Rica's real draw is its lush, natural beauty and biodiversity -- the "rich coast" after which it is named. Most cruise travelers use Puntarenas as a kickoff point for eco-adventures on the ground (horseback riding or hiking in the rainforest), in the water (kayaking, white-water rafting) and even in the air (zip-lining, an activity which originated here and is now popular throughout the Americas and the Caribbean).
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Other Panama Canal & Central America Cruise Ports:
Aruba • Belize City • Cartagena (Colombia) • Colon (Cristobal) • Curacao • Puerto Limon • Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera)
Costa Rica is known for its smooth, balanced coffee, considered among the best in the world. Cafe Britt is a famous producer, and you'll be able to find bags of its coffee, whole-bean and ground, in most gift shops (along with locally made chocolates). However, pretty much any brand you pick up will be excellent. We like Cafe Tres Generaciones.
Spanish is the official language, though taxi drivers and other ticos (locals) working in the tourist areas speak at least some English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Costa Rican colon; on our trip, approximately 540 equaled $1 U.S. Check a Web site like XE.com for the latest exchange rates. However, whether you are visiting for a day or for a few before a cruise, you don't necessarily have to change money; vendors and taxi drivers are happy to accept U.S. dollars. Just note that you'll likely get change in colones -- so you may not want to break big bills. Banks are generally open from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Where You're Docked
Some ships (Princess, Celebrity) stop in Puntarenas proper, while others (Holland America, Windstar) call in Puerto Caldera, a commercial port that's about a 20-minute cab ride away from the town. Both sit on the Pacific Ocean, on the west coast of Costa Rica. Some lines will use Puerto Caldera because it is protected by a windbreak, but both ports offer access to the same attractions and shore tours.
Puerto Caldera offers very few facilities for cruise passengers, and there's nothing within walking distance; again, the village of Puntarenas is a 20-minute cab ride from this port. Ships dock opposite a terminal building, at the far end of which are a few souvenir shops and a sitting area with restrooms. You'll be able to pick up gifts -- jewelry, wooden crafts, Costa Rican coffee -- from local vendors but no food or drinks; spring for the bottled water for sale onboard your ship if you'd like to carry something with you.
If your ship docks right in Puntarenas, however, you are steps away from the base of the main tourist drag -- Paseo de los Turistas, which is a wide walkway replete with shopping and dining options that runs parallel to the beach. There's also a cruise terminal across the street from the dock perimeter with restrooms and other facilities, including phone stations. The port offers complimentary shuttle service from the gangway to the main exit if you don't want to walk; it's about 250 yards.
From Puerto Caldera: The nearest town of interest, Puntarenas, is a 20-minute taxi ride away. The cost at press time was $25 one way for two passengers ($15 for one) or $50 roundtrip -- and the driver will either wait for you or come back for you, collecting payment back at the pier. We recommend taking only "official" taxis, which are always red with a yellow triangle on the door. There's also a colorful bus that offers a two-hour roundtrip guided tour into Puntarenas for $20 per person. The tour offers quick visits to the fish market and local cathedral.
If you aren't interested in going into town, we recommend booking a tour, either on the ship or from an independent operator. Tour operators also show up on the pier to sell to those folks who want to see Puntarenas with a guide or experience eco-tours -- zip-lining, rafting, etc. -- independently from their cruise line's shore excursions department.
From Puntarenas: Ships deposit passengers onto the Paseo de los Turistas, where taxis line up.
Watch Out For
Petty theft can be a problem; use the same common sense precautions as you would anywhere else in the world. Leave whatever cash and valuables you don't need behind, or conceal them appropriately.
Zip-lining. Canopy tours -- during which travelers glide among the treetops attached to a series of suspended cables -- are all the rage throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America. However, we'd argue that there's no better place to experience this adventure, best known as zip-lining, than in the lush rainforests of Costa Rica, where the concept originated. There are several companies that offer canopy tours, and cruise lines offer zip-lining as a ship-sponsored excursion here.
Monteverde Cloud Forest. You've heard of the rainforest, but what's a cloud forest? Also called a fog forest, a cloud forest is a moist tropical or subtropical rainforest that occurs high in the mountains. At Monteverde in Costa Rica, the varied climate and altitude promote high biodiversity of mammals and plants; it's also a particular hot-spot for birders.
Poas Volcano National Park. Poas is an active volcano that has spewed forth lava, ash and gases from three craters over thousands of years -- though two are now dormant. (One contains a lake.) The main crater is a 15-minute walk from the visitor's center and is almost a mile in diameter -- one of the world's largest active craters. The most recent eruption occurred in 2009. The park is open from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. daily, and there are marked hiking trails.
Carara National Park. This biological reserve sits between the dry forests to the north and the rainier ones to the south, bordering the crocodile-filled Tarcoles River. (Carara reportedly means river of crocodiles.) Carara is one of the most likely places in the country to spot scarlet macaws. Other inhabitants include monkeys, sloths and armadillos. The park is open from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily, and there are marked walking trails for guests.
Been There, Done That
San Jose. Costa Rica's modern capital city, San Jose, is set high in the mountains and is a viable day trip. A few things to consider, though: First, it's a long drive -- two hours each way -- so we recommend booking your cruise line's tour rather than going it alone, say, by taxi; you don't want to get stuck in traffic and miss the ship. Also, the city is gritty and does not reflect the best of what Costa Rica has to offer, which, again, is eco-diversity and active adventures. However, if you've already gotten your fill of hiking, boating, kayaking and so on -- or if you simply miss city life by the time you call there -- the sights (particularly the landmark, neo-classical National Theater) are worth seeing.
Orchid Garden. Monteverde Orchid Garden offers tours of its gardens and greenhouses, where orchids -- the national flower of Costa Rica, which boasts more than 1,400 individual species -- bloom year-round.
Editor's note: Orchids cannot be brought back to the United States, due to agricultural regulations.
Sarchi. A scenic, 40-minute drive from Puntarenas in the Central Valley of Costa Rica is Sarchi, an arts and crafts paradise. It's a great option for picking up unique souvenirs, such as woodcrafts and leather goods. Sarchi is a focal point in Costa Rica's farming and artisanal history. Look for the brightly painted oxcarts, or carretas, once used to carry goods to Sarchi from nearby port towns like Puntarenas.
Grabbing a bite to eat in Puntarenas is easy -- there's a string of open-air food counters, called sodas, as you walk along the Paseo de los Turistas. They offer ample seating on wooden benches, shaded by overhangs. Sandwiches, such as cheese (queso) and ham and cheese (jamon con queso), start from about $2 -- or 1000 colones; the vendors will take U.S. currency. Not surprisingly, as this is a seaport, fried fish and ceviche (citrus-marinated seafood salads) are also staple items at the sodas.
For a less casual, sit-down meal, La Yunta Steakhouse, also on the Paseo de los Turistas, serves up steaks and seafood with many tables set on the patio or verandah just above, perfect for dining al fresco. Expect large portions; entrees range from approximately $6 to $19. It' open daily.
Staying in Touch
There's free Wi-Fi in the Puerto Caldera terminal building (though the signal was weak and unusable during our visit). Otherwise, look for the Millennium Cyber Cafe along Puntarenas' Paseo de los Turistas.
If You Want to See it All: Arenal Volcano and Thermal Waters/Hot Springs is a full-day tour that includes multiple sightseeing opportunities -- crystalline rivers, coffee plantations, vegetable plantations and dairy farms -- plus a chance to cool off with a dip in the hot springs. Lunch is served overlooking the active volcano. This tour lasts 10 hours.
If You Want Adventure, Downsized: If the concept of zip-lining appeals but you can't bring yourself to hang in midair from a harness, consider Costa Rica's Favorites -- a tour that includes the Pacific Rainforest Aerial Tram; you'll, instead, traverse the rainforest in an open-air gondola. The tour also includes a jungle-boat ride on the Tarcoles River, where you might spot indigenous birds or even crocodiles. Another zip-lining alternative is the Tropical Forest Sky Walk, a series of suspension bridges. Both excursions are eight hours long.
If You Want to Drink in Coffee Culture: The Countryside and Coffee Tour walks travelers through the process of growing and cultivating Costa Rican coffee beans -- and even includes an interactive show on how to brew the best cup of java. This option will take you 8 hours; it includes lunch at a private estate with flowering grounds.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitcostarica.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Panama Canal
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Costa Rica
--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor