Port of Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Port of Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The tiny Central American country of Costa Rica is betting on the cruise industry in a big way. The cruise ports of Limon and Moin on the Caribbean front and Puntarenas and Caldera in the Pacific already see some 314,000 cruise passengers visiting each year within popular regional and world itineraries with some 266,000 of those visitors taking some onshore excursion. With some added investment and an ambitious 30-year plan set to start moving dirt by 2013, the country expects numbers to rise considerably and turn Costa Rica into a pre-eminent Central American destination of choice for cruisers.

Currently, such lines as Silversea, Star Clippers, Seabourn, Sea Cloud, Crystal, Holland America, Windstar and Princess make regular stops in Costa Rica – some of those dockings are at the Port of Limon on the Caribbean side adding up to 120 arrivals a year in that one spot. With the $80 to $100 million investment plan for that port alone, arrivals numbers and passengers passing through the port for explorations of the city and excursions to the nearby beaches and rainforests should increase by at least 25 percent, says Julio Sarmiento Vargas, engineering director and spokesman for the project. That is because the port that now holds three ships will be able to hold four QE2-sized vessels in new docks extending up to 1,000 feet.

“It’s a build it and they will come approach,” he says, but they will want to come with the new development that will be in place in the project’s initial five-year phase. That segment calls for a hotel over the harbor, a modern maze of shops and restaurants, easy access to the town of Limon and a convenient beach area just steps away from the docks. Currently, at the port of Limon, the 60-acre area contains mostly parking for tour vehicles and an indoor mercado where you can purchase anything from $10 T-shirts to $25 mani/pedis. The town, itself, is a hot and bustling place of mostly locals en route to appointments and grocery shopping. But the town, too, is expecting to receive funds for creating tourism attractions, such as museums and parks for the visitors that will be coming through.

About 20 minutes away is Moin, mostly used for cargo ships but handling the odd cruise ship when Limon’s docks are full. Moin will become a cargo-only port once plans move forward. Currently it is not convenient to anything but leisure river rainforest tours along a feeder to the Tortuga Canals.

On the popular Pacific side of Costa Rica is Puntarenas, a two-hour drive from San Jose in a drier, mountainous area of Costa Rica that manages some splendid sunsets. The city is the central Pacific’s largest city and it’s a fun, walkable town that is popular with expats and an easy walk from the docks. A swimmable beach sits an easy pace from the cruise terminal as well, but cruise passengers usually head for the local open-air cafes. Handicraft souvenir stores sit at the end of the pier in the “El Paseo de los Turistas.” What most visitors do not realize is what little in the way of souvenirs and handicrafts Costa Rica does have so this spot offers a good selection of what little there is at decent prices.

Port Caldera, similar to Moin on the Caribbean side, exists mostly for cargo but does dock cruise ships as well. This industrial port sits about 25 minutes away from Puntaranus. However, the region here boasts an unspoiled natural beauty that is considered the port’s main attraction. Its rainforests, which start just inside the coastline and continue up into the mountain ranges, contain rivers, waterfalls, parks and wildlife preserves.

About 20 miles south of Port Caldera are two forest reserves: the Biological Reserve of Carara, and a preserve that encompasses the islands of Guayabo, Negritos and Los Pajaros.

Shore excursions and catering to cruise passengers is a mainstay of the economy in Costa Rica, a country with a $2.2 billion per year tourism industry that now ranks as the most visited nation in the Central American region. The relatively high expenditures per tourist amount to $1,077 per trip, one of the highest in the Caribbean Basin. Please see the Costa Rica Shore Excursions article in this newsletter.