Sitting on the eastern side of the Gulf of Nicoya and sheltered by the Nicoya Peninsula landmass, Puerto Caldera was for hundreds of years the country’s principal Atlantic port.
While the port town itself has a limited number of attractions for the visitor, right on the doorstep is a tropical richness that offers a diverse menu of incredible things to see and do. Costa Rica has been especially blessed by the naturally beautiful; here you can find gorgeous beaches, live volcanoes, lush jungle, towering mountains and a landscape littered about with beautiful lakes and rivers and all of this is accessible from Puerto Caldera.
Also within easy reach are Puntarenas with its bigger city conveniences, Jaco with its laid-back beach community vibe, idyllic islands and countless small villages where you can explore true Tico life.
What Costa Rica has in most abundance however and which acts as its major draw-card is its incredible diversity of wildlife and with national parks aplenty accessing this aspect is fantastically easy. Quite how you immerse yourself amid this natural bounty is up to you with possibilities for hiking, boat tours, zip-lines, jungle canopy trams, rainforest walkways and much more. With everything from sloths to scarlet macaws and crocodiles to capuchin monkeys, Puerto Caldera is a wonderful gateway for all who love exploring nature, beautiful surroundings and exotic wildlife.
A Morning Around Puerto Caldera
Your Costa Rican morning plunges you straight into the country’s natural bounty with a jungle exploration above the canopy. After a break for coffee In Jaco you can round off the first half of your day with a visit to a crocodile hotspot on-board a boat which introduces you to a fascinating mangrove habitat.
The Aerial Trams of Carara National Park
For nature lovers and the outdoor passionate national parks anywhere in the world tend to provide plentiful draws thanks to their scenic beauty and wildlife. However, those of Costa Rica are particularly special. By global standards Costa Rica is a small country – representing just 0.03% of the entire surface area of the Earth. Astonishingly though, it contains more than 5% of the planet’s entire number of wildlife species; a ratio which gives it the highest density of biodiversity of any country in the world.
In short, this means it is almost impossible to come to Costa Rica and not have some kind of wildlife experience and for those who purposely go out seeking it the rewards are typically incredible.
Carara National Park is less than a 30 minute journey from Puerto Caldera and filled to bursting with birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects and mammals such as monkeys and sloths. One of the easiest ways to access this lush jungle area and arguably one of the most enjoyable is with a view from above on the aerial tramway. The ‘tram’ in the title is somewhat misleading though because in reality these are half-cage gondolas which, free of glass or any other kind of enclosure, give you a true immersion experience with the nature around you.
Your ride glides you above the jungle canopy where you will have a privileged and normally little-seen view of the micro-eco systems created by the plant species which have colonized the tree-tops in their natural fight to receive the sunlight. You will pass waterfalls, enjoy Pacific Ocean backdrops and if you’re lucky be able to spot tropical wildlife. While all of this adds up to adventure enough each gondola also comes complete with an expert naturalist so you will learn all about what you are seeing to give your experience even greater impact.
The area the tram covers encompasses both rare dry forest and wet tropical zones which means an incredible diversity of species call it home. However, Carara is a particular haven for birds, drawn here by the abundant insect feast which such a dense jungle environment provides. The vibrant and highly vocal scarlet macaws are more plentiful here than anywhere else in the country while iridescent humming birds, chattering parakeets and the beautiful orange and blue plumaged motmots are a few more of the species you may encounter.
Back on the ground at this eco-tourist project you can also explore the butterfly garden and areas of medicinal plants and tropical flowers.
If gliding in a gondola is not quite exciting enough for you there is also the option to experience the canopy with a 10-cable zipline and if you simply can’t make up your mind you can even do both the tram and zipline as a combo experience.
If you want to make life exceptionally easy for your morning coffee break you can take advantage of the canopy tram’s on-site cafe.
For those who want to take in a little more of Costa Rica however the coastal town of Jaco is close by. Especially popular with surfers, Jaco has a very laid-back beach town feel which of course means plenty of choice for atmospheric and beach-life style cafes.
Costa Rica is a land of coffee producers which typically means high quality coffee is not hard to find and that is definitely the case in Jaco. True connoisseurs should head to Cafe Bohio which is just a simple little hut where all the emphasis is on quality and once you know the Bohio story this isn’t surprising. First and foremost Bohio are coffee roasters dealing directly with the area’s coffee farmers and the cafe is simply somewhere for them to showcase their high-end products.
The Coffee Shop
Another option for those who are a little more discerning about their coffee is The Coffee Shop – a little tucked-away gem of a cafe where wonderful staff and even more wonderful home-made cinnamon rolls are all part of your morning pause. Just like Bohio, this cafe is of the simple and unassuming kind with the options for enjoying your coffee inside or at one of the alfresco patio tables.
Boat Tours and Crocodiles
Once you have refreshed yourself with some top-notch Costa Rican coffee you can continue your morning with further discovery of the country’s amazing natural world. Generally a haven for wildlife and particularly rich in bird-life, Carara National Park is also home to a large crocodile population which lives around the Tarcoles River that bisects the park.
Many people have a fascination with these creatures whose lineage is so ancient they once shared the world with dinosaurs and boat tours which head up the river to spot these mighty predators are popular. Several of the options here are half-day experiences but it is also possible to go for a quick jaunt of an hour or so, some options leaving directly from Jaco.
Of course this being Costa Rica you will almost certainly spot all other kinds of wildlife in this mangrove estuary and boat tours will usually give you the chance to learn something of the eco-systems and the native flora too. For many though this trip is all about the crocodiles. The major hot-spot is the Tarcoles Bridge around 5 km up river and has become such a regular crocodile hang-out it is typically referred to as Crocodile Bridge.
Crocodiles – some as large as six meters – gather here in large numbers, resting on the banks or gliding silently through the water and it isn’t unusual to see 20+ animals present at any one time.
If you don’t have time for a boat trip you can just make your way to the bridge which is 25 km from Jaco or 31 km from Puerto Caldera.
Lunch in Puerto Caldera
Puerto Caldera is rather more gateway to a vast variety of nearby adventure than a destination in itself. There are options for eating here but those looking for a more local or otherwise memorable experience might prefer to head off elsewhere.
In this category is the picturesque little settlement of Mata de Limon, just 2 km away and therefore walkable if you’d prefer to work up an appetite and are in no rush. Otherwise it is a short 5 minute trip by taxi from the port. Located beside a mangrove-habitat lagoon rich in bird-life, the setting here makes for a lovely lunch and you have several restaurant choices.
Hotel Costa del Sol’s
One of these is the Hotel Costa del Sol’s restaurant where from the wooden deck you can feast your eyes on your natural surrounds while simultaneously tucking into high quality seafood. Paella and lobster are the restaurant’s specialties while the menu also offers options for non-seafood eaters too.
La Delicia del Vigoron
As arguably the most cosmopolitan and Westernized of all the Central American nations many food choices in the country are influenced by other countries but for those who want an authentic Tico lunch experience make your way to La Delicia del Vigoron. Little more than a roadside food cart with a sprinkling of plastic chairs and tables which look directly over the Gulf of Nicoya waters, this raved about gem offers a range of ‘comidas typicas’ (typical foods). The signature dish is in the title – vigoron – which is a type of yucca and salad dish usually served in a banana leaf but there are also grilled meat choices and some typical Costa Rican drinks.
Aldera 300 m from Tabaris Restaurant, Puntarenas Caldera
An Afternoon Around Puerto Caldera
Coffee production has been part of the Costa Rica story for more than two centuries and today Costa Rican is known as one of the world’s leading coffee producers. Exploring this element of the culture at a beautiful hacienda is how your afternoon begins followed by a visit to the town of Sarchi known as the cradle of Costa Rica artisans.
The Espiritu Santo Coffee Plantation Tour
Just a few kilometers inland from Puerto Caldera and nestled amid beautiful surroundings can be found the 247 hectare Espiritu Santo coffee plantation where some of the world’s finest coffee beans are grown. This area is one of the country’s main coffee producing areas and after a visit to this fascinating hacienda you will never again view coffee in quite the same way.
During your visit you will of course get to sample a freshly roasted cup of coffee but you will also learn the farm’s personal history, exactly why this region grows such high quality beans and how and where coffee is exported to in the world from here.
At the end of your visit you will have witnessed firsthand the entire coffee production process – from seed planting through harvesting and roasting and all of the other stages needed to finally deliver the ideal coffee product.
One of the highlights of this tour is the wooden cabin known as ‘Juancho’s Little House’. Like a window into the past, you will be able to see how the plantation owners’ ancestors lived with genuine antique items including a traditional chorreador. This piece of equipment, comprised of a carved wooden stand and fabric bag, demonstrates how coffee was filtered in Costa Rican dwellings before the advent of modern inventions.
You will also get to see one of the exquisitely painted traditional ox-carts whose purpose began as nothing more than a means of transporting coffee beans but evolved into an incredible art form which has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Sarchi and Its Ox-Carts
Just six kilometers from the coffee hacienda and plantation can be found the lovely town of Sarchi with its beautiful wedding cake church and fascinating botanical gardens. However, despite its multiple attractions the majority of people arrive here to view and buy a multitude of incredible hand-made craft items.
Known as the cradle of Costa Rican artisans, here you can find literally hundreds of shops and almost as many independent wood-working studios run as small family concerns. Right here in town artisans produce just about everything it is possible to make from wood including tableware, bookcases, bedsteads, masks and beautiful rocking chairs which because they fold down are a popular buy for tourists. Sarchi’s most famous pieces however are the exquisite traditional ox-carts which are incredible masterpieces.
For centuries ox-carts were part of the Costa Rican way of life and became the most used form of sturdy transport to carry coffee beans from highland farms to port from the 1800s. Originally these were nothing more than functional carts but somewhere along the line someone decided to add some distinguishing features to his wooden cart. By the 1900s the designs had become evermore elaborate with a degree of competition as to who could produce the most beautiful. Once all together at port it actually became possible to identify from where each cart had traveled due to the particular distinguishing designs adopted by the individual towns.
Today the ox-cart has been adopted as a national symbol and wherever you go in the country you will find replicas standing proudly in hotel lobbies, restaurants and parks while souvenir shops are rarely without miniature versions.
Sarchi has been producing these ox-carts for well over 100 years and today the tradition lives on as highly skilled artisans continue to painstakingly build and then paint their incredible carts using traditional methods. In case you are left in any doubt about the town’s claim as the ox-cart capital the largest ox-cart in the world can be seen at the Parque Central.
While viewing the completed ox-carts with their elaborate patterns and super-bright colors is a feast for the eyes something extra special to do is visit one of the factories open to the public. This way you can watch artisans at work and gain some understanding of the enormous amount of work which is involved in the process.
At the outdoor Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro you will be able to see the old waterwheel at work which by way of connected belts powers various woodworking tools such as saws and sanders. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the cart making process to observe is the production of the wheels which is especially complex.
Ox-cart wheels were once rather crude affairs and had the habit of falling to pieces after rattling over the stony and uneven tracks which the carts had to follow to arrive at the ports. In the early 1900s a Sarchi artisan called Alfaro Corrales devised a much sturdier design which incorporated segmented wooden wedges bound together with metal; this 16-part wooden wedge design is that still used today and which you will be able to see in process.
You will also be able to see the painters at work with their tiny brushes to achieve the unbelievably minute details which each totally unique design incorporates.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner Around Puerto Caldera
As an arrival point rather than a destination of itself, Puerto Caldera has limited choices for drinking and eating venues. However, the long sandy peninsula of Puntarenas is just a short taxi ride away and besides offering a much greater diversity of choice also gives you the opportunity to enjoy a more authentic Costa Rican experience. Home to some truly gorgeous beaches, Puntarenas is a favorite with San Jose locals who want an ocean escape so the town has a true Tico ambiance.
Running along the peninsula’s southern edge is the coconut palm-lined street known as the Paseo de los Turistas. Take a stroll along here and you won’t have to look hard to find bars, cafes and restaurants as the strip is full of them. Any of these venues tend to offer the best ocean views and the chance to enjoy some truly spectacular sunsets. If you don’t find anything to quite fit your ideal here then the other streets have further choices.
El Shrimp Shack
Cocktail fans can head to El Shrimp Shack which despite a name that suggests a humble venue is actually home to the town’s most sophisticated restaurant. Located on the northern side of the peninsula and right on the water’s edge, sundowners here come with fantastic views and a lovely balustrade-surrounded terrace from which to enjoy them.
Towards the eastern end of the spit can be found Cocal Beach which also gives uninterrupted ocean views and serves cocktails. The beach on this edge is perhaps not as pretty as those on the southern side but the bonus is that from the alfresco tables here you virtually have your feet in the sand.
As a fishing port it will come as no surprise perhaps to learn that the town’s restaurants serve up some incredible seafood of the exceptionally fresh variety. Be sure to try the ‘Churchill’ while you are here too – an iconic Puntarenas dessert of shaved ice, syrup and condensed milk which most people tend to either love or loathe.
If you want to make your life especially easy you can transition from sundowner drinks to dining at both Cocal Beach and El Shrimp Shack. Cocal Beach’s menu is seafood-focused with South American influences while El Shrimp Shack is perfect if you had an elegant dinner in mind. This upscale restaurant’s interior is simply lovely – a vision of wood-paneled walls, table tops of marble, antique lamps and a stained glass ceiling so gorgeous that you may not be able to stop gazing at it the whole time you are here. If you feel you don’t need the comfort of the air-conditioned interior you can dine alfresco under starry tropical skies on their sea-view terrace.
As the name might suggest this is principally a seafood restaurant but the menu here is extensive and also has steak, chicken and burger choices too. Additionally, one whole section of the menu is given over to Mexican fare while among the other inclusions are Thai flavors and curries.
For something a little more casual and with a local food focus try the lemon-painted Casa Almendro which is popular with Puntarenas residents. The wooden porch of this Paseo de Los Turistas-located restaurant has some outdoor tables for sea views and the exceptional service and hospitality are something which tend to come up in reviews time and again.
An Evening Around Puerto Caldera
After a day of intimately exploring all kinds of Costa Rican highlights from jungle environments to unique artisan workshops it is highly likely that you are beginning to run out of steam and want to take it easy. If so you can simply find the Puntarenas bar with the vibe which most suits your mood and enjoy some after-dinner drinks or perhaps some live music.
If you still have any energy left the Puntarenas spit makes for a lovely stroll. Measuring around 6km in length it provides the opportunity to head out for a short after-dinner amble or has sufficient distance to take up the rest of your evening if you feel so inclined.
Right at the western end of the spit you will find the 17m tall lighthouse, boldly striped in red and white, while otherwise walking along the Paseo de los Turistas will give you any number of street vendor stalls to check out.
If you have still not had your fill of Costa Rican wildlife you can sign up to one of the night jungle tours offered in the region. Experiencing these lush habitats at night is a very different experience to any had during the day. Furthermore, many Costa Rican wildlife species are only active at night so you may get to add anteaters, highly colorful frogs and armadillos to the list of wildlife you have encountered during your visit to the country.