Puntarenas was discovered by Gil González Dávila in 1522. Despite the use of the Gulf of Nicoya as an entryway to Costa Rica's inland territory, the port of Puntarenas was not developed until 1840 when coffee production in the highlands reached exportable volumes. In 1845 the Congress of the Republic declared Puntarenas a duty-free port (with the exception of Cognac and hard liquor). Originally, the coffee was brought to port in oxcarts via a trail through the mountains. In 1859, a stretch of railway track was completed between Puntarenas and the town of Esparza (one of the country's earliest Spanish settlements, founded in 1574). Eventually, the railway was built all the way through to San José and service was inaugurated in 1910.
With the railway connection to the Central Valley, the Pacific port's activities continued to be a major part of the region's economy throughout the 20th century. However, due to the aging and deterioration of the port facilities and the need to accommodate the much larger vessels of modern shipping fleets, a new port was constructed in the 1980s to the south of Puntarenas. The site chosen was Caldera, where ships had anchored during colonial times. Caldera was more appropriate site for larger ships, and actually was the first port site used since 1522.
Islands, surfing and nature reserves
At just four meters above sea level, the city or port of Puntarenas features extensive beaches for enjoying sea and sun. Historically the place for national tourism and recreation, it offers a variety of quality tourist services appealing to international visitors as well. Puntarenas now boasts a cruise ship terminal at the remodeled Puntarenas Wharf, which has a series of piers and docking areas from which ferries depart for established tourist destinations such as Paquera and Cóbano on the Nicoya Peninsula, as well as tours around the islands and mangrove swamps in the Puntarenas estuary.