Adventure travel makes you sweat. Adventure travel through Central America can even hurt a little. Venturing to the coastal village of Montezuma, a tropical Eden hidden on the southern tip of Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, might even hurt so good you end up asking your traveling companion to marry you.
Five years ago Montezuma consisted mostly of pot-smoking backpackers and Ticos (what anyone who has been in Costa Rica for more than an hour knows to call its citizens). Six years ago the little fishing village didn't even have electricity. One guidebook compares Montezuma's steamy, laid-back atmosphere with that of the Greek Islands or Bali, circa 1970. (If you've wandered through southern Mexico, Montezuma may remind you of a slightly more elegant version of Zipolite, the hippie resort on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca.) Enticed by Montezuma's rustic refinement and the stunning beauty of its beaches, more folks are now taking the trouble to go. The result: A room with no hot water or air conditioning might be booked weeks in advance.
With its eco-friendly and robustly bohemian atmosphere, Montezuma is pretty much an adventure traveler's paradise. There's no TV. The dominant smells are coconut oil and grilled seafood. Young dreadlocked German women trot by on horses loaded with snorkeling gear. And the seacoast air is toasty 24-7-365. But be forewarned: Your mini-odyssey to Montezuma might entail half a dozen modes of transportation, one of which will either have four legs or spew diesel smoke. (During the height of the Nicoya Peninsula's rainy season, in September and October, it's often impossible to reach Montezuma by car unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.) The itinerary from Texas: Spend the first night of your trip in San José, Costa Rica's volcano-ringed capital city. (Continental offers three-and-a-half-hour nonstop flights to San José from Houston, and American has four-hour nonstop flights from Dallas.) Catch an early-morning bus at the Calle 16 station to the port town of Puntarenas, 63 miles to the west. Take the ninety-minute ferry ride across the Gulf of Nicoya. Hail a bus or a taxi at the dock for the final 25 miles through the jungle to Montezuma. Unpack and claim a hammock before sunset.
As can often be the case in Latin America, our particular two-hour bus ride from San José to Puntarenas turned into, well, an adventure. About three miles from the ferry launch, our driver brought the bus to a creaky halt and quietly announced that we would proceed no farther. Some sort of commotion over the hill had apparently stopped oncoming traffic, and the gray stretch of road before us now lay completely empty. My sidekick, who as a teen legally changed her entire name to Plaegian Wagner Alexander (yeah, I don't know either), craned her neck out the window and reported, "Flashing red lights up ahead. A growing crowd. My guess is that a truck overturned and lost all of its chickens." Seeing (or knowing) something that his handful of passengers didn't, our captain abandoned ship. Hmm. What to do? Three miles is only a little longer than a mile, we reasoned, and an unmoving Costa Rican bus is really hot, so we bade farewell to the old couple behind us and trudged westward toward Puntarenas in the middle of an eerily deserted Route 1.
Over the horizon Plaegian and I expected to encounter ambulances and tow trucks. We picked up the pace a bit when instead we found ourselves sandwiched between police jeeps and a mob of several hundred students and laborers who had blockaded the road. Our timing could not have been worse: Tromping toward the blockade, bearing enormous plastic shields and raised batons, came a phalanx of brown-uniformed federal policemen. The muffled explosion and hiss of a tear gas canister sent everyone scrambling. With shirts pulled over our mouths and noses, we hopped with our bags over abandoned bicycles and zigzagged through the trees to a nearby village, where a local trucker, also fleeing the chaos, generously offered us a lift to Puntarenas.
In the spring of 1999 Plaegian had nearly drowned while sailing with me off the coast of Belize. Last summer she busted an arm when I flipped our rental car on a mountain road in Morocco. Since it had been my suggestion that we leave the bus and walk to the ferry, I fully expected her to chuck a coconut at me or something—especially when, four hours later, we discovered that there were no taxis, no burros, no nothing awaiting us at the end of our ferry ride to the Nicoya Peninsula ("Is the dock supposed to be this deserted, Keith?"). As dusk approached, we and a couple of other stranded gringos finally hitched a ride through the jungle with another kindly Tico trucker. And bless her heart, Plaegian never complained. She even paid for the first round of cold Imperial beers we gulped before collapsing that night into a hammock slung on Montezuma's moonlit beach.
The village of Montezuma fans out along what may be the prettiest coastline in all of Costa Rica. Lazy palm trees and powdery white sand (home to the biggest, mellowest iguanas you'll ever shoo off a blanket) separate the gently crashing surf from a string of tiny hotels and cafés. A makeshift campers' cove, dotted with a dozen or so brightly colored tents, takes up the southernmost section of town. (One tanned camper—umbrella in his left hand, beer can in his right—claimed to have squatted in the cove for the past seven years.) Nightlife options proved pleasantly slim: salsa dancing with the European backpacker crowd at Chico's Bar, skinny-dipping under the stars—or simply trying to remember if it was Wednesday or Thursday.
Our seven days in Montezuma in late March were nothing but sunshine, sunshine, and more sunshine. Though technically located in "dry forest" (Costa Rica's almost surreally lush rain forest begins some fifty miles east), the Nicoya Peninsula is still greenhouse-humid and populated with a dazzling array of tropical flora and wildlife.