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. In the densely wooded, 2,800-acre Cabo Blanco nature reserve (about six miles of dusty roads southwest of Montezuma), which we visited by rented motorcycle one morning, we heard the echoing roar of howler monkeys and spied velvety-black toucanets and white-striped raccoon-looking creatures called coati. At one point along the tropical forest’s shaded, three-mile trail, a cluster of white-faced capuchin monkeys startled us by screeching and bouncing on the branches directly above our heads. Sunbathing in Montezuma is usually an afterthought; most of the recreation on the peninsula involves moving—kayaking, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, birding, or splashing along the riverbanks on horseback. Aventuras en Montezuma (506-642-0050), whose office is located in the heart of the village, can furnish you with guides and all the necessary supplies.
Our base of operations for the week was Amor de Mar (phone and fax 506-642-0262), a sylvan hotel perched on a grassy, three-acre seaside spread with so many tropical plants and potted flowers that the hotel retains a full-time gardener. Here blue-winged dragonflies alight on your morning cup of coffee. At dusk the purpling sky fills with the wild ululations of chicharra cicadas and the shrieks of frigate birds swooping over the mango trees. The eleven-room, two-story structure includes a wraparound, second-floor veranda fashioned from a beautiful locally harvested dark wood called nazarena; though rustic (air conditioning is provided by electric fans and the sea breeze), the rooms are detailed with finely crafted shelves and mirrors and smell magically of cherry blossoms. One week’s lodging at Amor de Mar (including a daily breakfast of banana crêpes or huevos rancheros at the hotel’s al fresco cafe) will set you back about $500 per couple. Other comparably priced options in or near the village include Hotel el Jardín (phone and fax 506-642-0074), the tile-roofed Sano Banano Cabinas (phone and fax 506-642-0068), and the ten poolside bungalows at Los Mangos (506-642-0259, fax 506-642-0076).
Best outdoor dinner: an incredibly light spinach-and-shrimp pizza, served on a giant green banana leaf, at Playa de los Artistas. So close to the ocean you feel its briny spray on your cheeks, this stunning open-air restaurant consists of twelve enormous tables (made from varnished tree trunks) under a canopy of palm trees and flowering vines that are so thickly intertwined you can barely see the sky. The exotic menu ranges from a spicy eggplant-filled pastry called scaccia del diablo to shark soup with coconut and ginger.
Best spontaneous indulgence: traditional Ayurvedic massages (fragrant heated oils slathered from head to toe) at Amor de Mar. Of the ninety-minute, $50 indulgence, all Plaegian and I can say is, “Oh, my.”
Best leap of faith: the question popped soon after we finished eating dinner at Los Mangos, another charming, open-air restaurant a seashell’s throw from the water. Sore and sweaty from a day spent hiking along the river to one of Montezuma’s waterfalls, Plaegian and I had splurged on the marisco especial (at 6,000 colones—roughly $20—by far the most expensive choice on the menu). Prepared on an outdoor wood-burning grill by a topknotted and dragon-tattooed chef who sang along with an Erykah Badu tape, the feast came on a pair of butter-smeared wooden planks that covered the entire table. Atop the melted butter: sizzling octopus, several dozen mussels, a tuna filet, two red snapper filets, and a shish kebab of jumbo shrimp, along with potatoes, rice, salad, and a bowl of garlic sauce for dipping. Shortly after polishing off the last shrimp, I proposed to Plaegian, and after two more sips of her beer, she accepted.
A word to the wise: You should probably spend your final night in Costa Rica within striking distance of the international airport near San José. Consider staying in Alajuela, a pleasant, bougainvillea-laced town of 35,000 that is only two miles from the airport and has a handful of moderately priced hotels located near a shady park and a white-domed cathedral. The two most popular ones are Charly’s Albergue (phone and fax 506-441-0115) and Hotel 1915 (506-441-0495).
Incidentally, while in Alajuela, we witnessed another protest march, though this one remained relatively calm. A young female demonstrator explained that the rallies and blockades, such as the one that halted our bus ride to Puntarenas, had been organized by labor union members, students, and environmentalists demanding that Costa Rica not privatize its electricity and telecommunications industries.
Despite the protests (which have ended) and a State Department travel advisory issued in March after the well-publicized killing of two Americans near the Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Limón, Costa Rica remains the safest place in Central America to visit. The murders were an aberration for a country so routinely peaceful it doesn’t even keep a standing army. It would be a shame if bad press kept you away: Costa Rica has some of the world’s most breathtaking natural resources. And Montezuma—regardless of the sweating it might take to journey there—is one of the country’s crown jewels.