“You like Costa Rica?” the ferryman asked me as the small boat sped across the glassy waters of the Golfo de Nicoya.

“Primero tiempo aqui,” I said. “But I like what I see.”

Twenty miles out, serrated green peaks rose over the water. The outboard motor thrummed, propelling us forward through sapphire swells. A thirty-something English couple on their honeymoon sat across from me embracing while three young Israelis who just completed their national service requirement chattered in the hushed tones of Modern Hebrew. A warm and humid sun beat down on the tossing boat. Off the starboard side black volcanic cliffs looked down on silvery breakers topped by coconut palms and a tropical green riot of foliage. Burnt orange cabanas blistered out of the jungle while off to port a pregnant cloudbank unleashed a sheet of gray in the heaving ocean.

My destination was Montezuma, a small village recessed in a narrow moon-like sliver of beach behind the cliffs of the southern Nicoya Peninsula. Surrounded by a tremendous arc of nature reserves, island sanctuaries, and several excellent beaches the Nicoya remains Costa Rica’s unspoilt crown jewel.

In the low season Montezuma is a stopover on the surfing trail further up the coast. Legendary breaks like Playa Hermosa and Santa Theresa provide the area with much needed hard currency year round. But when late summer swells subside and the rains give way to mellow, cool dry winds, the Nicoya has some of the best wildlife seeking, bird watching, and hiking in the hemisphere. 

The wildlife preserves here are prized by the locals. But they were hard won. The original reserve, the Reserva Cabo Blanco, was an ‘absolute’ preserve—no one except biologists were allowed admittance until just recently. Now it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. The founder, Nicolas Wessberg, was assassinated here in 1975 while fighting for the reserve’s creation. Even in a country as peaceful as Costa Rica, which has no army, nothing comes easy. A newer reserve, just south of Montezuma, is named after him.

Finding a wood-paneled room in a hotel on the beach complete with a fan and warm water was a cinch. All night the waves broke onto the shore, a hypnotic way to sleep. In the morning come the rains keeping me in bed a full hour longer than I’d expected. An excellent deal for $25 a night. After the rains I walked to Monte Sol, a small restaurant on the main strip. After a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes, sweet pineapples, mangos, and papaya I left for the jungle.

My inaugural hike began right outside of Montezuma. I took a left at the T-crossing and walked towards Cedras Beach. After about half a mile I turned inland and followed a river for about twenty minutes. The canopy reached far overhead and a pack of howler monkeys sounded off in the distance like a platoon of Marines, all “hoo-ahs” and the crashing of branches. The local dogs barked and howled back in a kind of canine-simian fight club. A green heron sat in the middle of the river transfixed by hidden fish under the water. Lighting fast he darted into the water, gulped down a fish, and flew off.

After clambering over the black volcanic rocks of the riverbank, holding onto large roots for balance, I came into a clearing. Thirty meters up a white rush of water tumbled over the lips of the falls. The air was humid, damp, full of mist. Tall deciduous trees, emerald green against clear blue skies, hovered above me. The voices of other hikers echoed off the rock walls. Parrots chattered in the treetops like schoolgirls in a hallway recess. A pair of cowbirds flitted through the branches cackling.

I turned my back to the falls and began beetling up the steep embankment up to the swimming hole above the waterfalls. The rocks were covered with moss, slippery and treacherous. I placed each foot carefully in front of me, latching on to roots and branches for balance. The air was still in the jungle, my heart raced and the sweat poured out. It was a full body workout getting up the mountainside.

The first climb made, I walked through a small level clearing with only a few shrubs and small trees. An azure tanager squawked at my invasion, looking at me cockeyed. A flock of red finches rushed past over the shrubs into the forest. I walked thirty meters, halting at the sound of a large crash in the bushes. Sitting on a rock sunning himself was a banded black iguana, red throat gill pulsing out to the hidden rhythm of his heart.

I begin climbing higher again and then saw the trail split. I’m soaked in sweat in the humidity of a tropical forest. Down a slippery blue rope lies the swimming hole. It is empty. I am hot and alone in the silence of the jungle. I head down, thighs atremble but my grip strong. I’m almost down the embankment when the sole of my left shoe cracks in half. I slip, but catch myself before falling the last ten feet down. Disaster averted, I quickly change into my swimming trunks and dive in the water. Cool, almost icy water cascades down a sheet of black rock criss-crossed with thin quartzite veins. The water pounding massages my sore back and arms. The jungle peace lulls me into a reverie but the rocks tell a far less peaceful story, in the deep past when a layer of cooling magma was covered by sand, compressed, tossed about, and repeated. The result: This magnificent pool set high above the river and ocean below, shaded by tall trees and scudding white clouds.

As I wade in from the water, I am surprised by the ferryman from the day before and his girlfriend climbing down the hillside. We nod silently as they walk on to the other side of the pool, but not before he asks, “How do you like Costa Rica now?”

“I like what I see.”

Sean Paul Kelley is a travel writer based in Austin, Texas, and currently completing his first book. He writes about travel, life, culture, and architecture at seanpaulkelley.com.