Travel Day – New York – San Jose, Costa Rica!
It’s cold in New York as I happily board my flight from Newark to San Jose, Costa Rica. I am revisiting a town I had have been thinking about for a long time, the little town of Montezuma, Costa Rica. I was there almost exactly 16 years ago to the date and I have been thinking of that place ever since. It sits on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula nestled at the base of a large hill. It’s a small coastal town where the blue pacific meets a 2 street town. I never quite forgot about the place that welcomed me so in 1995.
Boarding the plane I see an old friend walking down the aisle. Linda? HOLY SHIT! As we both laugh, most certainly a sign that the world continues to get smaller and smaller and that it was a long overdue reunion. I have known Linda almost as long as the time I had spent away from Costa Rica! Both welcomed homecomings and both a sign that I was in the right place and at the right time. Linda was with a large group heading to southern Costa Rica for a birthday party, yoga and a much needed break, I am also celebrating a birthday in Costa Rica, not mine, but Manuel’s. He is flying jump seat today, while Niko (his son) and I get the much needed emergency row (Niko is 6 foot 6.) The flight will take 5 hours.
Landing in San Jose we are greeted by “Punto” Manuel’s daughter who had arrived from Santiago, Chile – the timing was just right. On our way out – we buy a bottle of Havana Club Rum and exchange a bit of money and say goodbye to Linda and the gang! We bring enough American dollars and switch at the airport no matter what the exchange. You can’t rely on ATM’s in surfer or hippie towns – and we were right to do it. 4 out of 5 ATM machines did not work during our stay. Still, Costa Rica is incredibly first world even though it looks like a typical Latin American country. It prides itself by being the safest country in Central America and it does not even have an army! Coined the “Switzerland” of Latin America the people pride themselves on what sets them apart from the reset of Central America. Costa Rica is safe, the people are kind, the food is good and it all starts with a great education system that is available for all Costa Ricans. 20 years ago or more, the government made a commitment to protecting its natural resources as well. Its wildlife, rain forests and oceans are prized and protected and this has attracted eco tourists in droves. The Costa Rican economy made the right decisions – based on the latest 2010 statistics, 71% of the GDP is tourism and related services.
Costa Rica is a young in geography – with its active volcanoes, enormous rain forests, and endless beaches it is home to various species of land, air and sea. There are wet and dry seasons and weather can change drastically due to elevation and foliage. We were headed west where it is dry and hot. Costa Rica is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. San Jose, its capital city holds about 2.1 of the 4.5 million Costa Ricans living in the country. Locals here are called “Ticos” and their state motto is “Pura Vida” which means the pure life or plenty of life. You greet people with this simple phrase I find to be awesome. “Pura Vida” Preceeds “Hola”. Can you imagine greeting people – wishing them plenty and pure life? How cool is that!
On our way out of the car rental place we find the best local joint to have lunch! An so the Vacation Begins! We order a local beer, drink a local juice of guanabana and papaya and devour sweet plantains, rice and beans and heart of palm salad – that is a veggie delight! – If you are with a carnivore – well then – the rotisserie chicken is a must cooked in a brick oven with some kind of special wood. Poor chickies I can’t stand the sight of cooking whole bodied animals on a stick but I am told by the others that the chicken are delicious.
Headed on the new route 27 – otherwise known as a “dry canal” specifically built for container ship’s cargo to move from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. I’m told by a local that it is faster than the Panama Canal! “In the canal! You have to wait in line and the cruise ships get to go first!” This is season for produce and fruit stands line this highway that winds its way through and arid landscape of pastel colors. If you want to get to the Nicoya Peninsula – you really should take the Ferry. There are a few – we are taking the one from Puntarenas to Paquera. One we reach Paquera by boat it is another 30km to Montezuma which should take about and hour. The ferry will cut down your trip to a few hours, rather than the 8 it would take you to drive around. Information on Nicoya.
The port town of Puntarenas is kind of dirty and stinky but not offensive. The main drag into the ferry dock is a typical Latin American scene. Dogs, kids in school uniforms, bodegas, restaurants, barred windows, pastel cement buildings, ½ painted buildings and empty lots. When we arrive we are greeted with a busy ferry worker that grabs you to get in line. The ferry we are taking is about 3 times the size of the ferry I took 16 years ago –a good sign that tourism has increased – oh and the 27 highway – cut the trip in half from San Jose – to Puntarenas from 2.5 hours to 1 hour and 10 minutes. Originally you had to take the Panamerican Highway.
Getting out of the air – conditioned car, the thick heat of the Ferry Dock envelops you. We get in line, buy tickets and wait to board the boat. It is a small ferry town but it buzzes. The ferry carries people, trucks, bucket loaders, tractors, buses and even livestock. It is a smorgasbord of eco tourists, Europeans (Germans that are buying up property left and right), hippies, locals, kids and truck drivers. It is about 5pm as the ferry horn begins to blow. The sun begins to set as we set sail toward Paquera. The Ferry takes about 65 minutes.
We crack open a cold can local beer called “Imperial” and soak in the warm humid air.
After a few pensive moments staring at the sunset – we hear music. And so that party begins! As the ferry chugs along and the scenery is breathtaking but locals here get enough of that! They would rather grab a drink and watch the those grabbing 5 minutes of “FERRY FAME”. Check out Niko and Punto – who were begged to continue after these award winning performances!
Arrving at Paquera Port- it is dark and somehow all the cars disperse and you find yourself alone on the road to Montezuma which will take another hour of driving. The roads are winding and dark, sometimes they are dirt, sometimes they are paved. Along the way there are a few towns but not much. We stop in to buy water at the “Vargas Mercado” where I am happy to see the old Coca Cola bottles that you can return for washing and refill. When I buy my water, in leu of mother nature I buy big – less plastic, less waste and save them all for refills or other uses.
As we near Montezuma and make our final descent into the small town, it is exactly how I remembered it – This 2 street town with its dim lit cafes, gift shops, bars restaurants and hotels looks exactly the same as it did before. After spending a while on dark winding roads, we are relieved and excited for the light. We press on a bit more to the hotel Los Mangos which sits on the other side of the cove… an easy walk into town – but just enough outside for peace and quiet.
We finally arrived – Door to door 16 hours. taxi – airplane – car – ferry – car.
Day One – WOW and WOW! Waterfalls and Whales!
The best part about arriving to a place at night is waking up and seeing what is around you. Hotel Los Mangos is run by two Greek brothers, Niko and Costa – both of whom I met 16 years ago. I wake up and run down to see if he is sitting where I left him last, at the reception of the hotel.
The hotel is a series of bungalows set in the trees. They also have room accommodations but if you stay at mangos you must stay in the bungalows – that have a lazy front port and hammock – perfect for a siesta out of the sun and an evening drink before dinner. Both romantic and rustic Los Mangos for me is a great hotel for the money. They don’t serve food – but just across the street there 4 places to choose from breakfast to lunch to dinner so really it does not make a difference. It is a small price to pay for living in the trees amongst the monkeys.
As I run down one of the winding walkways – canopy of trees above – and blue Pacific Ocean across the way – I turn the corner and there he is!
“Kali- Mera Costa! I don’t know if you remember me but I was here with friend’s about 16 years ago. Greek friends actually! I’m Stephanie!”
“Ella Stephanie! 16 years ago! Wow! Yes I remember! (At that moment he did not – but then he did!) “Your mother is German right?” I was relieved he remembered. Even though I am only ¼ Greek and only know a few words, Greeks are like a small club when we meet other Greeks. It is hard to explain but there is a odd familiarity. He immediately calls me “Kookla” and tells me to “Katzi” meaning please sit down – to talk. He lights up a cigarette and takes a sip of his coffee, so far nothing has changed. “Costa, I want to go to the waterfalls today. Isn’t it just around the corner and about an hour’s hike? We went there the first time I visited – you brought us there.”
“Ella Stephanie! Yes, but be careful! Wear sneakers and don’t fall – people have died there. – but you must go, it is beautiful” Typical Greek and warning and a blessing. I forgot how close it was, literally just across the way and to the right and we entered the reserve. Much of the land surrounding us is reserved actually. Cabo Blanco is the southern most tip of the peninsula and it is set aside for nature to prevail. As a result the area surrounding us is full of life. Birds, monkeys and more!
It takes about 20 minutes to get the the base of the 3 tiered waterfall. There are tons of families picnicking and swimming. We choose to leave the crowd and aim for at least the second tier – but we end up at the third. “Don’t look down and take it slow” as we are grabbing onto roots and tree limbs to get to the top. It’s hot and rocks can sometimes fall underneath your feet. Sometimes I get a little nervous with things, scared and even think of the WORST when it comes to mini adventures but still challenge myself to make it to the top which has it rewards. If you take it slow, have the right shoes it is a MUST when visiting Montezuma – reach the top of the falls!
There are less people up here – we dive into the pools jump off the rocks, rope swing into the water and sit there. The sound of the crashing water is enough to turn off the noise in your head and just enjoy the sights and the heights! We are about 20 stories high.
After a few hours, we choose to head even further up and around to get back down to town. Beautiful butterflies and vegetation surround us as we hit the river banks again and head toward the beach. Invigorated!
Montezuma beach is Pristine. The town actually sits on the cove and as you walk north the beach just gets better and better. We find a place under a tree to take a siesta and look out onto the Ocean. “The Pacific smells different than the Atlantic ocean for some reason.” He says.. “and look – doesn’t the ocean look red?” It did look red. And it was strange. At some points when the waves were crashing half of the wave was red and the other half blue? It was the strangest thing we ever saw?
After our siesta we head toward the ylang ylang hotel for a sunset cocktail. We order Guaro Sours – Guaro is a local “rum” like alcohol made here in costa rica and it is delicious… it is a beautiful evening and all of a sudden we here a scream!
The table near us jumps up and runs toward the water! I immediately think there is a dead dolphin on the beach or someone is drowning until we look up and I see my first whale dancing in the ocean!
An exhilerating day in Montezuma calls for a relaxing delicious meal at the Playa de los Artistes. We dine on lentils, raviolis, greens and more and drink plenty of wine. Just before I fall asleep I think of the whale and worry about the red water….