Montezuma, Costa Rica

Montezuma is a magical place. Any guidebook or tourist who has spent any time here at all will tell you as much. The tiny town centres around just a few main streets and only received an ATM in 2009 (a massive boon to tourists although it often runs out of money, especially on weekends and public holidays, and refuses to accept some foreign cards altogether!). The paved road stops as soon as you’re past the last building on either end of the main drag and the dusty, dirt roads that lead away in either direction make travel times to the nearest towns of Cobano (only 7 kilometres away and the main hub for transport around the region) and Santa Teresa a lot longer than the distances would have you believe. All this adds to the sense of perfect isolation Montezuma has become so well known for. A long-time magnet for hippies, Montezuma is still a playground for shirtless, barefooted, dreadlocked, dope-smoking and mega tanned surfers and yogis from around the world. A large international population lives and works alongside some of the most open and friendly Ticos (Costa Ricans) you could ever hope to meet.

The sense of isolation began for me the moment the nineteen-seater aircraft I had taken to get here touched down at Tambor’s tiny airstrip. The twenty-five minute hop from San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport to Tambor flies over some marvelous scenery, directly over the waves crashing along the coastline of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Although a more expensive option, this mode of transport is a lot quicker than the 4.5 hours by road and ferry needed on a shuttle bus, thought it’s not for the faint hearted given the amount of turbulence these tiny planes usually experience flying through the clouds that always pepper the valley in which the nation’s capital lies. Still, once you’re out of those and over water, the view is spectacular and the ride is a lot smoother until you descend down across a beach and onto the airstrip at Tambor.

There is no ‘airport’ to speak of at Tambor. It literally is just an airstrip, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with a covered bench a bit like a bus stop where people wait for their tiny propeller aircrafts to take them on the short flights around the region. Two portaloos (one for men and one for women); a lady selling cool drinks who also processes the rather bizarre ‘airport tax’ one has to pay on landing (2.5 US dollars) and a few taxi drivers who have been booked in advance to collect us are the only things there to greet us. From here, it’s a forty-minute drive along dirt roads through attractive countryside to Montezuma.

People flock to Montezuma primarily to surf, smoke, praticse yoga, learn poi (fire-dancing) and simply to hang out and enjoy the type of hippie vibe that doesn’t exist back at home (unless they grew up in some kind of cult). Here, though, these things are not alternative lifestyle choices. They constitute the lifestyle. And however uptight you are when you first step out of your shuttle bus, you’re bound to embrace it within a few days, if not hours, of arrival.

Of all the activities on offer in Montezuma, I’d come primarily to do yoga. “Everybody does yoga in Montezuma. Literally everybody”, my taxi driver, Alex, told me on our drive from Tambor. “Other than surfing, that’s what people come here for.” And true it is that people seem enamoured with the practice. There are a lot of good bodies on display in Montezuma and many of them have been toned not just by days wrestling waves on surfboards but by disciplined practice of this art. I was later to learn that all this has come about only in the past thirteen years, and that the yoga movement now so synonymous with Montezuma was inspired by my yoga teacher Dagmar, who started the very first studio in town despite people telling her she was crazy at the time. When she first arrived, she said, surfing and partying were the only things the town was known for. Now, though, there is even free yoga in the park on Saturday mornings and a myriad of classes around town offering every type of yoga imaginable. That said, surfing and partying are still very much a part of the town’s fabric and those who come looking for a good time won’t be disappointed. Bonfire parties on the beach, Reggae Nights every Thursday and live music at Organico’s are the just the start.

Chico’s Bar is the only proper nightclub/bar in town. You can, of course, take a drink at various other establishments (like Montezuma Bar and Restaurant & El Sano Banano) but Chico’s is the only place that stays open late. Most restaurants in Montezuma close early, at around 10pm every night. Kitchens usually stop taking food orders from 9pm or 9.30pm but usually stay open a little later on Thursdays and Saturdays – the busiest nights. Chico’s, however, keeps the party rolling until around 2am and has the town’s only dance floor. Never fear though, the party doesn’t end when the restaurants close and you won’t be forced to embarrass yourself to the sound of cheesy nineties disco pop if that’s not your scene.

Instead, many people simply buy drinks at Super Mamatea (where the very kind owner will open your bottle of wine and provide you with plastic cups), then stand around in the street drinking (and smoking herbs of their choice) until well into the night. Parque Infantil also offers some benches and a children’s play area which by night, once the kiddies are safely tucked up in bed, becomes more of an outdoor ‘coffee house’ in the Dutch sense of the expression (Parque Infantil also has a bunch of huge mango trees – the mangos are all yours if you manage to make the perfectly ripe ones fall from the trees or come early in the morning to pick up the freshly fallen ones). The beach is also a great place to light up a bonfire and enjoy some drinks sitting around on massive pieces of driftwood. Full moon parties are massive affairs and the whole town will be down on the beach celebrating with you. Old ‘Montefuma’ is indeed alive and kicking.

Thursday nights are the biggest of the week. Do yourself a favour and make sure not to miss one of Eli’s spectacular poi performances on a Thursday night in the main street outside Chico’s Bar. Motezuma’s very own Poi Master teaches the art at the many schools around town during the week and entertains the Thursday night crowd with a spectacular acrobatic fire show. Even if you think you’ve seen it all before elsewhere, he’ll change what you mean when you think of fire dancing.

For such a tiny town, visitors to Montezuma are spoiled for choice when it comes to eating out in style. My favourite restaurants by a long way are Cocolores (the best shimp pasta ever and super friendly staff); Café Organico (which offers huge salads that will blow your palate and live music most nights including open mic on Mondays – if you can get someone to strum guitar for you, you can sing to your heart’s content in front of a very forgiving audience); and Playa de las Artistas (sit in tranquil surroundings by candlelight just metres from the thrashing waves and enjoy a changing daily menu which on our visits included some excellent seared tuna rolls and mouth watering vegetarian lasagne. This place must also be one of the most romantic restaurants I’ve ever seen).

And it’s not just hippies of all ages and creeds who flock to Montezuma for a taste of the good life. Celebrities too have been known to fall for its charms and locals tell us Mel Gibson and Danny Glover own homes in the region. My Spanish teacher even spotted Leonardo di Caprio lunching at El Sano Banano and Joaquin Phoenix has taken surf lessons at Playa Grande. For such a tiny spot, that’s a heck of a lot of celebrity action!

The funniest thing is that there is nothing all that special about Montezuma’s geographical location or makeup. Yes, there are miles of beaches stretching out in either direction along the peninsula, but none of them is particularly beautiful, at least if you have seen a fair few beaches in your time. Yes, there are waterfalls to swim in, but the water is so heavily stained with leaf matter you can’t see the bottom and they are nothing compared to the crystal clear turquoise waterfalls or cenotes of Mexico. There are the myriad lovely boutiques and restaurants, but then there are even more of those back where many of us come from in Europe, North America or Australia. All this makes for a fairly unspectacular place if you were trying to compare it in physical terms. But what is unique, and yes, I use that word quite purposefully, is the incredible vibrancy of the local people and the accessibility of their life philosophy.

Montezuma offers an atmosphere and a local culture that where I come from would not be available to me anywhere but in the heart of some crazy hippie cult, and I’m not up for joining one of those! Here, though, I don’t have to. Here, I can simply be myself, but still feel able to challenge my way of seeing things and try something new without having to commit. I tried eating only vegan foods for a few days because I fancied it, but then feasted on a succulent steak dinner at the outdoor Argentinian grill that happens every Thursday; I embraced my spiritual side in a yoga class, then got pissed outside Chico’s until the early hours of the morning. Here, no one will judge either way and you get to set your own rules.

The sense of safety and security that prevails here comes mainly from how relaxed (read: stoned) everyone is. Everyone says hello to each other in the street and people don’t seem to get annoyed with each other much because quite frankly, there are better things to do. So many people here come from elsewhere, either from other parts of Costa Rica or from countries all around the world. Most came for a holiday and simply never left. The girl in the ice cream store, originally from Germany, has made her home here for a year and a half. The manager of La Escuela del Sol, originally from New York, for seven years. My yoga teacher, also originally from Germany, is now celebrating her thirteenth year.

Most people I’ve met on my months of travel through Central America have been very friendly and Costa Ricans are, famously, even more friendly than the norm. But in Montezuma, you will experience a welcome unlike any other. People will ask you your name – in the convenience store or the restaurant or the market – and they will remember it. You’ll have friends as soon as you arrive here, a small family of travellers and open-minded locals, and you’ll be part of a local community, even though you’re just another foreign tourist, passing through for a few days or weeks or months. And that is something that I may never experience again. Pura Vida!

Practical information:

Between 75 & 90 USD + taxes will buy you a Nature Air ticket from SJO (San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport) to Tambor. Sansa Air is a little cheaper at around 70 USD.
Shuttles: Anywhere between 32 and 50 USD dollars to and from San Jose. The benefit of this service is that it is door to door from any downtown San Jose hotel.
Public Buses connect to Santa Teresa (via Cobano) and you can also change at Cobano to take the bus all the way back via Puntarenas to the mainland.
A one hour water taxi journey to Jaco allows you to take a public bus from there directly back to San Jose which is quicker than going via Puntarenas.

Accommodation: 50 USD dollars a night is pretty standard for a hotel room, but 35 is possible especially in rainy season. There are no really fancy hotels here, with the exception perhaps of Ylang Ylang, but fancy isn’t really Montezuma’s thing. RJ stayed at El Tajalin which is simple but pleasant and the staff are exceptional!

Food & Drink:
For its size, there is an extraordinary number of excellent eateries in Montezuma and most people end up spending far more on food and drink than they plan to. RJ’s favourites are Cocolores, Café Organico and Playa de las Artistas and between these and the numerous other restaurants and bars, you’re likely to spend around 20 USD a night on dinner with a couple of drinks. That said, the portions are usually generous and still compare favourably to similar meals at home, if not elsewhere in Latin America. Puggos is another favourite as is El Sano Banano which, though rather overpriced for offering rather average dishes, plays movies a few nights a week on a massive screen. The movie is free if you order food.

If you’re not a foodie, are on a restricted budget or can resist the temptation to dine out most nights, there are ways to self-cater with many hotels, including El Tajalin, offering communal kitchens. Barbecuing shrimp or fish on the beach is not unheard of either and the two supermarkets in town are fairly well stocked with all the basics. The sodas (traditional Costa Rican restaurants) also offer cheaper meal options with La Naranja being our favourite.

Best time to come:
High season (Costa Rican dry season) runs from November through to late April when the first rains of the wet season begin. The shoulder season of late April may be the best time as prices are just starting to go down whilst the weather is, for the most part, still very hot but with some spectacular tropical downpours thrown into the mix including wonderful electrical storms and even the odd tornado off the beach!

Once the rain sets in, though, flooding can make the dirt roads difficult to navigate and tides can swell making beginner surfers nervous. The waterfalls, however, come alive when more water is pumped into them. When we were here at the end of dry season, they were very stained from leaf matter and the pools were rather low.

Things to do:
There is no shortage of things to do in Montezuma despite the fact you’ll only ever walk a maximum of 200 metres from one end of town to the other. Surfing and yoga are the primary activities people come here for and there are loads of courses on offer to suit all tastes and budgets. Spanish is also very popular. Hardcore hiking, diving off waterfalls, ziplining and scuba diving will keep the adrenaline junkies busy whilst those who prefer a more relaxing holiday can simply lie on the beach or in a hammock with a book.

RJ’s faves:

La Escuela del Sol: Operating within El Tajalin hotel, they offer packages that allow you to combine any of the following activities to create your very own program for two to four weeks: Spanish language, surf, yoga, fire poi. There is also scuba training and yoga teacher training. If you stay for two weeks or more, you get one free zipline at Montezuma Ziplining which is awesome as well! The staff are all wonderful and will do whatever they can to help you. There’s no excuse not to improve your body and mind during a stay here.

Montezuma Yoga: Dagmar and Sylvia are fabulous teachers. You will accomplish postures you didn’t think your body was capable of within a few short weeks and gain enormous confidence in yourself in the process. In addition to teaching at Montezuma Yoga, her own studio, Dagmar also teaches at yoga retreats around the world so do try to give yourself the gift of practicing with her if you can, it might just change your life.

NB: If you take yoga as part of your progam at La Escuela del Sol, Dagmar and Sylvia will be your teachers and lead your practice five nights a week in La Escuela del Sol’s lovely open yoga studio where the sound of the ocean and the low growls of the howler monkeys in the background will help create the perfect ambiance.

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